A lot has been written about the latest UK polling figures and how the Liberal Democrats seem to be the biggest losers from the current coalition government. What is less well reported is that one of the surprise winners seems to be the Scottish Conservatives.
A close analysis of the daily YouGov polling puts us in a clear second place in Scotland and – I would contend – firmly on the long road back from the post-1997 wipeout. It has only taken thirteen years.
Firstly, some housekeeping. The figures included below come from the Scotland sample of the wider UK polls conducted by YouGov and available to view on their political archive found here. The sample sizes were just below 200 Scots per sample, which I recognise is too small to be statistically significant – however, taken over many weeks, it becomes a sizeable number (more than 5,000) and a clear narrative emerges.
Yes, many Scots have reacted to a Conservative-led Westminster government with a stereotypical, knee-jerk, client-state, tribal backing of Labour (as our Southern media cousins would have us believe). But that’s not the whole story.
The Conservatives are putting on votes. We are consistently polling second and are acting as the main counterweight to Labour north of the border.
While our bounce is welcome, although not stellar, it is very interesting to see that the Nationalists’ wheels have very definitely come off – the SNP have nothing to say and their honeymoon period in government is most definitely over. Their numbers now, after nearly four years of minority rule, are a far cry from the high watermark of 33% at the last Scottish Parliamentary elections.
The Liberal Democrat collapse is due in part to their function as a protest vote for many people. My prediction is that (along with Labour) the main beneficiaries of this will be the Green Party. The Greens lost 5 MSPs in the last Scottish Parliamentary elections as the smaller parties got squeezed in a Labour v. SNP brawl. I expect that following Caroline Lucas’ breakthrough at Westminster, Scotland will once again see support translate into increased representation.
So if one coalition partner seems holed below the water line, why is the other buoyed by an increase in popularity? In 2007 the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were almost neck and neck at the devolved election, with just 0.4% of the vote and a single MSP separating their scores. Now the Conservatives are polling almost twice the Lib Dem numbers.
The reasons are complex but also simple. Yes, the Scottish Conservatives have worked hard at getting concessions from the SNP government. Yes, Annabel Goldie is a well liked and respected group leader who has won plaudits for her handling of successive First Ministers. Yes, our policies are sensible and our manifestos measured and costed. But those achievements alone have seen us only edge up our vote by fractions of a percentage in each successive Scottish, General and European election campaign over the past five years.
The difference is this Coalition Government. For nearly 20 years the myths surrounding Margaret Thatcher have proliferated across Scotland. As recently as last year I was confronted with people telling me that “Thatcher had shut the rail yards” in the Glasgow North East constituency as I fought the by-election there (the fact that Great North British went bankrupt in 1962 after failing to successfully make the change from steam to diesel locomotives did not alter her culpability). Stories like this have been propagated right across Scotland and Conservative candidates up and down the country have had to contend with fictions blaming Thatcher for every closed factory, every redundancy and every local decline for election after election.
We have always needed another period of Conservative (led) government to slay the plethora of Thatcher myths that were relentlessly created and peddled up here by Labour and a willing press, and to replace them with a new reality. It's hard to say "don't vote Tory or it'll be like having Thatcher back" on the doorsteps when people can see that having a Conservative Government has manifestly failed to cause the sky to fall in.
This matters. It matters if we are to build on our current position; to return further MSPs in May and play a greater role in Scottish government. It matters if we are to increase our number of councillors in May 2012 to show more people in more communities how Conservatives will make a positive difference to them. And it matters most of all as we go into 2015, wanting to play a fuller part in returning a Conservative majority to Westminster.
Scottish Conservatives don’t want just one Tory MP and we get frustrated when we’re told that if Wales can bounce back from ’97 then why can’t we? The simple fact is that if we had a number of constituencies with electorates in the 40,000s like Wales, rather than the 70,000s as we have now, we would have returned more MPs with the 2010 voting figures. We also have a genuine four-party system here with the SNP snapping at Labour’s heels. At least, we did, until the coalition changed the game in May.
Which brings us back to YouGov’s polling. Of course we would love to be back to the glory days of the 1950s when we took more than 50% of the vote, and it’s not enough to say that getting David Cameron into Number 10 is the answer to all our prayers. It’s not. But something has shifted and it’s up to candidates and activists to build on this success. A 4.5% boost in the polls is welcome, but it’s a start, not the final objective.