Will Scottish Conservatives fight next year's Council elections?
Yesterday members of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party attended a special conference in Perth to approve the party’s new constitution.
This new constitution came about as a result of the Sanderson Commission which was set-up by the party chairman in Scotland after the 2010 general election result when (again) the Conservatives returned only one MP in Scotland despite running a very high profile and well-resourced campaign.
The Commission was to review the structures, function and operational activity of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and to recommend any changes that would strengthen the party as a modern, effective, political campaigning entity in Scotland. Its recently published report can be viewed here.
Murdo Fraser, who has launched his campaign for party leader, has proposed creating a new centre right party which will not be called the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. I attended his launch and was very interested to hear about this radical proposal. Murdo should be applauded for this – it is creating debate and interest in the party and leadership contest because what Murdo is proposing is completely different to the other candidates.
But it isn’t a new idea. It has been discussed by members, the media and the party leadership before (Conservative Home has also covered it). In fact the Sanderson Commission examined both proposals but two of the recommendations in the report are that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party should remain part of the UK Conservative Party and that there is no requirement to change the party’s name.
However until 1965 the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party was exactly the opposite of what it is today – it was called the Unionist Party and separate from the Conservatives. The relationship was roughly similar to that currently between the German CDU and the Bavarian CSU. It also experienced some of its greatest successes as the Unionist Party.
Historically, the party also used to fight municipal elections as the Progressives or Moderates and in Glasgow the Progressives were successful up until the mid to late 1970s.
I’m the only Conservative councillor in Glasgow (the last time we had more than one in Glasgow was in 1995) and I was delighted to hear from Murdo that as part of his plans he is proposing to create a more local party in terms of the way it deals with councillors. Currently we have over 140 councillors in Scotland and are in coalition in many local authorities. Murdo believes councillors should be given more power and responsibility – in other words enhance the role of councillors because the new party must be built from the grassroots up.
Next year on 3 May we have local elections in Scotland so if Murdo wins councillors could be fighting those elections under a different name. Some colleagues I have spoken to have suggested already we adopt Scottish Progressive Party while other names include the Scottish Reform Party, Scottish Democrat Party and Scottish Freedom Party. What we call ourselves will I’m sure be a lively debate!
But there should be more to a new party than a new name. The new party should also be distinct from the Conservatives in terms of policy. Murdo has already highlighted differences particularly on fishing (he advocates withdrawal from the Common Fisheries Policy) and on defence (he supports the retention of air bases in Scotland). I think he is also right to talk about devolving power from Edinburgh to local government.
In addition to new policy, Murdo believes the new party has to be positive about devolution and embrace the Scottish Parliament and even support more fiscal powers. Linked with this, I think Murdo was correct to point out that centre right parties in Europe are identified as the patriotic party. And there are opportunities to attract Scottish nationalist right wing voters. A recent poll showed nearly 40% of SNP voters don't back independence. However, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party has lost the ability to be identified with the Scottish national interest. This has to change in order to attract these voters and others.
So it’s certainly an exciting time to be involved with the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and who knows if Murdo is elected local council candidates in Scotland may be the first to campaign under the new name – and I do hope it benefits the party electorally and in Glasgow I have some colleagues in 2012!
It should be an interesting contest, two other candidates have so far declared: Jackson Carlaw and Ruth Davidson. Both are good candidates and have their own qualities. There is also the small matter of it being a preferential voting system so those 2nd and 3rd preference votes matter! Hustings will be held throughout October (including one at the national party conference in Manchester which I am sure will attract interest) and the result will be announced on 4 November.