Have Scots Tories Set Their Sights Too High?

Scottish Tories, who gather together this Friday in Edinburgh have probably not come together in such an optimistic mood for a long time. In recent weeks they have felt able to aim high, suggesting they could overtake Labour in May’s Scottish Parliament election (something the party has not managed to do north of the border since the 1959 general election). If it were to manage that feat the party leader, Ruth Davidson, would be the principal opposition leader at Holyrood.

This talk has not all been hot air, or simply the product one exceptional but atypical poll. True, only one poll, from YouGov, has as much as put the Conservatives neck and neck with Labour. Nevertheless the party has made discernible if unspectacular progress. Last September, when no less than six polls were conducted to mark the first anniversary of the referendum, the party was being credited on average with 14% of the constituency vote in Holyrood vote intentions. In contrast, when the same six polling companies polled again in January or early February this year, the party’s average share stood at 17%.

Meanwhile, even though already dismally low, over the same period Labour’s average share of the vote slipped from 22%to 20%. So while the Conservatives may not have caught Labour up, they were now reckoned on average to be no more than three points behind.

Not that a 17% share could necessarily be regarded as evidence that Scots Tories were finally emerging from the depths to which they first descended in the 1997 UK general election. It is, after all, no more than the share of the vote they obtained on that inauspicious occasion when it lost all of its Scottish MPs. Indeed, it is no more than the 17% they won in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, hitherto the party’s best performance in a devolved contest. In short, while not wholly unrealistic, the party’s aspiration to overtake Labour said more about the weakness of their opponents’ position than it did about the strength of their own.

However, the latest Scottish Parliament election polls, one from Survation published in Tuesday’s Daily Mail and one from TNS BMRB released the same day, suggest that achieving their ambition to overtake Labour may perhaps be more difficult than the Tories have appreciated. The more disappointing news for them came from TNS BMRB, who after reporting a five point increase in the party’s support to 17% in January now say that it has slipped almost all the way back to 13%.   Meanwhile, although Survation suggest that the party’s support on the constituency ballot is holding steady at 16%, its tally on the list vote (on which the party is primarily reliant for winning Holyrood seats) has slipped back a point for the second time in a row and now stands at 14%.

We should, of course, not make too much of small movements in individual polls. However at minimum these two polls suggest that the slow but steady progress that the party appeared to be making in the autumn has at best come at halt, when to achieve its ambition to overtake Labour the party needs to advance yet further.

Meanwhile, it is not clear that focusing on that ambition is necessarily a particularly effective way of wining over voters. When Survation (in their poll for the Daily Mail) asked their respondents whether the prospect that the Conservatives might come second made it more or less likely that they would vote for the party, just 12% said they would be more likely to do so, while 35% said they would be less likely’. Doubtless many of those giving the latter response were simply registering the fact that they would not vote for the party under any circumstances. Even so, perhaps talk of overtaking Labour is best left to discrete discussions in the watering holes of EH1 rather than used as a clarion call to voters on the campaign trail.

Following remarks by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, that supporting Labour is not necessarily incompatible with backing independence, an allied Tory tactic in recent weeks has been to suggest that the party is now the only one that is clearly opposed to independence – and thus is the natural home for that half of the Scottish population that opposes independence (a proportion confirmed by this week’s Survation poll). Certainly very few (less than one in ten) of those who say they will vote Conservative in May declare they voted Yes in the independence referendum.

But while Ruth Davidson enjoys the luxury of unity in her electoral ranks on the independence question, she now faces, thanks to her UK leader’s decision to embark on a hasty EU referendum campaign, the task of keeping together a seriously divided body of voters on the issue of Britain’s place in Europe. This week’s Survation poll confirmed that nearly two-thirds of all Scots seem set on voting for Remain while only just over one-third wish to Leave. However, the position amongst Conservative supporters is very different. According to Survation, 47% of Tory voters back Remain, 53% Leave, figures not very different from those to be found in other recent polls.

With Ms Davidson herself (in contrast to her counterparts in May’s election in London and in Wales) advocating a vote for Remain there must be a concern that some Conservative supporters who wish to Leave the EU will opt to vote for UKIP in the charged atmosphere surrounding Britain’s membership of the EU that has now been created. Not that most polls suggest that UKIP have much chance of making a breakthrough into Holyrood. True, Survation’s poll this week put UKIP on 6% of the list vote, a tally that would be enough for the party to secure its first MSPs. But Survation have consistently credited UKIP with a higher share of the vote than has any other polling organisation, including not least TNS who this week actually put the anti-EU party on 0! As we have written before the discrepancy may well reflect the wording used by Survation to ascertain how people will vote on the list ballot, a wording that would seem to be at risk of collecting some voters’ second preferences. Even so, we should not be surprised if Ms Davidson decides not to ‘bang on about Europe’ in the coming weeks.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.