An analysis of what is going on across the border, from Chris Bambery
A Tory revival in Scotland! Before the battle has even seriously begun in this general election the media on both sides of the border are running stories about the Lazarus style revival of the Scottish Tories. Analysing polling figures in the Sunday Times, John Curtice, billed as the UK’s leading psephologist, suggested 12 Tory MPS could be elected in Scotland, and not one Labour one.
Remember, in 2015 the Scottish National Party won 56 out of 59 Westminster seats, with Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems taking just one each.
Regarding Tories, the hackneyed joke is that there are more Giant Pandas in Scotland than there are Tory MPs (there are two of the former in Edinburgh Zoo if you are asking). The idea that the Tories could resurrect themselves to win 12 seats was unthinkable. But then again it was not so long ago that Labour regarded swathes of Scottish Westminster constituencies as theirs by divine right.
The supposed Tory revival has been much heralded, and the media credits it to the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson. In last year’s Scottish elections she won the Edinburgh Central constituency from the SNP and saw the number of Tory MSPs double.
Much of this success was attributed to her ability to re-position her party away from its elder relative down south, making it seem less toxic. There was even speculation she might join the UK Cabinet. Underlying that was another reason for her, relative, success in that she portrayed herself and the party as the most effective defenders of the unity of the United Kingdom, in contrast to hapless Scottish Labour (to whom we will return).
Davidson could get away with distancing herself from Thatcher’s legacy under David Cameron, who after all had done something similar in securing his election as Tory leader and in scraping into Downing Street in coalition in 2010 and then with an overall majority in 2015 (earning the hatred of many of his back benchers, who mocked him and George Osborne as Notting Hill trendies).
But Theresa May has shifted the Tory Party away from Cameron’s, relative, social liberalism. Firstly, she and her Scottish colleagues backed May fully over the Rape Clause, whereby women claiming tax credits for a third child conceived as a consequence of non-consensual sex have to apply for an exemption from the new two-child cap. Critics, of which there are many, argue this stigmatised rape victims further. It is a nasty rule, and Davidson’s championing of it was loud and obvious.
Over Brexit she has gone along with the “Brexit means Brexit” mantra of the May government in London, and has failed to address the fact Scotland voted to Remain; going along with Hard Brexit.
In the ongoing council elections, voting on 4 May, she has chosen to concentrate her party’s campaign on opposition to any second referendum on Scottish independence if Hard Brexit goes through. Once more portraying her and her party as the only serious Unionist force. But in the local elections what will count is the services council’s provide, which are under real pressure. It is a strategic choice that could backfire.
In short, Davidson has chosen to go with the agenda of the May government – for a Hard Brexit, more austerity and cuts in welfare. The suggestions that May might abolish the Triple Lock on state pensions will not play well with pro-Union supporters whose numbers increase the further up the age ladder you climb.
Ruth Davidson’s “success” has been in trying to portray herself as a non-Tory. Now he’s stuck with May and her indescribables.
Returning to the poll featured in the Sunday Times that seems to suggest pro-Union Labour voters are turning to the Tories as the best bet to stave off independence. To grasp that, it is important to look at Scottish Labour and the reasons behind its self-destruction.
Firstly, it took its hegemony in Scotland for granted and did not build its grassroots support. In Glasgow and much of the West of Scotland, individual membership of constituency parties has always been low because the party machine distrusted members. They recalled the Independent Labour Party breaking away in the 1930s (the ILP had been the effective organisation on the ground) and were paranoid about Communist subversion. The Party atrophied, especially as it began to lose elected members post-Tony Blair.
Secondly, long after the Scottish Parliament came into being, the brightest career minded Labourites remained focused on Westminster and left Holyrood to the second raters.
Thirdly, it has never addressed the legacy of the Tony Blair government, in which Gordon Brown was second in command. The bitterness over how the hopes of the first 1997 landslide win evaporated was similar either side of the border it was just in Scotland the SNP opposed the Iraq war and moved to adopt some Old Labour clothes and rhetoric.
But the biggest mistake was the decision to join with the Tories in opposing a Yes vote in the 2014 independence referendum. The subsequent Better Together campaign gave the Tories greater prominence than they might have expected but also left Labour in Scotland doing the dirty work for David Cameron. As Scottish Labour wrapped itself in the Union Jack the Tories must have recalled the adage, “why choose a copy when you can vote for the original.”
However, it is hard to see Labour supporters in former mining villages or steel towns switching to vote for the heirs of Thatcher. More likely they would choose not to vote. Or opt for the SNP whose leader, and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has been quick to portray the Westminster election not as a vote for a second referendum but avoiding the horrors of Tory rule.
Addressing the Scottish Trade Union Congress she warned:
… the Tory vision, should be ringing alarm bells loud and clear across Scotland. The hard-liners have taken over the Tory Party. And now the Tory hard-liners want to take over the country. Scotland knows there has always been a cost to voting Conservative, but the price of voting Tory at this election has never been higher. And it will be those least able to pay that price who will bear the biggest burden.
By positioning the SNP as the key opponents of the Tories north of the border Sturgeon puts the SNP in a better place to win over former Labour voters. She also avoids two pitfalls. If the election became dominated by Ruth Davidson’s attempts to use it as a moratorium on a second referendum that would scare some middle class Remain voters, who did not support independence three years ago, away from switching to the SNP.
Secondly. The SNP is aware that a third of its supporters voted to quit the EU. Already campaigners are reporting that they are meeting those people, often on working class estates, on the campaign trail. Many are pro-independence, most anti-Tory. Again the anti-Tory message should rally them or stop them going off to back Davidson’s crew or abstaining.
And what of Labour’s chances. Among Corbynistas there are many asking why Scots should choose independence or vote SNP when Jez could be elected to government in London. I am a big Corbyn fan but it is beyond his powers to reverse Labour’s decline north of the border because its causes are nothing to do with him.
When he also addressed the STUC, before Sturgeon, he made an excellent anti-Tory speech and did not go in for bashing the SNP. That was a breath of fresh air in contrast to recent Scottish Labour leaders. Later in Fife he put the case for independence in terms of the need for working class unity across Britain, and not because it would unleash ethnic cleansing or some other lurid claim.
The trouble is that all of this will pass Scottish Labour by. It will stick with its right wing, Unionist, anti-Corbyn agenda. Its one surviving MP, Ian Murray, put out a call for tactical voting to stop the SNP. In Edinburgh South he was quick to point out that would mean voting for him but elsewhere it amounts on a call to Labour supporters to vote Tory. He washed that down with a further attack on Corbyn.
Like the Bourbons, Scottish Labour has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.
The other problem for Corbyn is that the majority of those who’d be rallying to him if they lived in London or Cardiff support independence for Scotland. The younger you are the more likely to back independence, and on a radical ticket.
For those committed to forging a new radical left, there is a frustration that we are watching Labour self-destruct but we have no alternative to offer. That will take time and requires patience.
That leaves the SNP. It is almost impossible for them to retain 56 out of 59 Westminster seats, reached on a high following the independence referendum, and their opponents and the bulk of the media will be quick to paint any losses as the beginning of the end.
But they have another card to play in their anti-Tory pact which is that each Tory MP elected in Scotland will make it harder for any Scottish government committed to a pro-welfare, mildly social democratic agenda to follow and will be used to excuse an incoming Tory government from having to pay any attention to Scottish wishes in the Brexit negotiations.
The thought of Theresa May’s glee at any Scottish seat won should be good cause to turn some from casting a Tory vote.
So while the hype builds around the Tory revival in Scotland the reality could well be very different come election day.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.