Some have complained that the Scottish Parliament election campaign was a relatively lacklustre affair but the same can certainly not be said of the results. On the morning of the 6th of May, the political realities of Scotland changed seismically. The SNP juggernaut finally showed signs of slowing with the loss of the its parliamentary majority, Scottish Labour were decimated and thrown into third place, the Lib Dems failed to gain much ground and the Greens gently advanced forward.
But the real drama of the night was provided by Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives who more than doubled their number of seats, winning 31. The Conservatives were rewarded with some remarkable constituency results including gaining Eastwood, Dumfriesshire and West Aberdeenshire and particularly stunning, Ruth Davidson’s win in Edinburgh Central. A strong showing on the List finished off a night of remarkable results for the Conservatives.
Drawing on my experience as the Scottish Conservative candidate for Glasgow Cathcart I will try to piece together why the Scottish Conservatives did so well, and why Scottish Labour did so badly. Finally, I will look to the potential achievements of a Conservative opposition.
Quite simply, the Tories stormed Holyrood because of three things; their message, their campaign and the political circumstances.
The Tory message was incredibly clear; Scotland would be stronger if it had a solid opposition to hold the SNP to account. As the campaign progressed, this message resonated more and more with voters on the doors. With Labour’s lacklustre Kezia Dugdale and Nicola Sturgeon acting as if she had already won, many voters wanted the SNP to be held to account and felt that only the Conservatives were addressing their desire to do just that.
The campaign mounted by the Scottish Conservatives was impressive in several ways. The smart decision to base it around Ruth Davidson, whose popularity outstrips that of the party, made many voters consider voting Conservative for the first time. Many saw Ruth as the only leader able to be an effective leader of Holyrood’s opposition, and the Tories’ campaign reflected this. The slogan “Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition” even appeared on the Regional Ballot Paper and was something many believed in and ultimately, voted for.
There were no real campaign ‘wobbles’, there was a message and a strategy and they were stuck to. The campaign was also incredibly professional and was probably the first time since 2007 that another party’s campaigning matched the professionalism of the SNP’s. We knew exactly what voters we needed to talk to and where to talk to them, and we got the result we wanted.
The Conservatives also benefited from the right circumstances. Since the 2014 referendum, Scotland’s politics has become increasingly constitutional. The SNP in 2015 were obvious winners being able to coalesce ‘the 45%’ behind them. On the pro-UK side, the vote was split between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives but by 2016, many pro-UK voters were looking for a party that was unashamedly for the Union. Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives were proudly pro-UK, were not ashamed to make a pro-UK pitch and crucially, placed at the heart of their campaign a pledge to oppose a second independence referendum. With the SNP having never stopped campaigning for independence since the 19th September 2014, the Scottish Conservatives became a home for many pro-UK voters looking for a party to stand up to the SNP juggernaut.
The Tories’ message, their campaign and political circumstance delivered an impressive 8% swing in 2016. But it is true that in politics where there are winners, there must be losers and on election night, the clear loser was the Scottish Labour Party. The loyalty the Labour Party once enjoyed from areas like my inner city Glasgow community simply doesn’t exist anymore, and it would seem it doesn’t anywhere in Scotland. The SNP have managed to chip away at those who voted Labour because they wanted left-wing policies and the Scottish Conservatives in this election, started the process of winning over those who voted Labour because they wanted a strong champion for the United Kingdom.
Labour’s losses were inevitable after such a shockingly bad campaign; it was poorly funded and it had no clear message at all. Kezia Dugdale also simply was not as campaign savvy as Nicola and Ruth. But most importantly, many loyal Labour voters simply felt betrayed on multiple fronts. Kezia admitting she might vote for independence and the party allowing its MSPs to campaign for independence was the torpedo that truly sunk Labour. Most of Labour’s core voters are pro-UK and are proud of it and Labour’s shift away this gave many the confidence to change how they vote.
As a result, Labour drifted even further. In the constituencies where they held on, Dumbarton, East Lothian and Edinburgh Southern they did so because of strong individual candidates, but the Regional Lists showed Labour’s decimation. Many have asked, “What is the point of Scottish Labour?” and until Scottish Labour can answer that question convincingly, they are condemned to pointless opposition.
Finally, looking towards the future, a strong Conservative Opposition will prove incredibly effective.
In comparison to Labour’s opposition, the Conservatives have real ideas to put forward, real principles to defend and also have benches filled with real talent. We are less than a month into the new Parliament and the SNP haven’t had a rockier ride since 2011. On Named Persons, the Scottish Conservatives lead public opinion in opposing it while the SNP simply grasp at straws in its defence. On education, the Scottish Conservatives are leading the charge for a real debate on getting working class kids into universities, pushing for the restoration of college places and holding the SNP’s feet to the fire on education standards. There are also real ideas behind the Scottish Conservative’s opposition with ideas around how to make taxation more competitive, how to get rural Scotland moving, how to improve education and how to support job creation. This is opposition with a pragmatic purpose.
The Scottish Conservative benches are swelled with fresh talent from the likes of Adam Tomkins, one of the UK’s leading constitutional experts to Peter Chapman, someone with decades of experience in farming and rural affairs to Annie Wells, a working class woman from Springburn who only weeks before being elected was a manager in M&S. Not forgetting, of course, Ruth Davidson, the only leader in the Scottish Parliament with the temerity and skill to hold Nicola to account.
From the ideas being put forward to the talent on the front bench there is simply no comparison with Scottish Labour. Whatever your politics, Scotland’s politics is now healthier for having a vibrant and active main opposition party. Scotland’s politics changed on May 5th and I think it’s only just the start.
Kyle Thornton is the former Chairperson of the Scottish Conservatives' Glasgow Regional Campaign and a former candidate for the Glasgow Cathcart British Parliamentary seat.