Enough of what a soaring SNP vote could mean for Labour in Scotland. What could it mean for the Conservatives?
A paradox of Scotland’s referendum was that some of the strongest SNP areas, such as Aberdeenshire, voted No, while some of the strongest Labour ones, such as Glasgow, voted Yes. This has led some to hope that there will be a Conservative revival in Scotland at the general election, with Union-supporting voters in, say, Angus and Banff & Buchan switching from the SNP to the Tories – who will consequently win enough seats in Scotland to kick-start a modest Parliamentary revival: six or seven constituencies won, say.
As Ruth Davidson wrote on this site earlier this year, the Party certainly gained from marketing itself in muscular way as the party of the Union as the referendum drew nearer. It designated itself on the ballot paper in the European elections as “Scottish Conservatives – Vote No To Independence”, and held the Euro-seat that many had expected it to lose. Davidson herself has proved to be a first-rate campaigner. Were she in Westminster, the Scottish Tory leader would be joining the long list of national leadership contenders.
But while the possibility of pitch-forking the SNP off seats such as these makes Conservative hearts beat a bit faster, we should all keep our heads. Most rural and suburban middle-class Scots don’t vote in Westminster and Holyrood elections on the national question. Like most other people in the rest of the UK, they make their decisions on the basis of who will best butter the bread (or butter it least badly). For many small-c conservative voters, this has meant keeping Labour’s hands off it.
And that, in turn, has meant voting for the SNP, which likes to keep its appeal open to both left and right. Indeed, Alex Salmond succeeded in transforming his party into a kind of Scottish Fianna Fail – that’s to say, he presented it as speaking for all Scots. This is the trick that the Fianna Fail pulled off in Ireland from independence until recently. Can the Scottish Conservatives really turn this type of voter round next May? It can be argued that if Labour collapses in Scotland, as two new polls suggest, the Tories could portray themselves as the only remaining opposition to the SNP north of the border.
In the complicated world of Scotland’s four party politics, this case might have some cut-through with voters. But there is a problem with this optimistic take on the next election. The headline finding of very same polls (an IPSOS/MORI one yesterday and a YouGov one today) was that we will lose our only Westminster seat next May if their findings turn real – at least, if one assumes that Conservative support is evenly spread.
It’s true that such a presumption would be mistaken: even if the Tory vote fell from the 17 per cent of 2010 to the ten per cent of the IPSOS/MORI poll, it would be concentrated in seats such as Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, the one we now hold. So David Mundell would probably hang on there even in such dire circumstances, since the Labour and Liberal Democrat vote would also fall, and the SNP are a poor fourth. But if the SNP vote share rises overall next May, and those small-c conservative voters don’t change their habits, it is hard to see where Tory gains will come from.
Michael Moore is well dug in at Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk. Will the Liberal Democrat vote really fall enough to get him out? Perth and North Pershire looks like a long shot: the SNP hold the seat. Perhaps the best Conservative chance is in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. Labour are a long way ahead of the Party in Stirling although, were its vote to disintegrate nationally, the contest could be an intriguing one.
Sir Menzies Campbell is retiring in Fife North-East, but even if left-leaning Liberal Democrats desert them there, he leaves a majority of about 9000. All in all, the Conservatives will do well even to double their present representation. In the longer-term, an SNP shift to the left, were it to eat up Labour, might offer the Party new opportunities in the rural areas that Nicola Sturgeon’s party has colonised. At any rate, the Tories’ best course is to keep trying to maximise their pragmatic appeal under Davidson’s leadership, and pushing their Unionist credentials at a time of constitutional uncertainty.
After all, the independence question isn’t settled: not when over two in five voters supported it, and the SNP are soaring in the polls. Unionist Scots may only be moving to it because they think that the SNP will screw the best deal for Scotland from the English – and not because they’ve suddenly turned pro-independence – but Sturgeon and Salmond will continue to exploit UK-wide tensions over Barnett and EVEL, over money and representation.
This is why this site believes that the Conservatives in Scotland should change their name to the Unionist and Conservative Party.