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Brian Monteith: Poor Scottish result augurs change

Monteith_brian Former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith is unimpressed with the Tories' performance in last Thursday's elections to Holyrood.

Now that the understandable distraction of the bourach that was the Holyrood election meltdown has subsided and the actual results can be assessed with some cold detachment rather than the emotion of the early morning battlefield, Scottish Conservatives have to accept it was in general terms a disastrous night, lightened only by one or two personal triumphs.

Here is a summary of what happened.

The Scottish people, tired and jaundiced with Blair’s Labour nationally and McConnell’s Lib Lab coalition in Scotland – voted for change. The result was that the coalition’s 67 seats (50 Labour and 17 Liberal Democrats) was reduced to 62 (46 Labour and 16 Liberal Democrats).  This was not as bleak a setback as was being anticipated by Labour a fortnight ago, for its net loss was only four seats when much worse had been feared. Nor was the SNP advance as dramatic as its cheerleaders had hoped.  The ten gains in individual constituencies was relatively muted, the difference being that the nationalists hoovered up so many of the second votes that they took ten more from the twelve minor party seats that departed the scene (six Trotskyists, five of the seven Greens and the sole Pensioner’s Party MSP).  The demise of the fringe parties not only resulted in the SNP being the largest with 47 seats; it also ensured that coalition building is more difficult with fewer options available for negotiating.

For the Conservatives there was the joy of Alex Fergusson holding Galloway with a substantial increase in his majority and John Lamont winning Roxburgh and Berwickshire, but that was pretty much it.  True, it has remained in third place, ahead of the Liberal Democrats, who had the poorest of campaigns, but only just (8,511 votes ahead out of 660,975 cast between them both in the constituencies). In seats such as Dumfries, Eastwood and Stirling – where straight Labour – Tory fights were expected to bring Conservative gains there were humiliating failures. Talk of removing the SNP’s Roseanna Cunningham from Perth was shown to be delusional after a 2.4% swing from the Tories to the SNP as Cunningham increased her majority.

The increased turnout nationally brought a small increase in the Conservative constituency vote but in percentage terms the party flatlined at 16.6% - exactly the same as in 2003.  As if this failure to advance at a time of Labour unpopularity was not bad enough the Conservative vote in the regional lists dropped below fourteen percent for the first time, falling from 15.5% to 13.9%, costing the party one list seat in the North East – giving MSP David Davidson an early bath.

On closer inspection there are some other aspects that should be deeply worrying to Tories trying to plan for the party’s recovery.

In Edinburgh, a city where four of the six Westminster seats used to be blue, David McLetchie held his seat with an increased majority, but his vote share was virtually static (+0.4%) and his improved lead was entirely due to the Labour vote migrating to the nationalists. In the five other seats the Tories fell back to third place (Edinburgh West -4.4%) or last (Leith -3.7%, East -2.3%, Central -0.8% and South +0.6%).  In other words there is no prospect in the foreseeable future of a Conservative revival in Edinburgh beyond the Pentlands seat.

Again, in Ayr John Scott improved his majority but his vote share did not shift (0.0%), while in Glasgow Cathcart (always a useful weather vane in the west) the Tories were pushed into fourth by an independent (-2.2%).

In Glasgow, MSP Bill Aitken’s 13,751 regional vote share dropped by 0.8% and only one Tory councillor was returned.  Compare this with the Greens who on 10,759 - a falling share of the regional vote (-1.9%) - managed to keep list MSP Patrick Harvie but the next day won three council seats.  These councillors could make the difference to the Greens overtaking the Conservatives in the regional list in 2011.  It’s not impossible; in Glasgow Kelvin, the only seat where the Greens stood a constituency candidate, they came third and the Tory was fifth!

How then Annabel Goldie can portray this situation as one to be proud of beggars belief.  If the Tories were in power in Downing Street and it was a mid term election a slight reverse would be understandable, but at a time when the Prime Minister and his heir apparent are at the peak of their unpopularity such a failure to advance the party’s representation is nothing short of appalling.

One should not be surprised about this, however, as the party’s strategy from the outset – to say it was not interested in power sharing with anyone – meant that it was not an agent for change that the public was looking for. Many unionists therefore held their noses and voted SNP to get Labour out.

The Scottish Conservatives have not yet come to terms with what a proportional voting system means when the votes are counted and the MSPs elected.  No one can win outright and if there is any ambition at all to deliver policies it requires deals to be struck and partnerships to be at least countenanced. This is doubly so when the local council elections are now using STV and the evidence starkly illustrates that many Tories who were placed third or even second in the three-councillor wards lost after the transfers had been redistributed.  The Tories in Edinburgh and Stirling – previously third and second largest with a chance of power are now the fourth largest groups with only an outside chance at best.

The electoral setback is also a personal failure for shadow Scottish Secretary David Mundell, who was telling everyone that he was running Murray Tosh’s campaign in Dumfries and that not only would he win but that three or four gains would be delivered.  Unfortunately the capable Tosh lost and the two best results of the night in the neighbouring seats had everything to do with the hard work of Fergusson and Lamont and nothing to do with Mundell.

Annabel Goldie is generally believed to have had a good campaign.  This should not surprise anyone that knows her.  She is a reasonable, if uninspiring speaker, but has a good line in self-deprecating humour that plays up to her image of the spinster aunt with a glint of devilment in her eye. The campaign – organised by John Reid (parachuted in by London) and Andy MacIver played to her mercurial strengths and limited itself to so called bread and butter issues of drugs and law and order.  Like McLetchie before her, she benefited from a positive halo effect, moving from third in Renfrewshire West to second (+4.2%). None of this should disguise the fact that her personal rapport with the media did not translate into any appeal to the public.  The Conservatives in Scotland have suffered a reverse when they could have expected to enjoy a significant advance. 

With such a poor base to build upon the prospects for the Holyrood election in 2011 looks bleak.  Goldie says she wants to lead the party into that election when she will be four years older facing other leaders that could practically be her children.  If it is thought that this would be an unwise proposition then the question has to be asked why wait to change the leadership? Should a new leader not have as much time as possible to remould the party, reinvent it and build up the popular support that is required?  With a snap election possible any time in the next year can David Cameron afford to wait for such a change, does he seriously think the current Tory party can hold or improve upon its one solitary seat with Goldie at the helm?

Some clear thinking has to be undertaken and some hard decisions made. For everyone’s benefit I suggest Annabel Goldie be convinced that standing for Presiding Officer on Wednesday is the cleanest and most satisfying outcome that she could proudly say was a result of her campaigning – and that this would then allow a new leader to step forward, amicably as a unifying force to begin the rebuilding of the new centre right party that Scotland so badly requires.

Related link from yesterday: Tory members favour a separate Scottish Party


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