The Scottish Conservatives: Still Swimming Against The Tide?

Scottish Conservatives are due to meet in Aberdeen this weekend against the backdrop of sustained electoral success after having spent nearly twenty years in the doldrums. As a result, the party is now firmly ensconced as Scotland’s principal opposition party. However, it now faces the challenge of whether it can build on that progress, and begin to look as though it could pose a credible threat to the SNP’s dominance of the country’s political life.

In some respects, it looks as though the party should be capable of making further progress. It has a leader, Ruth Davidson, who remains remarkably popular, with well over two-fifths of voters reckoning she is doing her job well. Meanwhile, the party is closely identified with the argument that Scotland should remain part of the UK, a position with which a majority of Scots agree. A popular leader representing a popular cause ought to be a recipe for electoral success.

Yet, in truth, in many respects the Scottish Conservatives still look like a party that is determined to swim against the tide of public opinion north of the border. For on both of the key issues with which Scotland is grappling most immediately – Brexit and tax – the party seems to be at risk of appealing primarily to those who hold the minority view.

On Brexit, Ruth Davidson herself was, of course, a prominent campaigner for Remain and is seemingly still keen on a relatively ‘soft’ Brexit. But that does not mean that her party has been particularly successful at winning over Remain voters. Far from it. On average across the three most recent polls of vote intention in Scotland (conducted by Panelbase, Survation and YouGov), support for the party has been twice as high (40%) amongst the minority of Scots who voted Leave than it was amongst the majority that voted Remain (20%). Ms Davidson’s personal position on Brexit is, it seems, much less influential in determining the character of her party’s appeal than the perceived hard Brexit stance of the UK government.

The party also appears to be appealing disproportionately to those who back the minority view on the aspect of the Brexit debate that most immediately affects Scotland. That is, whether responsibility for EU competences in otherwise devolved areas should now simply and fully be transferred to Holyrood, as the Scottish Government argues, or some responsibility for co-ordinating policy across the UK now rest with the UK government? On this debate, public opinion seems inclined to back the Scottish Government’s position. For example, according to a poll conducted by Survation for the campaigning organisation, 38 Degrees, as many as 62% believe that, after Brexit, the Scottish Parliament should have responsibility for food, farming, fishing and the environment, while only 25% believe that the UK government should have control, a finding that echoes research recently conducted by ScotCen. Yet it is the minority view that prevails amongst Conservative supporters. According to the same poll, just over half (51%) of those who voted Conservative in last year’s general election think the UK government should have control over these areas of policy, while only one in three (33%) think that the Scottish Parliament should.

Still, when it comes to the question of how to use the Scottish Parliament’s recently acquired responsibility for income tax north of the border, one might anticipate that the Conservatives were on firmer ground in arguing that people in Scotland should not have to pay more income tax than their counterparts in England and Wales. Shortly before the last Holyrood election, both Ipsos MORI and Panelbase found strong support in favour of the proposition that the rate of income tax in Scotland should be the same as that in England – in Panelbase’s case no less than 69% said that they agreed that, ‘People in Scotland should not have to pay more income tax than people in England’, while only 9% said that they disagreed.

However, when at around the same time YouGov presented its respondents with an explanation of how the Scottish Parliament had initially used its powers to set a lower threshold for the 40p rate and then asked whether they supported or opposed ‘Scotland having different tax bands to those in England and Wales’. As many as 48% said that they were in favour while only 36% indicated that they were opposed. One possible explanation for this rather different finding is that the introduction to the question might have cued people into thinking that any difference in tax bands would most likely affect better off voters, a relatively popular target for higher taxation. (A YouGov poll last October found that while 70% supported increasing the top 45p rate of tax and 57% said the same about the 40p rate, both of which are only paid by better off taxpayers, rather more (45%) stated that they opposed increasing the 20p rate than indicated that they backed it (39%)). It was thus probably judicious of the Finance Secretary, Derek MacKay, to put forward a Budget that means that those earning less than £26K are left paying slightly less than those in the same position south of the border, while only those earning above that figure will have to pay more. In any event when, most recently, YouGov asked respondents whether they supported or opposed these departures from the tax regime in the rest of the UK, twice as many (54%) said they were in favour as stated that they were opposed (27%).

Yet, once again, the picture amongst Conservative supporters is very different. Only around a quarter (24%) of them said that they supported the proposals, while nearly two-thirds (64%) indicated that they were opposed. So here too, it seems that the party is at risk of fishing for votes in what could prove to be rather shallow water.

In any event, there are certainly signs that the Scots Tory revival may have come to a halt. The last four polls of voting intentions for a UK general election put the party on average on 24%; not only is this well down on the 29% that the party secured in June of last year, but also the 27% average rating that the party registered in the polls during the course of the election campaign. This apparent slight fallback is somewhat camouflaged by the fact that, at 25%, the party’s average standing in polls of the Holyrood constituency vote is still higher than the 22% it secured in the ballot boxes in May 2016, thereby giving an impression of continued progress that is potentially misleading.

Meanwhile, Labour, who twelve months ago were deep in the doldrums, have enjoyed something of a revival. As a result, the Conservatives now find that their recently acquired mantle as Scotland’s principal opposition party is already under challenge. Labour’s average rating in recent polls of Holyrood voting intentions (25%) now equals that of the Tories, while, at 28%, Labour has consistently been ahead of the Conservatives in recent polls of Westminster vote intentions. True, the Conservative party is still the single most popular choice amongst those who voted No in the 2014 referendum, but even amongst this group it still only commands the support of only just over two-fifths (42%) of those for whom the party might be expected to have most appeal. If they are to widen their appeal amongst Scotland’s unionist majority, the Conservatives may well need to find a way of appealing to the majority on other issues too.

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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.