Last week, a year on from becoming the leading opposition party in the Scottish Parliament, the Conservatives overtook Labour to become the second party of Scottish local government too.
Not only were the headline numbers pretty extraordinary – an overall increase from 112 to 276, a 146 per cent increase – but so too were some of the locations being picked up. People more familiar with the details of Scottish political geography were trading baffled exclamations as the Tories won councillors in places such as Motherwell West, Glasgow Calton, and Ravenscraig.
Over the weekend there’s been something of an effort to push back against the idea that this result was so remarkable, on the two grounds that the SNP still won and that, because Scotland uses proportional representation for its local elections, you’d expect to find Conservative councillors in places they’d struggle to win through in England and Wales.
The former point is true enough in isolation, although it ignores essential context. The last time these council seats were fought was 2012, after the Nationalists won their shock majority at Holyrood but before the relatively near miss in the 2014 referendum, their swelling into a mass movement, and the 2015 Westminster landslide.
For those events to have done nothing to strengthen the party’s local government position suggests that something is up, to put it mildly.
As for the second point, it really illustrates quite how much Davidson is managing to shift our expectations for what the Scottish Conservatives are supposed to achieve. Because it’s quite true that under PR you’d expect to find a much wider spread of party representation than under first past the post – but it’s also true that, as far as the Scottish Conservatives went, you too often still didn’t find it.
Is having working-class, urban wards returning a Tory councillor (of their three or four) the new normal now? That’s great, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that is a very new normal.
Moreover, those councillors – rather than remoter figures in Holyrood and Westminster, or folk memories of Margaret Thatcher and Michael Forsyth – will now be their communities’ point of contact with Conservatism. They have an opportunity to further ‘detoxify’ it day-to-day, and build up grassroots support for further advances.
We don’t yet know exactly what impact the general election had on the results – although it may have provided a fillip to the Conservatives, by putting their big issue front and centre – but we can tell what impact the local elections will have on the general election campaign. Here’s a map of the results:
Each party will be going over the results to find areas of strength (or vulnerability, in the SNP’s case), choosing which seats could most benefit from the final push.
Overall, the Tories look strong in the areas we’d expect: the Borders, the North East, and East Renfrewshire, just as they were before the 1997 wipe-out. They also won the most votes in Moray, which might cause Angus Robertson a few sleepless nights, and in Alex Salmond’s constituency of Gordon.
Yet they’re also, a bit less expectedly, apparently ahead in Ayrshire, Carrick, and Cumnock, a not-particularly-Conservative seat built around reliably-Conservative Ayr. This was the one place where it didn’t look as if holding a Holyrood constituency was much of an indicator of good Westminster prospects, but that may be wrong.
Of course, such detail could backfire. The SNP still possess a fearsome campaigning machine and their strategists will be poring over exactly the same data, using it to inform their own defence. Davidson’s troops may yet find themselves struggling against less complacent, better-prepared opponents than they might otherwise have faced.
Nonetheless, the takeaway from the Scottish local elections is clear: the Tories really are staging a remarkable comeback.