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Expert comment: Are we seeing a Conservative revival in Scotland?

Head of Social Work Professor Michael Lavalette reflects on the outcome of last week’s local election.

The election results on Thursday were bad for the left, but some of the assertions in the press need unpicking.

One of the dominant claims was that May's Tories were driving deep into Labour territory. One of the examples used is Scotland where Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative party, is being credited with overseeing a Tory revival. But is this accurate?

The Tories took 23 per cent of the vote in Scotland last week. Interestingly, this great victory for Ruth Davidson stands in contrast to the “disastrous” 28 per cent achieved by Corbyn's Labour across Britain. But let's look at the Tory result in the longer view. 

The Unionist Party (as it then called itself) regularly took between 40 and 50 per cent of the votes in the inter-war period in Scotland. In the landslide election of 1945, Scotland was the only place where Labour did not sweep the boards! As late as 1955 the Tories took 50.1 per cent of the Scottish vote.  

The Tories only really started to lose significant support in Scotland when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. The Tories got 28 per cent of the vote in Scotland at the General Election of 1983 and 24 per cent in 1987. So today, Davidson's “Tory revival” claim is based on a lower percentage vote than Thatcher got!

The “revival” claim is based on the fact the Conservatives took 276 councillors, their best return for years. Some of these councillors were elected in working class areas and this has fuelled the revivalist fervour. Two areas in particular featured in the press: Ferguslie and Calton.

There is no Ferguslie constituency. Ferguslie Park is a large, impoverished working class estate in Paisley. It is part of the Paisley Northwest constituency. Calton is in the East End of Glasgow and is one of the poorest areas in Britain. What happened in these constituencies?

The first thing to remember is that local council elections in Scotland use Proportional Representation. In Paisley Northwest (which includes Ferguslie Park), the Tories got the fourth seat on 13 per cent of the vote (at the 10th stage, i.e. The 10 redistribution of votes under the PR system). 

In Calton in the East End of Glasgow the Tories got a councillor on 11 per cent of the vote. Overall, the turnout in Glasgow was 39 per cent. Of those who voted the SNP won 41 per cent, Labour 30 per cent, Conservatives 15 per cent, Greens 9 per cent and others 5 per cent.

The fact the Tories got a councillor in Calton and Paisley Northwest, is being held up as 'proof' they are taking significant working class votes. But 13 per cent and 11 per cent are hardly earth- shattering votes and 15 per cent across the whole of Glasgow doesn't really suggest a Tory revival!

But there are two things to note from the elections in Scotland;

1. The hardening of the unionist (British nationalist) vote around the Tories, who stand as the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland. Scotland is increasingly divided over the question of Independence, with the SNP on one side and the Tories trying to manoeuvre themselves as the pro-Union alternative. It is astonishing to see the Tories pick up seats in parts of Paisley and the East End of Glasgow - some of the poorest areas of Britain - but working class Unionism remains strong in parts of the West of Scotland. 

The Orange Order have announced that they had members and supporters returned for both the Tories and Labour on Thursday. They claim they have more elected members and supporters than at anytime in the last 20 years. The organisation has praised Davidson's anti-independence stance and vowed to use their influence to 'aggressively' assert the case for the Union. 

The Tories in Scotland are playing a very dangerous game and flirting with some very divisive forces.

2. The collapse of Labour - the blow back from their disastrous decision to lead Better Together in the Indy Ref. was a tactical blunder of such magnitude that they are struggling to recover. And this, of course, pre-dates Corbyn, in fact it is the legacy of Blairism in Scotland. 

Published on 20/03/2018