9 September 2011

On the political leprosy of the Scottish Tories...

Something bizarre happened this week. As I sat down to lunch in deepest Southron Oxford, the chomping colleague to my right uttered two words, previously unheard of in these parts: "Murdo Fraser". Such has been the surprising resonance of Darth Murdo's bold and brutal assessment that the Scottish Tories are political lepers, whose future political health depends on a thorough peeling. In response, a number of commentators have explained the Scottish Tory predicament by appealing to metaphors of atrophy, hopeless decay; their crumbling electoral fortunes owed to their crumbling electorate: greying, dying, staying at home.

What is to be done? Not having a digit on the fading pulse of the Tory membership, it is difficult to say what they are making of their leadership dust up, though if the hostile attitudes of Conservative voters to further devolution is anything to go by, Murdo may have a good deal of persuading to do. It must be a pretty miserable admission to make, to accept that your political outfit is basically jiggered. For those not keen on Darth Murdo's skepticism, vague hopes predicated on acquiring a shiny, "modern" leader whose televisual artisry will be the shammy-leather to wipe away all sour political memories, will likely appeal.  Meanwhile, my old chum Jackson Carlaw seems to be pitching himself as the antediluvian candidate, presumably counting on the tribal solidarity of his fellow Jurassics in the Tory membership, while Ruth Davidson is emerging as the new Conservative hope of modernisation uncluttered by change.

Recent election results tell their own tale about the rotting carcass of Scottish Toryism and its slow electoral putrefaction.  As I noted recently, the Tories actually did better in terms of percentage of the vote in the 2010 General Election than in 2011 for Holyrood. In 2010, Conservative candidates attracted 16.7% of votes across the country. In 2011, they managed only 13.9% and 12.4% in Holyrood constituency and regions respectively, a decrease on the 16.6% and 13.9% they achieved in 2007. Why the decline? Undoubtedly, there are several elements at work here, some concerned with perceptions of Toryism, others with the relative political fortunes of parties contesting elections in Scotland. While much of the recent commentary around the Scottish Tory leadership competition has focussed on the first aspect, I want to discuss the second. In particular, it seems to me that certain features of the 2011 election, and in particular Labour's particular susceptibility to what I've called political schadenfreude in that campaign, which contributed and contributed significantly to the outward appearance of Conservative decline. Let me explain.

Caud comfort though it might be, the Scottish Tories were at least able to snare three Holyrood constituencies in South Scotland in 2011, Jackson Carlaw's ambitions to represent Eastwood notably (and crushingly) excepted. Ayr was won by 1,113 votes; Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire by 5,334; while Galloway and West Dumfries maintained its woaden hue by a more modest 862 ballots. In all three, John Lamont, John Scott and Alex Fergusson's primary opponents were the SNP, who each saw off more or less handily.  Much they rejoiced I'm sure. The tale takes on a different complexion, however, when you look at how these three constituencies behaved when casting their second, regional list votes. Unfortunately, the data on regional votes by constituency are, to my knowledge, nowhere collected. However, a little digging about the relevant council websites soon reveals something quite surprising.  Despite preferring the Tories to the SNP in a direct runoff in all three seats, in all three the Conservatives were massively displaced by the Nationalists when it came to the regional vote. It is worth looking at these results in a little detail, as they have not generally been remarked upon, deluged by the pan-region allocation of seats.

Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire...

In Ettrick, 3,888 folk went a wandering when casting their regional preferences. Lamont's very decent constituency vote of 12,933 collapsing to only 9,045 Conservative votes. The slim 7,599 Paul Wheelhouse was able to attract in the constituency vaulted up to 10,009 for the SNP in the region, up 2410 votes on their performance in the constituency, and putting the Nationalist in poll position, some 964 regional votes ahead of the Tories. Similar (arguably starker) results were returned in the other two Conservative-voting Holyrood constituencies.

Galloway and West Dumfries...

The Tories' least confident win, but victory is victory. Former Presiding Officer and black-faced sheep fancier, Alex Fergusson, repelled Aileen McLeod of the SNP by 862 votes on the constituency ballot. On the regional vote in the constituency, Ettrick's story is repeated. 3,022 of Fergusson's votes went on their merry way, the Tories polling 8,049 regional votes. Their competitors, the SNP, easily o'erleaped them in regional preferences, adding 1,261 votes to those McLeod acquired in the constituencies. Again, in a Tory constituency, the SNP bested the blues (their nearest competitor) by a stonking 3,421 votes.


Perhaps the most extreme example of a tendency identifiable across the three, John Scott attracted 12,997 constituency votes in Ayr, a 1,113 vote win over the SNP. Turning to their regional ballot papers, however, the folk of Ayr gave the Tories only 8,539 votes, a drop of 4,458 on their constituency figures. Again, the SNP proved the beneficiaries of the Tory regional slump, Chic Brodie's 11,884 constituency votes being followed by 14,377 for the Nationalists, an increase of 2,493. In Ayr, the SNP were a huge 5,838 regional votes ahead of their nearest competitor, the Tories.


How are we to make sense of this? Because we are now all familiar with the scale of the Nationalist victory, there is a great temptation to see the conclusion as forgone, Gray's immolation inevitable, Labour's drubbing anticipated.  As those of us who were writing about and reading the public polling and trying to anticipate the results will appreciate, this isn't a persuasive account of the predicament of a Scottish voter just before polling day. Lest we forget, only a month or two before the ballot boxes went scudding across the country, Labour were comfortably ahead, the Nationalists drooping along a sorry second. Even when these fortunes were reversed, nobody I nattered with about the election felt confident about the outcome.

Consider the situation of a peaty devotee, who read each and every YouGov poll I discussed here up to the final eve of election poll.  On the 4th of May, she would have found that the SNP enjoyed a seven per cent lead over Labour in constituency voting intentions, and only three per cent on the regional vote. While encouraging for a Nationalist, a narrow Labour victory or another 2007-style razor-edged result either way seemed perfectly plausible outcomes. On these figures, a Nationalist majority seemed significantly less so. As it happened, perhaps the crucial miscalculation of poll readers was the assumption that whatever the national polls might be suggesting, the red West of Scotland would defy them. Their majorities might shrink, but even in the face of polling which suggested that seats in Glasgow might be shading the SNP's way, credulity and internalised ideas of Labour perpetual hegemony prevented us from seeing clearly.  After the election, the Spectator vividly illustrated shifting Scottish opinion in the following chart. Starting in September 2010, the graph charts the (still astonishing) reversals of the campaign, and Labour's violent April collapse, and continuing plunge thereafter.

The crucial point is that uncertainty about the result was a defining feature of the last Holyrood election, right up to polling day. At the very end of March, as Labour continued to lead and before their April slippage, I argued that Labour's peril in the Holyrood election was political schadenfreude:

"Schadenfreude is a favoured loanword for good reasons. Glee in the misfortune of others can be exceedingly ugly. However there are some people - and I'd argue - some movements, who positively invite general satisfaction when their best laid plans unravel and fray disastrously. It has stuck me for a good while that the Labour Party in the 2011 Holyrood election are potentially, potentially, a very good candidate for the satisfactions of political schadenfreude. Like the fictional swot sketched in my little tale, the party is in poll position for no discernible good reason, has not and is not putting in the running to run to triumph. Iain Gray may declaim that he's "serious, very serious" all he likes, but he has presided over a relentlessly frivolous, vacuous opposition in Holyrood, exemplified by the late magpie approach to policy development. Labour's "policy blitz" was to crack open the SNP armoury and kit themselves out in the same gear."

Despite April's shifts, their panic late on in the campaign, and the narrowness suggested by the last polls in its final days, at no point did it seem absolutely clear to an informed voter, acquainted with the potential reverses of Fortuna, that Labour would lose, and lose by such a significant margin.  Labour experienced a political calamity that was not foreseen. Indeed, you might well argue that the scale of the calamity was precisely owed to the extent to which it was unforeseen. If my peaty devotee was a Tory sympathiser, the return of Labour government just couldn't be ruled out on May the 5th. The Alex Salmond for First Minister shtick explicitly appealed to these anti-Labour voters. While it certainly doesn't redound to the might, credit or allure of the Scottish Tories that they were unable to hold onto their regional voters, much of the moment on this score can, I think plausibly, be ascribed to Scottish Labour's combination of superficial strength - the risk of Iain Gray in Bute House - and their fundamental weakness. While it is no balm for their political leprosy, and little basis to feel encouraged that a revival in Scotch Toryism is possible, never-mind imminent - Conservative failures in 2011 have to be understood relative to their political competitors, and the fight to be a party of government (which realistically, the Tories were never involved in, anyway). While the most obvious victim of the Scottish electorate's brutal schadenfreude was Scottish Labour, the Tories owe it to Labour's perverse superficial hardiness that they too awoke that May morning, excoriated, and raw.


  1. I began to see the SNP were going to win the election in very early January.

    The voters had seen voting Labour had produced a coalition that was both dogmatic and deaf.

    Labour as a political party were really just Tories in a ll but name and thus did not offer a credible alternative or actual opposition.

    Meanwhile, Labour in Scotland had spent 4 years opposing for the sake of everything the SNP proposed and had done this in the most transparently insulting of ways (e.g. The Alcohol Council - their own chosen people pretending to be an official sort of organisation).

    By late December, despite the polls, Labour generall had accomplished nothing in opposition in Westminster and had looked rather arrogant in their imagining people were just going to accept their opposing everything - even things they asked the SNP to do. Their sense of natural hegemony blinded them (and following everything they say to each other on the net, still doed - bless them for that).

    I was speaking with a friend who was surprised (early January) that I held this view. It was clear to me as Isaid to him: the Labour party is full of second rate politicians who arrogantly believe (following the glow of the previous Westminster victory) that they are going to win. It was clear to me they had no actual credible policies and the one policy they had of perhaps doubling or tripling the council tax was political suicide.

    My VERY VERY BIG disappointment (and it still is) was someone in Labour - I suspect someone from Westminster - told them your policies are very unattractive and will discourage voters.

    Even the Labour party in Scotland saw this and because they didn't have any policies they decided to tak ethe SNPO's policies (badly purloined but purloined nonetheless). Had they not taken all the SNP policies they were, in my view, facing electoral extinction.

    As it was the voters had a look at this revised version of Scottish Labour, considered how awful they truly are and said, 'No way'.

    We were treated to the comedy of Labour's Monty Python election (Subway, stolen SNP policies, reversal of almost all their positions, the knife crime financing farce, the terrible TV performances of Gray-Baker-Kerr - terrible because their ideas were off the cuff, the 'fag-packet' manifesto where Labour 'pledged' to get rid of 'failed Labour', the 2nd or 3rd campaign relaunch).

    Had they not adopted SNP positions then we would have been looking at a very different representation of Labour in the Scottish parliament. That is my deep regret that they picked up on just how stupid they were.

    I knew as soon as the voters would reject Labour as they began to analyse, listen to and think about the choices put before them : a smart vibrant effective SNP or a lazy, thoughtless, amateur and hegemonic Labour.

  2. Fascinating stuff

    'In 2010, Conservative candidates attracted 16.7% of votes across the country.'

    True - and the SNP got just about 3% more!

    The real story of Scottish politics just now is not just the volatility but the numbing apathy. 63% turnout Westminster; 50% turnout for Holyrood,

    In my own constituency. the turnout was in the late 30s (38% I think). One seat that intrigues (rather than just depresses) me is the turnout in Salmond's own seat. - 48% stayed home. Why?

  3. As i have said in other blogs - and quite possibly this one, it's not the Brand, it's the message. You only had to watch Fraser and Forsyth argue it out on newsnight to see how utterly out of touch the Scottish conservatives have become. Fraser thinks the name needs to change, and Forsyth thinks they need to keep banging the same old drum but a bit more loudly than before.

    It didn't take long for 1955 result to rear it's head but of course both men chose not to talk about how they were never able to build on it, or hold on to that majority position as it slowly slipped through their fingers.

    For conservatives to recover, they really need to put to rest their disquiet over devolution, and they also need to stop dragging that fly blown corpse of Thatcherism around with them, expecting us to give it a big sloppy kiss. That's not going to happen. They also need to stand on their own in Westminster and not take the tory whip - this is also not likely to happen. They need to declare to the Scottish people that they have come to bury Thatcherism not praise it which is not very likely at all. To completely detoxify the party would take a fundamental shift in ideology, and I don't think they have that in them. Too prideful, too resentful of devolution, angry incomprehension at their defeats at the hands of the Scottish electorate. Unwilling to admit that they are the architects of their own misfortunes. In other words too much baggage for any hope of real change.

    The polling numbers are also deceptive. True they had 16.7% and the SNP only 3% more, but 16.7% Tory goodness is spread too thin over Scotland to dominate anyone area completely. So it's not just voting intentions but geography they need to take into account.

    As for Labour - they were disgraceful in opposition, largely behaving like spoiled children having a tantrum. They richly deserved the drubbing they got from the Scottish electorate.

    In closing I would like to add something to the whole apathy debate. A lot of people stayed at home, and many are asking why.
    But lest we forget, we saw the most shameful and criminal behaviour from politicians during the expenses scandal. I know I was struck with a deep sense of loathing and disgust at their antics, and yes it made me stay at home during the 2010 election - and I did have to force myself to vote for the Scottish parliament. I can't be the only one who feels that way. We also have consider the fact that they as a class seem hell bent on relinquishing the levers of power and putting into the hands of private enterprise. Which is why they look so helpless when energy bills keep rising and food bills are going through the roof. Who would vote for someone who can only wring their hands while suggesting perhaps you should switch provider/move to a cheaper area/eat less perhaps?

  4. Minor pedantic peeve: it's 'pole position', not 'poll position', dammit!

  5. Really thoughtful and interesting article LPW, you have explored this matter in a very insightful way.

  6. Am I right in thinking that the steady decline in Tory fortunes was followed by a steady increase in SNP fortunes, and that the areas which were once Tory strongholds are now largely SNP strongholds?

  7. Anon - 10/09/2011 said: Am I right in thinking that the steady decline in Tory fortunes was followed by a steady increase in SNP fortunes, and that the areas which were once Tory strongholds are now largely SNP strongholds? -

    I think that would be a fair assessment. As the party was increasingly seen as not being very "Scottish" and unable to reconnect with the larger electorate after 97, it seems these people switched to a party that was deemed more capable. But you also have to consider boundary changes impacting on their core vote, spreading them out as it were, so they don't dominate any area effectively as they once did. The PR system used in the Scottish parliament is what keeps them going I think. Without it, I suspect a decision to break away from Westminster would have come much sooner. I also suspect they would have all but withered on the vine to morph into a fruit & nut party like UKIP.

  8. Stevie,

    You must have a touch of the Brahan Seer! I'd go along with much of what you say about the pre-election Labour performance, and you'll find almost nobody, even in their party, who defends the 2011 campaign as much less than a calamity. For all that, I was certainly more pessimistic than yourself - and a thoroughly depressing it was too, given how naff prospect of a Scottish Labour government was.


    Quite so. Shortly after the 2010 election, BBC Scotland put together a show entitled something like - I paraphrase from memory - Why does nobody in Scotland vote Tory? Empirically, the question is clearly rubbish, particularly given the relative nearness of the Conservatives to the SNP in the 2010 election.

    James Morton,

    To pick out one of your points, geography is interesting - and as you say, a 17% spread of the vote across a country does you no good at all, without delving deep and digging in to constituencies. Instead of running the pretense of a national campaign, the Tories might to better spending all their cash on a couple of seats and give up on all the others. It could only improve on their mighty store of one MP. It often occurred to me that the Scottish Greens might consider something similar - try to generate themselves a geographically located "core", rather than wafting about the country, getting bugger all support, just barely limping along.


    Guilty as charged! With all of the polls in mind recently, I seem to have become thoroughly colonised...

    Anonymous 10/09/11,

    It rather depends whether we're talking about Westminster, or Holyrood, or both - and how far back in time you are willing to go. Although constituency boundaries have changed, a quick glance over the electoral maps since the late 1970s are of interest here.

    UK General Election February 1974

    UK General Election October 1974

    UK General Election 1979

    UK General Election 1983

    UK General Election 1987

    UK General Election 1992

    UK General Election 1997

    And post devolution...

    Scottish Parliament constituencies 1999

    Scottish Parliament constituencies 2003

    Scottish Parliament constituencies 2007

    Scottish Parliament constituencies 2011

  9. LPW

    If you start in the mid 50s when the Tories were at the strongest and look which areas they held on to the longest, those areas went on to become SNP strongholds.

    There's no great mystery where the Tory vote in Scotland went, it went to the SNP.

  10. Edwin - I can't find the per-seat turnouts anywhere, but reason suggests that turnout would be lower in seats like Salmond's than in marginals.