Ruth Davidson is the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. She is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow.
There are fewer than a hundred days left until the polls open in Wales, London, Scotland and a host of local authorities across England.
Just as (Sir) Lynton Crosby says ‘you don’t fatten a pig on market day’, neither do you plan your campaigns just a few months from their start.
For me, at least one key aspect has been years in the planning. That aspect has been candidate identification, recruitment, assessment and support.
You can’t change the face of an organisation without changing the faces in it. Along with the willing volunteers, we too often – and in too many constituencies – had historically run little more than ‘paper’ candidates – doughty councillors or respected community pillars who were asked to put their name down and assured that they ‘wouldn’t have to really do anything.’
Not only does that approach leave huge swathes of the country without any Conservative activity locally, it damages your party’s returns nationally and feeds into a media narrative of failure. In a voting system, such as Holyrood’s, which tops up constituencies through a regional list system where every single vote counts, it is catastrophic.
I campaigned for the leadership on (among other things) the twin promises of taking our party from its worst ever Holyrood result to its best ever return in one parliament, and on bringing forward the next generation of Scottish Conservatives which would grab the torch and lead our party into the future. For me, one relied on the other.
I wanted candidate recruitment to be about us seeking out the best of the best. Like the old Royal Marine Commando advert, 99.9 per cent need not apply.
So I brought in outside expertise to set up a wholly new candidates’ board. An HR director who’d served across several national institutions, a world champion debater to put candidates through their public speaking paces, an expert in corporate leadership to assess decision-making; people of skill and substance to run the rule over our future elected representatives. The assessments themselves changed – we set up new tests, based largely on the potential officer assessments the army carries out before Sandhurst (minus the assault course and press-ups).
For those who passed, the candidates’ board has worked with them, offering training, development and sustained support.
I was the only new Scottish Conservative elected in the 2011 Holyrood elections, and I only got in because someone else had retired. Every organisation needs regular injections of new blood to add energy, challenge orthodoxy and generate ideas.
There is going to be a huge generational change in our party in May. Currently, more than half of our MSP group are in their 60s or 70s. For a young leader, that’s a huge – and very welcome – amount of experience to draw on, but it is not representative of a wider Scotland.
With a number stepping down, and the party on course to hit that goal of our best ever Holyrood result, a host of new faces will be coming forward. I am genuinely excited about leading this team into the coming elections – and even more excited about the difference such talented individuals can make to a parliament often criticised for the lack of strength and depth of its representatives.
We have candidates in our ranks from all backgrounds; from business, agriculture, public services, health, the armed forces, the trade unions, law, education, local government and the charitable sector. We have CV details ranging from the quirky – one of our candidates has two international rugby caps for Azerbaijan, another is a former gold medal-winning sprinter – to the surprising; one candidate let slip that, actually, he’d spent a couple of years at a Washington think tank before starting his law career.
The candidates themselves are also a demonstration of how the party has changed and the face it wants to give the world. I want us to be a confident, competent, business-like group which is utterly professional in the important job of holding the Government to account and offering a positive vision of a better Scotland.
I know that this team can fulfil all those objectives while challenging some of the lazy myths about Conservatives and Conservatism which still perpetuate in Scotland.
No one does that better than our Stirling candidate, Dean Lockhart. Dean grew up on Keir Hardie Road on a council estate in a Lanarkshire mining village. He went to his local school and was the first member of his family to attend university, where hard work returned him a first class honours degree in law. He joined a big firm, spent much of his career in Asia, including being seconded to the UK Embassy in Manilla to advise the Philippines’ government on its privitisation programme. Despite having lived and worked all over the world, Dean has always kept in touch with the friends he grew up with in Lanarkshire. He returned to Scotland three years ago to nurse his sick wife, and, after her death, decided he wanted to give back to his country. Dean is likely to get elected on the Mid-Scotland and Fife list and I look forward to welcoming him to parliament.
Depending on the good graces of the electorate, I also hope to see Peter Chapman, former Vice-President of the National Farmers’ Union; Professor Adam Tomkins, the UK’s foremost expert in constitutional law; Rachel Hamilton, a multi award-winning hotelier; Maurice Golden, an environmental waste expert who already advises governments in this field, plus a whole host of others with serious expertise and people skills sitting next to me in parliament in 100 days’ time, too.
Managing a parliamentary group of high-calibre individuals with real experience and intellectual heft – but more than half of whom have never set foot in the Holyrood chamber – is going to take some work. But it’s a delightful management headache to have.
Football bosses get two transfer windows every season. Political leaders have parliamentary terms that last five years without change, so when elections come it’s important to make them count and get your strongest possible team on the pitch. We started our recruitment four years ago and – I believe – will have pound-for-pound the most impressive parliamentarians of any party at Holyrood. Competent, capable, professional and caring – a group of people recruited for their skills and sense of service. I’m changing the face of the Scottish Conservatives – watch this new generation take our party to new levels.