An interesting footnote from the series of YouGov polls commissioned by the Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday has been the performance of the Scottish Conservatives. Or the lack thereof (despite my efforts to talk up a supposed revival).
While the Liberal Democrats’ decline has been dramatic and sudden, that of the Tories has been more incremental. In October 2010, YouGov had them sitting at 14% on the constituency vote, and at 15% on the regional vote; they are now polling at 11% and 12% respectively. If that holds true on 5 May, the Conservatives stand to lose both constituency and regional seats.
According to ScotlandVotes, they would end up with 14 seats, down 3 from 2007, holding Ayr and Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, gaining Eastwood and losing Galloway and West Dumfries and Edinburgh Pentlands to the SNP. However unlikely these predictions, there is no denying that the trend for the Tories is downwards.
No matter how much Annabel Goldie trumpets a common sense approach or how often the Tories like to tell us they have delivered for Scotland through a strategy of constructive opposition, the Scottish electorate ain’t buying it.
Even a standstill performance on 5 May must surely raise eyebrows and suggest that her time as party leader is up, with little in the way of legacy to bequeath.
During a time of growth and rebirth for the UK Conservatives under David Cameron’s leadership, Scotland has remained stubbornly resistant. Scottish Labour is playing the Tory fear card in this election because it still makes people pause for thought. Annabel Goldie has had six years as Scottish leader to detoxify the Conservative brand: not only has she failed to do so, she has not even attempted to begin the process. Her inactivity in this vital area has contributed to the ongoing decline in electoral fortunes.
Yet, there is a need and place for a progressive right of centre party whose ideas would find favour with a significant minority of the Scottish electorate. If the Tories could find a way to decouple the party they are now from the one led by Thatcher, they would reap the benefit. Unless or until they do so, they will find themselves increasingly at the margins of Scottish politics.
Recent difficulties with candidates and members suggest other deep-seated problems. They lost the top ranking Tory on the Glasgow list in some controversy at the start of this election campaign; they remain reliant on controversial figures for funding; worst of all, they risk losing one of their best Holyrood performers, Derek Brownlee, if they do not pick up South of Scotland list seats (which may, ironically, be a receding threat if they lose Galloway). Annabel claims she is only the parliamentary, not the party leader, and therefore, has no say in such matters.
It all adds up to a curious, kamikaze approach to leadership and internal party activity, brutally illuminated by the Sanderson review, which shows just how antiquated and shambolic the Tory party set up is in Scotland. The Scottish Conservatives are decades behind the SNP and Scottish Labour in terms of modern party structures and organisation. To be a truly effective electoral machine, with a diverse range of potential candidates for all elections and a broad membership base requires radical reform and a willingness to engage and include. One wonders why Annabel Goldie has not attempted to create this.
Despite having a coherent policy offering at this election, some of which if the electorate could be persuaded to listen, might find favour, the platform has been swamped by the personality. Operating like a mini-me version of the SNP’s promotion of Alex Salmond for First Minister, the Scottish Conservatives are trading on the personality of Annabel Goldie, buoyed as she herself points out, by poll ratings that place her as the nation’s second favourite and most recognised party leader.
But this is an inevitable consequence of being the second longest-serving party leader who has had several elections and one and a half terms in Parliament to gain vital televisual recognition. And as the only woman in the pack, she has an obvious advantage in the recognition stakes. The persona she has carved out for herself of the matronly auntie, chiding the “naughty boys” who lead the other parties is wearing thin. It might entertain and beguile the Scottish media, but the burd doubts it goes down well with voters, particularly other women.
Moreover, her cover was blown when she refused point-blank to distance herself from Bill Aitken, nor demote him as Justice spokesperson, allowing him to continue to represent the Tories in that role at early hustings and debates. His comments to the Sunday Herald on a series of rapes in Glasgow city centre caused a furore: here was a genuine issue deserving a robust response from the party’s leader; instead, we got silence. David Cameron would not have made the same mistake.
While the promotion of Alex Salmond might be construed as a strength in the SNP armoury (not least because he has a chance of being First Minister again), it must surely be seen as a weakness in the Scottish Conservatives election campaign strategy. A party which has become a one trick pony is in trouble.
No, Annabel can bluster all she likes by claiming that constitutional niceties mean a leadership contest cannot be held until 2012, but if the Scottish Conservatives are to begin the long, overdue process of modernisation, the sooner she goes the better. Under her leadership, the Scottish Tories are ailing and failing, becoming increasingly irrelevant and unattractive to voters. Without a new leader and an overhaul, they may find themselves reduced to single figures in MSPs at the next Holyrood election.