The New Blues? Explaining the success of the Scottish Conservative Party at the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections

Last week, the Conservatives have overtook Labour to become the main opposition party in Scottish politics. Alia Middleton considers the factors that worked in their favour, including new leadership and a distinctive campaign, but also writes there is a possibility that their success does not reflect a major shift in Scottish politics at all.

Ruth Davidson Gareth Milner

Credit: Gareth Milner CC BY 2.0

At the 1997 General Election, the Conservatives lost all of their seats in Scotland, although the party has had one seat in Scotland since 2001. This makes Conservative MPs officially rarer than pandas (with two of the latter currently residing in Edinburgh Zoo). In the Scottish Parliament elections that followed devolution in 1999, the Conservatives have been placed a remote third, receiving the majority of their seats from the regional (proportionally allotted) vote. Yet in the Scottish Parliamentary elections this May, the Conservatives have overtaken Labour to become the main opposition party in Scottish politics. Why have they suddenly become so popular?

1. The leadership of Ruth Davidson

Ruth Davidson is not the typical Conservative party leader. She only joined the Conservative Party 7 years ago, and she is not a career politician – she has worked at the BBC and was a member of the Territorial Army. At the time of her election as leader in 2011, she was the youngest party leader in the UK. She is also open about her sexuality. Although the two previous leaders of the Scottish Conservatives were also relatively popular, they did not translate this into votes. Ruth Davidson has presented herself as genuine, approachable and self-deprecating. She is out there campaigning on the streets alongside party activists. She tweets jokes to Nicola Sturgeon – imagine David Cameron joking with Jeremy Corbyn about his love of sweets! Rather than the often awkward photos of party leaders in General Election campaigns trying to be ‘one of the people’, she actually looks like she is enjoying herself. Even while riding a buffalo.

2. They were able to run a distinctive campaign.

The Westminster Conservatives have been unpopular north of the border since Scotland was controversially the first part of the UK to be subject to the Poll Tax in 1989. Often the performance of the Scottish Conservatives has been tainted by their association with the Westminster party. However, Ruth Davidson ran a campaign that was distinctively Scottish Conservative. Both Kezia Dugdale (Scottish Labour) and Willie Rennie (Scottish Liberal Democrats) enlisted the support of the Westminster party leaders, who descended upon Scotland during the campaign offering their visible support. However, Ruth Davidson made it clear from the outset that she wanted to run a Scottish campaign, and sure enough David Cameron was nowhere to be seen. This sidestepped the party being seen as a mere branch of the Westminster party.

3. They captitalised on the unpopularity of Scottish Labour

Despite the strong historical performance of Labour in Scotland, their clear support of the ‘No’ campaign in the Scottish independence referendum and Gordon Brown’s speech during the campaign have meant many independence-friendly Labour voters have moved over to the SNP. The party lost 40 seats at the 2015 general election. They also went into the 2016 parliamentary election with a new leader who was elected in August last year. Kezia Dugdale spoke during the campaign of the need to move Scottish politics beyond the independence referendum and consciously distanced her party away from it. However, she did admit that if Britain voted to leave the EU, then she would vote to leave the UK. In contrast, Ruth Davidson engaged with the on-going debate over the possibility of holding another referendum and made her position clear. To hold another referendum would be to ignore the will of the people who voted against independence less than two years ago. It is the Scottish Conservatives who have taken the mantle of being the ‘anti-independence’ party from Labour. Not bad when you consider over 2 million Scots voted to remain in the UK.

4. Maybe nothing has changed after all?

It may be that nothing much has changed in Scottish politics. With the SNP failing to secure a majority government in 2016 despite a massive increase in their membership since the referendum, perhaps the party has reached its peak. More space is opening up on the Scottish political landscape and the Scottish Conservatives have been best placed to step into the breach as the new pro-Union party. They still receive most of their seats (24 out of 31) from the proportional regional top-up of the electoral system rather than massively increasing their support in constituencies. For a large-scale shift in attitudes towards the Scottish Conservatives to be seen, they need to consolidate their local votes.

The EU referendum this June has the potential to change things dramatically in Scottish politics. As Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale have both suggested, if Scotland votes to remain in the EU and the rest of the UK votes to leave, then another referendum may be on the cards. If this does happen, the Scottish Conservatives are likely to be the party spear-heading the ‘Remain in the UK’ campaign; a position which has harmed Scottish Labour.

Note: this post originally appeared on the Political Insight blog as is reposted with the author’s permission. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Alia Middleton is a Teaching Fellow in Politics at the University of Surrey. She tweets @MiddletonAlia.

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Posted in: May 2016 elections