Ruth Davidson is leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, and MSP for Edinburgh Central.
The Scottish Conservatives had a good night on Thursday night at the Holyrood elections. We put on more than a quarter of a million votes, doubled our number of MSPs and leapfrogged the Labour party to become the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament.
I often feel as if I’m acting in a bit of a bubble in Scotland. The party here is in the papers and on the Scottish news most days but my sister – who lives just a few dozen miles south of the border in Newcastle – still thinks I only work twice a year on the evenings I appear on Question Time.
It slightly took me by surprise, therefore, that a lot of the media requests that came in following the results, were from UK-wide media outlets.
In trying to explain the peculiar dynamics of Scottish politics right now, I’d been keen to stress that a lot of the people voting for our party weren’t natural Conservatives. Some may even have woken up on Friday morning feeling a bit conflicted about backing us and our subsequent success.
I also stressed that one good night at the ballot box – no matter how long you’ve waited for it (and we’ve been waiting two decades) – does not a recovery make.
As a party, we are very much on probation and it is my job to marshall my new group of MSPs and to live up to the trust placed in us by the electorate. I take that responsibility seriously.
I thought it might be useful to explain to ConservativeHome readers how we planned and executed this campaign, the coalition of voters we managed to build, and lay out how we will proceed in our new role.
When I became leader of the party in Scotland nearly five years ago, I wanted to overhaul everything – policy, structure, finance, the campaign machine – the whole lot, and I did over time. But the one area I wanted to revolutionise more than any other was our candidates.
Not to get too poetic, but I believe candidates are the party made flesh; the carriers of our message, the face of our organisation in communities across the country and the rock around which our campaign teams are built.
I scrapped the current list, brought in people with real outside experience and expertise and established new ways to identify, recruit, support and assess the new team.
I wrote at greater length on this process in February, and those successful candidates were asked to carry a heavy burden.
In many parts of the country, where we were never in the running to return an MP last year, we proposed a two-election strategy. We asked people to work the seat hard for both general and Scottish elections and the party would support them through media, campaign literature and promotion to ensure their name became known.
We also completely changed the way in which we campaigned across the country. The Scottish parliament runs an additional member system where 73 of the 129 MSPs elected come from first past the post seats, while 56 are returned through a proportional system of ‘top-up’ lists.
Despite the vast majority of our MSPs in the last four elections being returned through the list system, up to 90 per cent of our campaign spend had been in seats in the traditional method.
For this election, we turned that on its head. We needed to run a list strategy that understood and exploited a system that meant every list vote counted the same, irrespective of whether it was in a seat where we received a hundred votes or ten thousand.
That meant a asking our candidates to put their egos to one side, help out in each others’ seats and stick to national messaging. With a bit of help and some fancy voter ID, we identified thousands of people across the country that didn’t vote Tory, but who could be persuaded to our message.
Instead of getting our teams on the ground to split their time between leafleting and canvassing, we did the lions’ share of the literature distribution centrally – taking that burden off our local campaign teams – and asked them to focus almost exclusively on one-to-one conversations on the doorstep.
I can say without any fear of contradiction that we have spoken to more people across Scotland in this election than at any election in the last 20 years.
We also focussed our efforts more tightly. Instead of sending literature to every single one of Scotland’s four million registered voters, we identified those most likely to respond to our message and returned to them again and again. These were also the people we prioritised doorstep conversations with, striking anyone who was against so there was no wastage of future resource or effort.
We also made sure the message was clear, simple and direct – and that the words I was saying on the television every night were the same as the words used by canvassers and in the literature that people received.
The election we fought was rooted in our values – respecting the decision the country made to stay part of the United Kingdom, improving our schools, valuing vocational education as much as academic education, helping business and sticking up for families by opposing named person legislation.
It was also about being a strong counterpoint to a government which many people – especially no voters at the referendum – feel ignored and let down by.
There is a real yearning in Scotland for someone – anyone – to take the SNP on. Someone who will stand up to them and tell them ‘no’ every once in a while.
The Labour party had two terms as the official opposition – nine years and six leaders to try and land a blow on the SNP and they had comprehensively failed. We were able to ask people to give us a try.
I don’t not know how many times during the campaign I said: “If you vote for me, I will do a specific job for you. I will hold the SNP to account, I will say no to a second referendum on independence and I’ll make them focus on the things that matter like schools, hospitals and growing our economy.”
That sort of discipline and reinforcement of message demonstrated that we were united, professional and capable of taking the fight to the SNP.
In contrast, the Labour campaign was muddled and contradictory on the Union, threatened to tax everyone more and saw their leader barely leave the Edinburgh-Glasgow corridor when it came to visits, photocalls and campaign media.
In terms of results, our focus on ensuring we executed our plan to all target voters, no matter in which constituency they resided, saw us record big gains in seats that had previously been underworked – up 10 per cent in Dunfermline, 11 per cent in Falkirk East, 12 per cent in Alex Salmond’s home town of Linlithgow and more than 15 per cent in Angus South.
A concerted effort to target rural constituencies left behind by the SNP’s rush to service formerly-Labour urban Scotland, allied with strong local candidates saw swings of 17 per cent in Aberdeenshire West, 18 per cent in Moray and 19 per cent in Aberdeenshire South and North Kincardine.
We took more than 40 per cent of the available list seats (24 out of 56), held the three first past the post seats we carried into the election and won four more outright.
We reached out across our core vote and asked people to support us who otherwise wouldn’t give us the time of day. They are now looking for us to make good on our promises. To hold the SNP to account, to say ‘no’ to a second independence referendum (helped by denying the SNP a majority) and to make them concentrate on the devolved areas of government affecting Scots families.
I will do so with gusto.
I’m also now planning our local government campaign for next year, when every single council seat in Scotland is up for grabs.
I am acutely aware that we had a good night on Thursday when all the planning, messaging, campaigning and hard graft came together. But a good night is all it was.
To make sure this is a proper recovery and one built on stone and not on sand, I need to ensure there are hardworking local Conservative councillors in every community in Scotland.
The campaign is over. It’s time to start the campaign.