Paint it blue: the Conservative party in Scotland

24 May 2017


As Theresa May’s Conservative government look set secure electoral victory, many will be interested to see how the party’s fortunes fare in across the border. After overtaking Labour in last year’s Holyrood elections and consolidating their status as Scotland’s second party in the recent local elections, Ruth Davidson will be hoping that the party can expand upon their one Westminster MP.


Polling has indicated this is now extremely likely. In 2015 the Scottish Tories achieved just under 15 per cent of the vote, however a Panelbase poll in April indicated that they could win up to a remarkable 33 per cent of the vote this time. While this is perhaps more than they would realistically expect, another YouGov poll suggested they would win a more modest but still impressive 28 per cent.


In portraying themselves as the party most committed to defending Scotland’s position within the United Kingdom, the Tories have capitalised upon the constitutional divide among Scots: the legacy of the 2014 independence referendum.


They are expected to make significant gains in the south of Scotland, which has typically been their most prosperous area north of the border in recent years.  Davidson’s party are also expected to pose a significant threat to the SNP in places such as Perth and Stirling, as well as in parts in Edinburgh, where certain forecasts indicate they may take Scottish Labour’s one last seat.


Overall, it’s a particularly remarkable turn of events. A party often maligned in Scotland, taunted with the mantra of having less MPs than there are pandas in Edinburgh zoo, now seem poised to make gains in several areas across the country. After many were surprised at their Holyrood surge last year, the local council results confirmed that their improved results are not just a blip.


Problems remain for Davidson’s party. While they did make significant gains at the local council elections, turnout was much lower than it will be at the general election; 46.9 per cent of the Scottish electorate voted at council level whereas over 70 per cent are expected to turn out for the latter.


The Tory surge may also provide SNP supporters an increased incentive to vote. After the sweeping results of 2015, there was always a natural danger of complacency seeping in as Nicola Sturgeon’s party comfortably won seats they would never have hoped to hold before. With the unionist vote increasingly backing one party instead of several, those who ardently oppose the Tories may now be more likely to vote.


It is perhaps notable, however, that in their increased success, the SNP’s target demographic has perhaps changed. They are now the most popular party in Glasgow and much of the West of Scotland by a considerable distance, an area which was once staunchly Labour. Naturally, any Scottish party who aim to hold the most seats must to some extent succeed in urban Glasgow, due to its sheer size in comparison with the rest of the country.


As Glasgow increasingly becomes a key SNP heartland, however, other rural areas are perhaps becoming more enamoured by their Conservative opponents, especially after the Brexit vote. The seat belonging to Angus Robertson, deputy leader of the SNP, may swing to Davidson’s party. Most notably, it was a seat in which the Remain vote only won narrowly, despite having an SNP MP.


Those who voted for Brexit in rural areas like Moray have clearly become increasingly impressed with the Scottish Tories, and while Davidson herself may have supported a Remain vote last year, she has made no attempts to defy her party since then. As a result, Robertson will face a key fight to retain his seat, even though he won it with 49.5 per cent of the vote in 2015, and has since become an increasingly prominent figure for his party at Westminster.


The current strength of the Conservatives across the United Kingdom should perhaps also be considered. Currently, their poll lead suggests the party is almost certainly set to govern the country through the Brexit process. Those who backed a Leave vote within Scotland, or who supported Remain but now believe the process should be carried out, may back the current government on that basis.


Likewise, Jeremy Corbyn’s ailing Labour party has perhaps put off many unionist voters. Younger voters who Corbyn appeals to in England and Wales are more likely to support independence in Scotland. Consequently, they are more likely to back the SNP or an alternative independence supporting option in Scotland instead of Scottish Labour, whose leader Kezia Dugdale continues in her staunch defence of the union.


Tory gains in Scotland are almost certain in June. Nevertheless, it is unlikely the SNP will be particularly worried. While losing a handful of seats will no doubt disappoint them, all the forecasts which indicate a Conservative surge north of the border also indicate that the SNP will continue in their dominance of the Scottish political landscape. Such a position would have been unanimously welcomed by the party before 2015, and perhaps puts any surge from Davidson’s Scottish Tories into perspective.


Read more by this commentator here. 

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