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Why, How and What Now: the Conservatives

17/05/2011

Was this election a disaster for the Tories? They went into the Dissolution of Parliament with seventeen MSPs, and ended up with fifteen – making them the third-worst performer (and therefore, third-best performer) on election night. They lost only 12% of their representation; Labour lost almost 20% while the LibDems lost 69% of their group.

And yet. When the boundary changes were factored in, the Tories may have had 17 MSPs – two of which were retiring – but were defending 19 seats. In effect, they lost 21% of their group, compared with Labour losing 16% (the LibDem loss goes up to 71%). This was the first devolved election of the 21st Century where Tory support fell on both votes. The loss of Edinburgh Pentlands to the SNP was calamitous for the Tories, even if David McLetchie managed to re-enter Holyrood via the Regional List. The failure to capitalise on favourable boundary changes and pick up that third seat in the North East was an embarrassment, though not quite as severe as the failure to defend the third seat they already had in Mid Scotland & Fife. The failure to secure those notional constituency wins in Eastwood and (if you believe David Denver) Dumfriesshire was grim, though by far and away the result which will really bruise the Tories was the loss of their South Scotland Regional seat, and its occupant until 5 May, Derek Brownlee. Brownlee had been one of the Tories’ best assets as Finance Spokesman, but ended up dumped in East Lothian fighting an uphill struggle. And there’s also a wider symbolism that the Tories no longer hold list seats in every region. Ironically, until 5 May, everyone in Scotland had a Tory MSP. For the first time since 1999, there are gaps: the six non-Tory constituencies in the South.

So, right from the get-go, this was more of a blow for Annabel Goldie than has been portrayed. But then, look at her form: in the 2007 election, her first electoral test, the Tories flatlined in the Constituency vote and lost 1.6% in the Regional, losing one seat overall. In the 2009 European election, the Tory vote fell by 0.9%, and the Tories lost a seat. Of course, there were only six seats available (compared with seven in 2004), but even if there had been no change in Scotland’s seat allocation, the Tories would still have lost their seat, to the SNP. In the 2010 election, the Tory vote increased by 0.9%, but that resulted in no gains for the Scottish Tories. So a fall of 2.7% in the Constituency vote, and 1.6% in the Regional vote was Annabel Goldie’s worst result as Leader.

Then, it’s worth comparing that result with England and Wales. In Wales, the Tories lost their Leader, Nick Bourne, but gained two seats overall, overtaking Plaid to become the second largest party in the Welsh Assembly. In England, predictions of electoral doom for the Tories were way off the mark: the Tories ended up with 85 more Councillors, and in control of four more Councils than before.

Now, the Coalition is (and always has been) markedly less popular in Scotland than in England or Wales: the Tories won a majority of English seats in 2010 and the two Coalition parties enjoyed 64% of the vote between them in England; in Wales, Labour may have come first in votes and seats, but the Tories and LibDems combined out-polled them by ten percentage points; but in Scotland, combined LibDem and Tory support still fell way short of Labour’s total poll. Maybe, just maybe, you could blame the Coalition.

Or maybe not: after all, the Tories sub-par electoral performances since, well, 1987 onwards showed that the Scottish Tories still haven’t quite recovered from Margaret Thatcher, and that hostility to her and her party still carries through today (which explains why Labour won in Scotland in 2010, running a campaign that focused exclusively on the Tories). Since then, what’s been left is a Tory rump that, in the main, is broadly in favour of what the Coalition is doing. That explains why the Tory vote held up in England and Wales: Tory voters are getting more or less what they voted for (unlike LibDem voters, who appear to be getting more or less the opposite of what they voted for), so attitudes to the Coalition can’t fully explain why the Tories did so poorly, and uniquely poorly, in Scotland.

Yet perversely, Annabel Goldie was their trump card: she communicated with the electorate in a way that no other Scottish Tory could, and was generally agreed to be “the only Tory it’s okay to like”. So while she was seen as a caretaker leader in many circles – despite remaining in position for five and a half years, and outlasting two Labour Leaders (and maybe even now, a third) and two LibDem Leaders – it’s clear that she wasn’t the problem: the party itself has been in a state of almost institutionalised doldrums for years… hence the review of the party that took place after the Scottish Conservatives again uniquely failed to make any major advance in Scotland last year. And as none of the proposed changes could be enacted in time for this election, that what held in the Sanderson review still holds and what caused the party’s inertia in 2010 helped to cause the party’s reverse in 2011.

That said, Goldie did not make things easy: though her directness and blunt honesty about what would be required in the coming months and years won her respect (though, obviously, not acclaim), her threats to have the First Minister “by the short and curlies” perhaps backfired: from being the party of “principled opposition” and constructive engagement last time, they went to being the firewall, the right-wing (against Labour) and Unionist (against the SNP) awkward squad. In many ways, the combination of “swallow your medicine” and “the other parties are tosspots” made the Tory campaign the most negative of all. They pitched it wrong, and it was that that shifted the party from neutral into reverse gear.

So what happens now? The Sanderson proposals will start to take shape (or not) and the Scottish Tories will have a new leader with clear authority over the whole Scottish party by the end of the year. This leader may not necessarily be an MSP – and given the ever decreasing pool of Tory MSPs (many of whom aren’t viewed in a credible light and it’s telling that John Lamont, the Chinless Wonder is supposed to be seriously considering a bid for the top spot) – it wouldn’t hurt to cast their net a little wider. The problem is, they have only one Scottish MP (who isn’t exactly a stellar performer) and there’s no real Boris Johnson figure among Tory Councillors: they lead only two Councils – a minority administration in South Ayrshire and a minority Coalition with the LibDems in Dumfries & Galloway – so unless Malcolm Rifkind returns from his constituency in Kensington, or Michael Forsyth returns from the Lords, it’s an MSP or Struan Stevenson, who will be 68 at the time of the next Scottish election. In other words, it’s an MSP.

And the choice won’t be great: the early front-runners are current Deputy Leader Murdo Fraser, seen as a Thatcherite, and Jackson Carlaw, a junior frontbencher who is seen as making Thatcher look like Barbara Castle. The main difference between the two is on the constitution, where Fraser has mused openly in favour of broader financial powers for the Scottish Parliament, while Carlaw has mused openly on what the point of MSPs actually is. While David Cameron made the UK Tories electable by a combination of shifting himself towards the centre and (on some issues) shifting the centre towards himself, the far more vertical struggle of making the Scottish Tories credible will appear to be in the hands of someone who will head even further out to the right.

So with David Cameron not really having an effect in Scotland (all those elections took place under his bailiwick as well as Goldie’s), and with Scottish Conservative policy about to tack heavily to the right, the Scottish Tories’ only hope in the 2012 Council elections, 2014 European elections, 2015 Westminster elections and 2016 Holyrood elections will be Goldie’s saving grace: the personality of their Leader – if he (it’s most likely to be a he) has one. And if the Scottish electorate takes to it.

I said that while the LibDems did terribly, it’s not wise to write them off in the long term. The Tories didn’t do anywhere near as badly but they’re the ones with the biggest uncertainty for the future.

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