Ruth Davidson is Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and an MSP for the Glasgow regional list.
“The poor girl is delusional.”
That was a response in the comments section to an interview I gave to ConservativeHome in January where I said the Conservative vote would go up at the European elections in Scotland – but would drop across the rest of the UK.
Two weeks ago, when I was at political cabinet to give an update on the Scottish referendum campaign, I touched on the Euro-elections, saying the party had done a full postal vote Get-Out-The-Vote across the whole of the country, and our vote was rock solid in Scotland. I added that we were losing one to two per cent to UKIP but that we were making that back from new voters, and that our seat would be safe. While this analysis was not challenged by Cabinet Ministers, I did detect a few eye-rolls and much shuffling from the SpAds round the rim of the room.
And I don’t blame them. They’ve been raised on electoral promises from Scotland that never materialise. Hope eventually gives way to experience and, time after time, the party north of the border has failed to deliver tangible improvements.
I am the first person to acknowledge our under-performance, and I fought a leadership campaign on the basis that we needed to tell ourselves the hard truths we’d avoided as a party since our electoral wipeout in 1997.
Time and tide won’t change attitudes to the party north of the border by themselves. We had failed to recover. We were continuing to fail, and it wasn’t just the case that some people didn’t like what we had to say – many had stopped bothering to listen to us at all. We had a credibility gap. We had a relevance gap. We had resorted simply to talking to ourselves, and we seemed ashamed to call ourselves Conservatives. No wonder a sizable proportion of our membership wanted to wind the party up altogether and start again.
We needed to ditch the sackcloth and ashes, and get out and make the case for centre-right ideas which resonate with much of the country. To speak to people outwith the tribe, and explain to them what we wanted to do, and, crucially, why we wanted to do it. To champion a low-tax, small-government vision of Scotland which offers school choice, rigorous justice measures and encourages business creation.
We needed to fix a broken campaigning machine to be able to deliver our message. We needed to raise the standard of candidates so that the message-carriers were up to the job and – most importantly of all – we needed a message that was clear, coherent and resonated with people across the country.
In short, we needed to get the pride, passion and purpose back that turns a collection of like-minded people into a proper political party that’s worth supporting.
An explanation on how we’ve overhauled the party machine at every level over the past two years can wait for another day, but Thursday’s elections are the first national poll we’ve had since we’ve come through that process.
The run-in to the election was not plain sailing – a number of Scottish polls had us down around four points on our 2009 result. Because of the national narrative of a poor prospective UK Conservative performance, some papers speculated that we might lose our MEP, or that we would be overtaken by UKIP – or both.
We were thrown a curveball three days before the ballot by Alex Salmond making the pronouncement that it was a straight shoot-out between the SNP and UKIP for Scotland’s final seat (a win for Salmond would have meant the SNP returning three of Scotland’s six MEPs). It was a message he and his senior ministers repeated consistently until the polls opened. I have no doubts that this cost us votes and contributed to UKIP’s rise, as many Scots wanted to give the First Minister a bloody nose – and he’d just told them the best way to do it.
But we stuck to our campaign plan, using simple messaging over the European referendum “We’re the only party who will give you a say on Europe” while harnessing the power of being in the majority on the biggest political issue in Scotland right now – the independence referendum.
To that end, our Party Election Broadcast, all of our literature (including the election address) and even our designation on the ballot paper – changed to “Scottish Conservatives – Vote No To Independence” – reflected the prism of the constitutional debate through which all Scottish politics is currently seen.
Organisationally, this was probably the most structured campaign we’ve run in recent times – direct contact was made with more than 90 per cent of all known Conservatives either in person or on the phone during the polling day knock up. We knew that increased turnout and an expected UKIP rise would impact on our vote, so our activists were motivated and worked unbelievably hard to squeeze out every single Conservative vote.
The results were announced on Monday afternoon and our vote had not just held steady, but had fractionally increased.
I sent an email that day thanking our activists which read:
“I am ambitious for this party, so I’m not getting carried away – I want to use these results as a springboard to further success at the General Election – but I would like to give you a bit of context for last night’s achievement.
As a party, our vote share went up in 24 of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas, and we topped the poll outright in Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders, South Ayrshire and East Renfrewshire.
The number of votes cast, 231,330, is the highest number of votes the Scottish Conservatives have won at a Euro election since 1989 – a quarter of a century.
This is a particular achievement given the rise of UKIP, and saw us bucking the Conservative trend – Scotland was the only area in the UK where the Conservative vote increased.”
I am under no illusions, this increase was a small one. However, there was a time when we would have been squeezed at elections such as these. On the same day, we had four local authority by-elections in various parts of the country, and saw the Conservative vote increase in each.
That brings the number of consecutive Scottish Parliamentary or local authority by-elections where the Scottish Conservatives have put up the vote to 17 – the first time we’ve had such a run since council reorganisation in 1974, before I was born.
I am encouraged by these results, including the European election, but I am not seduced by them. I will not make rash predictions about the Scottish Conservative performance at the General Election in 2015. I bear the scars from 2010 when the party said “we are well-placed in 12 seats” – and promptly returned only one.
However, I will tell you that we are demonstrating progress. We are building a recovery that has firm foundations in local communities across the country. I don’t believe in quick fixes. I believe in getting the basics right and building on them through hard work. And I believe in the ruthless pursuit of a realistic number of Westminster seats to demonstrate the Conservatives can win again in Scotland.