Ruth Davidson is the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. She is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow. Today she begins a fortnightly column for ConservativeHome.
I am often asked how, during the independence referendum campaign last year, Conservatives got on with our Labour opponents. My answer is always the same: they might always have squabbled with each other like proverbial rats in a sack, but Conservative and Labour rubbed along fine.
Behind the scenes, friendships were formed across the no-man’s land that usually separates us. And, in front of house, we complemented each other well. I recall the verbal shoeing Jim Murphy and I gave to the now ex-SNP MP Michelle Thomson at a debate in Aberdeen; sorting out lines of defence during a particularly spiky TV programme alongside Douglas Alexander in Stirling; and – least successfully – a never-to-be-repeated double act with George Galloway in front of 8,000 16 and 17 year olds at a stadium event in Glasgow.
Working with people from such wildly different political standpoints was often testing (like much of the Better Together campaign). But I remain convinced that in showing our cause was above politics – in demonstrating that it united rivals as bitter as Conservative and Labour – the sweat and the effort was worth it.
This weekend, the Scottish Labour party meets for its annual conference in gloomier circumstances. In May, it watched, disbelieving, as previously-thought strongholds in urban central Scotland fell to the SNP. Murphy and Alexander are now long gone, as are 38 of their fellow former MPs. The party, only recently the dominant force of Scottish politics, is struggling for relevance.
It shows. Rather than celebrate last year’s referendum win, Scottish Labour nowadays seems embarrassed by its role in keeping the United Kingdom together – regularly trying to distance itself from our cross-party effort. And seeking to find any distinctiveness in the face of the opportunistic and quick-witted nationalists, it is casting itself into irrelevance. This weekend, the conference is likely to be dominated by a call to scrap Scottish Labour support for the Trident submarines based in Faslane, and by a plan to split the Scottish party from its UK parent. Leaving aside the merits of both these plans (answer: not much), neither reflect the day to day concerns of most Scots who are looking for a Labour party to act as a genuine alternative to the SNP.
Scottish Conservatives are in no position to crow over the difficulties of a rival party. Our own recent history prevents that. What we can do, however, is ensure we do not make the same mistakes. With six months to run before the Holyrood election next May, I am determined we learn from Labour’s mistakes – and stay focussed 100 per cent on the concerns of every day Scots.
For me, that means boiling the coming campaign down to two key messages.
First, we will not shy away from the role we played in that referendum campaign as Scotland’s most enthusiastic and passionate supporters of the United Kingdom. For so long as Nicola Sturgeon fails to rule out another referendum, we have a duty to stand up to the SNP’s plan for separation by stealth. People of whatever political party allegiance can vote Scottish Conservative in the knowledge that it will be a vote which declares our wish to remain within the UK family of nations.
And second, we will base our campaign in the centre-ground of Scottish politics, based around the principles of an old-fashioned blue-collar Conservatism. This is my politics: one which seeks to drive out class privilege and inequality of opportunity in our society, and clears a path for people to get by and get on. One which yearns to provide more freedom and opportunity for families, trusting in their ability to take the right decisions for themselves. One which prioritises our economic revival so we can continue to pay for a well-funded NHS (reversing the real terms cuts administered by the SNP) and an education system that offers excellence for all children, not just those with the right postcodes. In short, having spent the last few years ensuring that we remain a united nation, I want try and forge a vision for One Nation Conservatism in Scotland.
It is undeniable that we face an uphill battle getting this message across. Three decades of under-achievement has led many to accept the received wisdom that the Scottish Conservatives are a bit-player north of the border. But the evidence suggests we are making our presence felt.
We start from a firm support base which saw more than 400,000 people vote Conservative in Scotland in May of this year. On top of this, we know that many natural Conservative supporters voted tactically in May – in vain – to keep out the SNP. That is perhaps being reflected in the latest research which shows that more than one in ten people who voted Labour last May now intend to back the Conservatives next year, when tactical voting is no longer an issue. Since the General Election, that amounts to 3,000 people a week leaving the Labour party and deciding to back the Scottish Conservatives.
I hope more will follow, and I expect to see them doing so. For thousands of ordinary families across Scotland, the reasons for voting Labour are fast diminishing. Jeremy Corbyn is turning a party of power into one of protest; a machine designed for raging, not leading. And whatever comes out of Scottish Labour’s latest internal review of its own structures, it will have the same old Labour traits: chaotic, disunited, discoloured by ancient personal feuds that make the MacDonalds and Campbells look like a match on Tinder.
As this party leadership retreats from the centre-ground, my message to middle ground Labour voters is this: just as our parties came together to win the referendum, so the Scottish Conservatives can now represent your values in standing up to the SNP’s agenda in the years to come.
We have a lot more in common than you think.