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The Scottish Conservatives fight again to maximise their presence at Holyrood

By Jonathan Isaby

Scottish Conservative logo At the beginning of this week, the Scottish Conservatives launched their manifesto for the elections to the Scottish Parliament which are taking place on May 5th.

Unlike the Welsh Tories, the party north of the border has made minimal advances since the landslide defeat in 1997 when it was wiped out at Westminster. It has since only returned one MP at the 2001, 2005 and 2010 general elections.

In terms of the Scottish Parliament, at the 1999 and 2003 elections the Scottish Conservatives won 18 of the 129 seats, whereas in 2007, that tally had fallen to 17 - although it did by then include four of the 73 MSPs elected in constituencies on a First-Past-The-Post basis.

Despite that small representation (in fact reduced to 16 because Alex Fergusson - elected as a Conservative - became Presiding Officer) the leader of the Tory MSPs, Annabel Goldie, claims that her group over the past four years has been the most influential opposition party since the establishment of devolution.

This is primarily because for this term the SNP has run a minority administration under Alex Salmond's leadership, which has necessitated deals with other parties in the Parliament on a regular basis to get their business passed. (The SNP won 47 seats to Labour's 46 in 2007, with the Lib Dems on 16 and the Greens on two).

Annabel Goldie 2011 Goldie thus trumpets a number of achievements as being delivered by the Tories - 1,000 extra police officers; a four year Council Tax freeze; cuts in business rates for thousands of small businesses; a new drugs strategy; and a £60m town centre regeneration fund - and these are being repeated by spokesmen ad infinitum. Indeed, Goldie and David Cameron managed to mention most of these three times in last night's first Party Election Broadcast.

So it is against that backdrop that Scottish Tories are now telling voters up and down Scotland that there is a point in voting for them, even if they are not expected to lead an administration. They have proved that they are relevant, they say, and the more MSPs they have, the more influence they will wield (in a refrain we have historically been used to hearing from Lib Dems in the context of Westminster elections).

As for that all-important question of whether the party would formally work with another party in a coalition if the arithmetic made that a runner, all Goldie will say is that she will rule nothing in and she'll rule nothing out.  

And in a contest that is increasingly a presidential-style battle to become First Minister between the incumbent, Alex Salmond, and Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, Goldie is holding her own. As she said in a self-deprecating passage in her speech to the Scottish Tory conference in March:

"There's an old nag in the field who’s been round the course and who’s got form when it comes to taking on the boys."

Whilst the experienced Salmond as incumbent clearly starts with an advantage, Gray is struggling to make an impact and polling is showing that Goldie is beating him for second place when the public are invited to name their preferred choice for First Minister.  She has also been more adept a player on the campaign trail than her Labour rival, as evidenced by the ways in which they have handled anti-cuts protesters, as written up yesterday by Scottish TV's Jamie Livingstone.

Picture 3 So Goldie is presenting herself on the basis of "what you see is what you get" and is being up-front about how some of the policies she is proposing are not going to be universally popular. They are, however, necessary given the need for financial restraint (despite other parties making grand claims about everything they want to do without seeming to explain how they would afford them).

As such, the Scottish Conservative Manifesto states that free bus passes should begin at 65 (not 60); prescriptions would be charged at £5 for those of working age (rather than being free); there would be a public sector pay freeze until April 2013 for those earning more than £21,000; and they say that "free" university education is no longer tenable, so they are proposing a graduate contribution of up to £4,000 for each year of a student's studies. 

As to the policies being proposed, the key proposals fall into three areas:

Business, Taxation and Promoting the Private Sector

  • Create a £154 million Scottish Business Start Up Fund to support access to enterprise education and vocational training and provide grants and loans to help create new businesses.
  • Promote a Business Rates Reform Bill to ensure that the main business rate poundage can be no higher than in England; consolidate the discount already secured for tens of thousands of small firms; and extend the scope of the small business rates relief scheme over the life of the Parliament as public finances allow. 

Public Service Reform

  • Legislate to allow for the creation of free schools and give headteachers more power over their schools.
  • Allow pupils to leave school at 14 provided they engage in a monitored apprenticeship or a full-time vocational or technical training programme.
  • Increase health spending in line with inflation, create a cancer drugs fund and ensure NHS Boards have the freedom to commission voluntary and private sector care whilst removing the ban on entities other than GP partnerships providing primary care. 
  • Replace Police Boards with elected local Police Commissioners, oblige the police to publish very detailed local crime data statistics every month, re-introduce prison sentences of less than three months and offer tougher community sentences.
  • Referendums in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee on whether to have an elected Provost.

Helping families

  • Refuse to use the existing or future Scottish Parliament tax powers to increase income tax in the next Parliament or impose new taxes.
  • Freeze the Council Tax until at least 2013 and then give people the power to stop bills rising faster than inflation, whilst legislating to introduce a Pensioner Discount from 2013-14, of £200 per pensioner household. 
  • Give all parents a guaranteed level of health visitor support until their child reaches the age of five.
  • Retain the current entitlement of 12.5 hours nursery care per week, extending it to two year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds.

SCOTTISH-PARLIAMENT The nature of the electoral system, with its regional top-up lists to ensure seats are allocated more proportionately than under the First-Past-The-Post constituency contests alone, means that the variations in representation from one election to the next tend to be far less dramatic.

So the expectation north of the border is that the Conservative representation at Holyrood will, in all likelihood, only increase or decrease by up to two seats.

At the last election, seats were won as follows by the Scottish Tories:

  • Central Scotland - 1
  • Glasgow - 1
  • Highlands & Islands - 2
  • Lothians - 1 + 1 constituency (Edinburgh Pentlands)
  • Mid Scotland and Fife - 3
  • North East Scotland - 2
  • South of Scotland - 1 + 3 constituencies (Ayr, Galloway & Upper Nithsdale and Roxburgh & Berwickshire)
  • West of Scotland - 2

There have been extensive boundary changes since 2007 and Scottish elections expert David Denver has calculated notional results (available on the Press Association elections website) suggesting that on the new boundaries the Tories would have won six constituency seats four years ago.

However those are only notional. Moreover, because of the electoral system, unless a party is particularly increasing its voteshare, winning a constituency seat generally means winning one fewer top-up seat - thereby affecting the identity of the MSPs elected rather than the overall numbers.

Yet four weeks out from polling day and it is still difficult to make bold predictions. Will the third and fourth parties get squeezed at the expense of the big two? Will there be much tactical voting? Will people vote on the basis of the issues over which the Scottish Parliament has power or use the poll to judge the Coalition Government at Westminster? We'll know this time next month.

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