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The Scottish Tories will pay the price for Boris Johnson’s crimes

Five years ago, Ruth Davidson rallied Unionists around the Conservatives. This time, Scottish voters are ready to shut the party out

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
3 May 2022, 12.00am

Douglas Ross is the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party

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Colin Fisher/Alamy Live News

Five years ago, Scotland’s local elections took place a month before the 2017 snap general election. It was one year since Ruth Davidson’s dark-money funded Conservatives had replaced Labour as the opposition at Holyrood, and 11 months on from the Brexit vote.

Independence supporters, renewed by Brexit, shot out to back the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose total vote rose from 500,000 in 2012 to 610,000. Afraid that the national mood was shifting, Unionists came out in droves to support Davidson’s supposedly moderate Conservatives, the biggest anti-independence party.

As overall turnout increased by 7%, the Tories’ vote more than doubled, to 408,000. This cancelled out the SNP surge and left Nicola Sturgeon’s party with the same 32.3% vote share it had received five years earlier.

Elsewhere, the Lib Dems failed to escape their northern enclaves, their historic voters either infuriated by the years in coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster or fracturing down the constitutional line.

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Scottish Labour, meanwhile, which had in previous years shooed its traditional leftist voter base away to the SNP and Greens, was rejected by the Jeremy Corbyn-hating centrists dads it had attempted to court. But the party’s bleeding was stemmed somewhat by young, radical Left voters – the likes of whom the Green Party had hoped to attract – who, inspired by the Corbyn project, rallied behind Labour.

The elections next week take place in a very different context.

The Tories’ downfall

Ruth Davidson has been replaced with Douglas Ross, the school bully who never grew up. With the contradictions of Brexit making her project untenable, Davidson’s attempts at open, liberal Unionism have been swapped for divide-and-rule Toryism and her charisma swapped for the wimpish bigotry of a ‘leader’ who’ll join in any pile-on going, but flinch if you look him in the eye.

Ross carries the charm of a debt collector and the grace of an over-promoted middle manager who fawns to the boss and picks on his subordinates. He styles himself as a leader but is, in reality, a cowardly sidekick to Boris Johnson’s project, running up and down the sidelines hoping for some attention. A potential first minister has been traded for a startled rodent.

After years of hounding Scottish Travellers, Ross – seeking to join the latest moral panic – has recently switched his target to trans people, promising Tory-run councils will exclude trans women from women’s toilets. He’s not clarified who precisely will be responsible for the genital checks. Other than the general delight he seems to take in peddling hatred, the aim is presumably to distract from his latest piece of simpering, where he called on Johnson to resign over partygate when he thought that would work out well for him, then backed down when it didn’t.

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Five years ago, the media and deep pockets of dark money managed to create a sense that Davidson’s Conservatives were a gentler flavour of Tory. But even Elon Musk’s billions wouldn’t be enough to persuade the people of Scotland that Ross is anything other than what he is.

Of course, loyal Tories will still show up for his party, but Ross isn’t the man to cover for Johnson’s literal crimes, and the swathe of Conservative councillors elected in 2017 can be expected to lose their seats. There hasn’t been a poll for a month, but the last one put Labour ahead of the Tories for the first time in Scotland for a wee while now, as Unionists slink back to the party.

Strangely, Labour has responded to the minor improvement in its fortunes by sidelining itself. Last week, party leader Anas Sarwar announced his councillor colleagues wouldn’t be taking part in any coalition administrations – an instruction that, if followed, would lead to them resigning from a number of regimes, including Edinburgh’s, where they rule alongside the SNP.

Four things are particularly strange about this policy. The first is that Scottish local elections are run on a proportional representation system, where it’s hard for any party to get a majority. There are only two local authorities where Labour is running enough candidates to get a majority.

Such a display of weakness is not wise in a party unfamiliar with the concept of loyalty to a leader

The second is that Sarwar’s centrism hardly seems designed to appeal to voters who want principled opposition. And the third is that local election administrations are among the few jobs available to ambitious Labour politicians in Scotland. Where once, ambitious young party members could hope for seats as MPs or MSPs, or even a place in government, now, without much hope of even becoming North Lanarkshire's transport convener, they’re better off leaving their party activism behind and slinking away into the private or third sectors.

The fourth is that Labour councillors will likely ignore their leader and do what deals they want, leaving Sarwar undermined and looking foolish. Such a display of weakness is not wise in a party unfamiliar with the concept of loyalty to a leader. He is effectively its tenth since the dawn of devolution.

Despite that, Labour will likely regain some ground from the Tories among Unionists and centrist dad-types. Yet my impression is that the new younger voters, whom Labour would recently have hoped would be attracted to the party by Corbyn, are surging towards the Greens.

The real story of the election, though, is likely to once again be the SNP

I have been a member of the Scottish Greens for 21 years now, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the party so well prepared for an election. When proportional representation was first introduced to local government in Scotland in 2007, the party had no councillors, and a decade ago it was standing candidates in only 86 of Scotland’s 340 wards – compared with 239 this time around. That’s about as many candidates as there were members when I joined.

Although the Greens have had more seats at Holyrood than the Lib Dems since 2016, they’ve always been a distant fifth party in the local elections, with only a smattering of representatives in Glasgow and Edinburgh – Scotland’s two biggest cities – and very few elsewhere. If the party can change this and gain footholds and local representatives across the country, it will likely be transformative – shifting the party from an endless reliance on the national winds being in its sails for Holyrood elections, to being able to build genuine bastions of support in specific local areas.

The real story of the election, though, is likely to once again be the SNP. It’s now 15 years since the party first won the Scottish parliament election, and while the enthusiasm of its base has perhaps waned, the size of its support hasn’t. The most recent poll put SNP on the exact same 33% that it got the last two times round, 11% clear of Labour, which is newly in second.

The reality is even more remarkable than that statistic. It was only in 2017 that the SNP took over the leadership of both Edinburgh and Glasgow city councils from Labour, a decade into its time in government. Five years on, that the party seems on track to repeat this feat is extraordinary.

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Outside the rural areas where Tories stand a chance, local authorities in most of Scotland will continue to be governed by some combination of the SNP and Labour, possibly with a new fleck of Green added in this time. With the constitutional question that dominates national politics sidelined for the local vote, the SNP and Labour end up looking pretty much the same – two centre-Leftish parties wanting to do nice things with limited powers, both perhaps not quite ready to challenge the way things work.

And for the vast majority of voters, who are basically social democrats, the election system discourages rivalry: we rank candidates in order of preference, meaning Labour, Green and SNP candidates all want the second votes of each other’s supporters.

If backers of these three parties do, indeed, keep ranking down their ballot papers, putting all three ahead of the Conservatives – if, as they say in Northern Ireland, people ‘vote till they boke’ – then it will be a grim election for the Scottish Tories, and everyone else can expect to celebrate.

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