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Former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith is unimpressed with the Tories’ performance in last Thursday’s elections to Holyrood.

Now that the understandable distraction of the bourach that was the Holyrood election meltdown has subsided and the actual results can be assessed with some cold detachment rather than the emotion of the early morning battlefield, Scottish Conservatives have to accept it was in general terms a disastrous night, lightened only by one or two personal triumphs.

Here is a summary of what happened.

The Scottish people, tired and jaundiced with Blair’s Labour nationally and McConnell’s Lib Lab coalition in Scotland – voted for change. The result was that the coalition’s 67 seats (50 Labour and 17 Liberal Democrats) was reduced to 62 (46 Labour and 16 Liberal Democrats).  This was not as bleak a setback as was being anticipated by Labour a fortnight ago, for its net loss was only four seats when much worse had been feared. Nor was the SNP advance as dramatic as its cheerleaders had hoped.  The ten gains in individual constituencies was relatively muted, the difference being that the nationalists hoovered up so many of the second votes that they took ten more from the twelve minor party seats that departed the scene (six Trotskyists, five of the seven Greens and the sole Pensioner’s Party MSP).  The demise of the fringe parties not only resulted in the SNP being the largest with 47 seats; it also ensured that coalition building is more difficult with fewer options available for negotiating.

For the Conservatives there was the joy of Alex Fergusson holding
Galloway with a substantial increase in his majority and John Lamont
winning Roxburgh and Berwickshire, but that was pretty much it.  True,
it has remained in third place, ahead of the Liberal Democrats, who had
the poorest of campaigns, but only just (8,511 votes ahead out of
660,975 cast between them both in the constituencies). In seats such as
Dumfries, Eastwood and Stirling – where straight Labour – Tory fights
were expected to bring Conservative gains there were humiliating
failures. Talk of removing the SNP’s Roseanna Cunningham from Perth was
shown to be delusional after a 2.4% swing from the Tories to the SNP as
Cunningham increased her majority.

The increased turnout nationally brought a small increase in the
Conservative constituency vote but in percentage terms the party
flatlined at 16.6% – exactly the same as in 2003.  As if this failure
to advance at a time of Labour unpopularity was not bad enough the
Conservative vote in the regional lists dropped below fourteen percent
for the first time, falling from 15.5% to 13.9%, costing the party one
list seat in the North East – giving MSP David Davidson an early bath.

On closer inspection there are some other aspects that should be deeply
worrying to Tories trying to plan for the party’s recovery.

In Edinburgh, a city where four of the six Westminster seats used to be
blue, David McLetchie held his seat with an increased majority, but his
vote share was virtually static (+0.4%) and his improved lead was
entirely due to the Labour vote migrating to the nationalists. In the
five other seats the Tories fell back to third place (Edinburgh West
-4.4%) or last (Leith -3.7%, East -2.3%, Central -0.8% and South
+0.6%).  In other words there is no prospect in the foreseeable future
of a Conservative revival in Edinburgh beyond the Pentlands seat.

Again, in Ayr John Scott improved his majority but his vote share did
not shift (0.0%), while in Glasgow Cathcart (always a useful weather
vane in the west) the Tories were pushed into fourth by an independent
(-2.2%).

In Glasgow, MSP Bill Aitken’s 13,751 regional vote share dropped by
0.8% and only one Tory councillor was returned.  Compare this with the
Greens who on 10,759 – a falling share of the regional vote (-1.9%) –
managed to keep list MSP Patrick Harvie but the next day won three
council seats.  These councillors could make the difference to the
Greens overtaking the Conservatives in the regional list in 2011.  It’s
not impossible; in Glasgow Kelvin, the only seat where the Greens stood
a constituency candidate, they came third and the Tory was fifth!

How then Annabel Goldie can portray this situation as one to be proud
of beggars belief.  If the Tories were in power in Downing Street and
it was a mid term election a slight reverse would be understandable,
but at a time when the Prime Minister and his heir apparent are at the
peak of their unpopularity such a failure to advance the party’s
representation is nothing short of appalling.

One should not be surprised about this, however, as the party’s
strategy from the outset – to say it was not interested in power
sharing with anyone – meant that it was not an agent for change that
the public was looking for. Many unionists therefore held their noses
and voted SNP to get Labour out.

The Scottish Conservatives have not yet come to terms with what a
proportional voting system means when the votes are counted and the
MSPs elected.  No one can win outright and if there is any ambition at
all to deliver policies it requires deals to be struck and partnerships
to be at least countenanced. This is doubly so when the local council
elections are now using STV and the evidence starkly illustrates that
many Tories who were placed third or even second in the
three-councillor wards lost after the transfers had been
redistributed.  The Tories in Edinburgh and Stirling – previously third
and second largest with a chance of power are now the fourth largest
groups with only an outside chance at best.

The electoral setback is also a personal failure for shadow Scottish
Secretary David Mundell, who was telling everyone that he was running
Murray Tosh’s campaign in Dumfries and that not only would he win but
that three or four gains would be delivered.  Unfortunately the capable
Tosh lost and the two best results of the night in the neighbouring
seats had everything to do with the hard work of Fergusson and Lamont
and nothing to do with Mundell.

Annabel Goldie is generally believed to have had a good campaign.  This
should not surprise anyone that knows her.  She is a reasonable, if
uninspiring speaker, but has a good line in self-deprecating humour
that plays up to her image of the spinster aunt with a glint of
devilment in her eye. The campaign – organised by John Reid (parachuted
in by London) and Andy MacIver played to her mercurial strengths and
limited itself to so called bread and butter issues of drugs and law
and order.  Like McLetchie before her, she benefited from a positive
halo effect, moving from third in Renfrewshire West to second (+4.2%).
None of this should disguise the fact that her personal rapport with
the media did not translate into any appeal to the public.  The
Conservatives in Scotland have suffered a reverse when they could have
expected to enjoy a significant advance. 

With such a poor base to build upon the prospects for the Holyrood
election in 2011 looks bleak.  Goldie says she wants to lead the party
into that election when she will be four years older facing other
leaders that could practically be her children.  If it is thought that
this would be an unwise proposition then the question has to be asked
why wait to change the leadership? Should a new leader not have as much
time as possible to remould the party, reinvent it and build up the
popular support that is required?  With a snap election possible any
time in the next year can David Cameron afford to wait for such a
change, does he seriously think the current Tory party can hold or
improve upon its one solitary seat with Goldie at the helm?

Some clear thinking has to be undertaken and some hard decisions made.
For everyone’s benefit I suggest Annabel Goldie be convinced that
standing for Presiding Officer on Wednesday is the cleanest and most
satisfying outcome that she could proudly say was a result of her
campaigning – and that this would then allow a new leader to step
forward, amicably as a unifying force to begin the rebuilding of the
new centre right party that Scotland so badly requires.

Related link from yesterday: Tory members favour a separate Scottish Party

79 comments for: Brian Monteith: Poor Scottish result augurs change

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