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Could the Conservatives take Labour’s place as Scotland’s second party?

8 February 2016

4:17 PM

8 February 2016

4:17 PM

Last month I wrote that everyone loves Ruth Davidson but no-one will vote for her. Now a new YouGov poll reports that the Tories are ahead, if only just, of Labour in the race to lose the forthcoming Holyrood election least badly. Twenty percent of Scots say they intend to vote for Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives in May and only 19 percent are prepared to back Kezia Dugdale’s Labour party.

A lesser man than I might think this awkward.

Granted, even when doubting the veracity of the much-anticipated, rarely-actually-seen Scottish Tory revival I allowed myself some room for wriggling. It could happen, I noted and perhaps it even should happen since the political conditions now prevailing in Scotland have not been so friendly to Tory hopes in at least a generation. So it is not impossible that the Tories could come second in May.

Not impossible but still, I think, unlikely. Davidson has made it clear that she expects the party to do better than it has ever previously done at a Scottish parliamentary election. That means taking a fifth of the vote and winning 20 seats. This is possible, too.

Nevertheless, it it worth repeating that in 1992 (an election that is, depending on your taste, both surprisingly recent and many years distant) the Tories won 25 percent of the vote in Scotland. Their vote actually went up a little that year but even in 1987, the last time Margaret Thatcher was, if you like, on the ballot the Scottish Tories still won more than 700,000 votes. She was never quite as unpopular in Scotland as myth would persuade you was actually the case.

And to put it in perspective once again, in 2011 the Scottish Tories won just 250,000 votes (albeit on a significantly lower turnout). So the revival means getting back to where the party was in 1997, not where it was in the Iron Lady’s heyday. Some revival but, then again, some party too.

All the same, the Tories are plainly if finer fettle than has been the case any time this century. It is certainly possible they could, perhaps should, win more constituency seats than Labour in May. The people of southern Scotland, for instance, might even carve out a true-blue cordon sanitaire along the border, sharply differentiating themselves from the nationalist hordes set to sweep the north. Unlikely? Perhaps. Impossible? No.

Even so, the real story here is surely Labour’s dizzying decline. According to YouGov – who, it should be noted, are not so great an outlier amongst pollsters as they have been or seemed in the past – just 14 percent of men are minded to vote Labour. Even more staggeringly, Labour are polling just three points ahead of the Tories amongst C2DE voters.

So if you thought the general election was as bad as it could get for Labour you should think again. Just 77 percent of Labour voters a year ago would vote Labour again tomorrow. (The respective figures for the Tories and the SNP, by the way, are 93 percent and 92 percent.) Labour’s support is still seeking new homes to go to.

Some of that should not be any great surprise. This is a party led by Jeremy Corbyn, for instance. Anecdotal evidence supports the suspicion that some protestant working-class voters in the west of Scotland are not impressed by Corbyn’s past associations with senior members of the IRA and Sinn Fein. Not that Corbyn’s troubles are limited to the vestigial Orange vote, of course.

His baleful shadow, however, complicates life for Kezia Dugdale, the party’s beleaguered Scottish leader. Not for nothing do the Tories prefer to put Corbyn’s face on their election literature. Only the Conservatives, they say, can be trusted to ‘stand-up to the SNP’. And since everyone knows the nationalists will win the election there is an opportunity for the Tories to present themselves as the real, indeed only credible, opposition. Someone has to try and kick the nats; it might as well be the Tories. This has the considerable advantage of probably being true. And messages that contain some truth are easier to sell than messages that seek to persuade the electorate to deny an obvious and obviously observable reality.

Hence Labour’s decision to promise to raise income taxes. Not because they think they can win but because they know they can’t. But stopping the bleeding is the first step to recovery. The trouble is that an isolated policy like this, made by a party with no chance of actually being in power, carries little more weight than an announcement from, well, the Liberal Democrats.

It is true that Labour need to woo support from left-wing voters who backed independence and have subsequently switched to the SNP. Unfortunately many of those voters have persuaded themselves, at least for now, that independence is the route to left-wing politics. That being so, the SNP are a better bet – if an imperfect one – than Labour.

Meanwhile, alienating Unionist middle-class voters who thirst for a strong opposition at Holyrood but have no inclination to pay more tax seems a questionable strategy at best. Then again, what more attractive or plausible choices do Labour have? They are in the position of trying to play football despite having a broken leg. You do not expect it to be done well but you might, if you felt like it, give them some credit for soldiering on.

The Tories, meanwhile, say it is time to ‘move on’ from the constitutional debate but – gosh! – they don’t really mean that. The threat of another referendum on independence (however diminished that may currently be) is a cattle prod to be used to persuade Tory voters – the last remaining Unionist Ultras – to go to the bleedin’ polls this time.

All this necessarily risks leaving the centre open to the SNP. But that is where, by and large, the voters and the SNP already happen to be. Much attention is paid to symbolic issues such as fracking and land reform but these issues are just that: symbolic. Vanishingly few voters actually care very much about either but they allow a centrist party of government to pose as radical and plenty of voters approve, in general though not specific terms, of the pose.

Granted, this causes some tension too. How can you really be an ‘anti-austerity’ party while refusing to take measures that would reduce the impact of spending cuts? As Alex Bell, former policy advisor to Alex Salmond, says, “If you spend your life shouting ‘fire, fire,’ at some point you have to use the extinguisher. If not, then you just look like an arsonist.” Expect to hear that from Labour over and over again. It’s a good line, not least because it is buttressed by truth.

In the latter stages of the referendum, I believe that the No side gained some traction from the accusation that the Yes campaign was prepared to ‘say anything’ that might have even half a chance of persuading you to vote Yes. There was a credibility gap and, at times, the campaign run by the SNP and its allies simply seemed too good to be true. So what were they hiding? Well, some of the answers to that are more clear than ever.

But success comes at a price too. The nationalists are now in a truly remarkable position. Suppose, just for a moment, a poll arrived that put the SNP on just (!) 45 percent support? This would, by any reasonable standard, be a terrific poll for the nationalists. It would also be considered dreadful. See, people would crow, the SNP bubble is bursting! This is, it must be said, objectively loopy. Still, even loopy things can contain some truth.

The SNP are hemmed in by the fact their politics is only partly about governing Scotland. Ask yourself this: would the SNP take a decision they believed would be in the national interest if doing so also significantly diminished enthusiasm for independence? Hmmm. Which means, in turn, that the SNP must continue to be all things to all people. That’s fine as far as it goes but there comes a moment when it becomes subject to the laws of diminishing returns. What is the party for if independence is a far-distant project? What will it actually do? At some point you have to use the fire extinguisher. And at that point, the theory runs, you become just like any other political party. And so you lose a large part of what has made you successful in the first place.

That, as I say, is the theory. It will not be proven correct this year but that doesn’t mean it is always likely to be incorrect. The nationalists have to keep everyone on board and, paradoxical as it may seem, this strength is also a weakness. A weakness of the kind, it is true, other parties can only imagine but a weakness nonetheless. What, apart from independence, are they for?

Labour’s tax gambit most probably will not work. But it’s supposed to get them to a place from which other things might, in time, work. It’s about buying time and space.

As for the Tories, well, a revival of sorts does now seem more possible than previously. It will still, however, be a baby revival. Important, yes, but only the beginning.

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