LE22 Party Profile: Scottish Conservatives


Currently Scotland’s leading opposition party, the Conservatives are coming into next month’s election with that status looking shaky. They were always going to struggle to fully live up to their remarkable resurgence in 2017 but recent difficulties around Lockdown Parties, which saw the Holyrood contingent briefly revolting against the Prime Minister, have dented their support.

Even so, the worst that could happen to them this year would still be their second best result in decades. The post-referendum revival helped to give the party a substantial foothold in most councils, and even if they go backwards they won’t be relinquishing that anytime soon.

They are of course aided in this by the partly-proportional voting system enabling them to win broader representation than in the past. In the very final First Past the Post election in 2003, Conservative seats were overwhelmingly in rural Scotland. They were by no means absent from the urban central belt entirely, but generally limited to the most affluent areas, such as parts of Edinburgh and the Eastwood core of East Renfrewshire.

Contest Rates


Although the Conservatives spent a couple of decades in the wilderness, they generally proved capable of finding candidates in most places bar the islands even in the middle of that. Even then, they’ve generally tried at least a couple of islands wards except for a complete absence in 2012.

But for a single ward in North Lanarkshire in 2007 – Fortissat, which the party really has a history of weirdness in – they’d have been able to claim to have contested every mainland ward at every election. That they can do so this time gives them one over the SNP, who failed to nominate in three mainland wards for the first time. Compared to last election, they’ve dropped Shetland from their spread of attempts.


Shouldn’t be a surprise to see this chart is both pretty consistent and that the blue bar is pretty full. Very little variance between elections either – the drop compared to 2017 is one fewer in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, two in Shetland, and the reduction of one ward in North Ayrshire’s boundary changes.

Candidates and Councillors

Candidates Nominated and Councillors Elected

We can see here how the Conservative revival wasn’t entirely a Ruth Davidson effect, but instead a Ruth Davidson and Referendum effect. At her first electoral contest in 2012, the Conservatives suffered pretty substantial losses. Of course, that massively turned around in 2017, when the party got a majority of its candidates elected for the first time. Indeed they should have had roughly 290, had they not under-nominated in a bunch of wards.

By and large they’ve rectified those under-nomination problems this time, which is partly how they’ve ended up standing a record number of candidates. This is the first year under STV where they’ve stood more candidates than Labour, and thus can (for now) claim to be the second party on all counts.

Wards Represented

Even at their lowest points the Conservatives did have enough support in some strongholds for multiple councillors, so their ward tally has always been slightly below their councillor number. After falling a bit either side of a third of wards in the first two elections, they made it into over two-thirds in their 2017 revival. Note that the under-nomination problem wouldn’t have had any impact on the number of wards represented, as that was about not having enough candidates where they already won a seat.

Share of Votes and Seats


Similar to the SNP if you’ve read that profile, since the Conservatives stand almost everywhere, there’s practically no meaningful difference between their overall vote share, and their share where they stood. As you’d expect, this is a similar shape to the above chart, with a big dip from 2007 into 2012, then a huge spike for 2017.

I reckon we can also see part of the impact of Independents here in 2017, bearing in mind Independents are strong in core Conservative areas like Aberdeenshire, Angus, Moray and the Borders. A month after this election the Conservatives won 28.6% of the Westminster vote – I don’t think it’s that their support continued to grow in that time, but instead that it reached the level it would without those rural Independents (and accounting for differential turnout.)


This chart is the same seat numbers as in the candidates and councillors chart, just shown as a share of the total. Notice there’s quite a gap between the Conservatives’ share of votes and seats at each election, though it was at its narrowest in 2017. That’s in spite of the fact that the Conservatives are generally strongest in rural areas, which have more councillors for their population than big urban areas.

In large part, that’s because the Conservatives always did so poorly in most of those urban areas. Given their size, 5-6% of the vote in the likes of Glasgow and North Lanarkshire is a big chunk of their national vote total, but wasn’t enough to get any more than a single seat until 2017. Even then, the Conservatives still ended up pretty substantially under-represented in the areas like Glasgow, Dundee and Inverclyde. The other part is of course under-nomination – getting that right would have added another 1% or so to their share last time.

Possible Outcomes

Note: Obviously, your personal perception of a good or bad result will depend on how much you like a given party. For the purposes of this piece, good and bad relate to how an impartial observer might view the result, taking into account other elections and the general situation facing that party. They are not a commentary on whether such results would be good or bad for the country.

Good Election

Similar to the SNP, the Conservatives can’t simply gain any number of seats and call it a good election. I keep saying the words “under-nomination”, but it matters for this purpose. For this year to be a truly good election for them, not only do they need to make up for what they should have had last time without that, but make an advance. Although they’ve got a pretty big chunk of prospective gains through my Wards Worth Watching series – approximately 70, from a quick re-count – a lot of those were stretches. Let’s say then a round 300 (or about 10 more seats on top of the under-nomination correction) for our threshold of a good result.

They’ll also want to fend off any possible SNP advances in the councils they took a vote lead in 2017, especially Moray, Angus and Stirling. In Moray they’ll be helped by the SNP’s under-nomination mistake in Buckie knocking out one of that council’s strongest SNP areas from the popular vote – only nerds like you and I will remember that it’s missing. A really good result would also see them overtaking Labour in vote share in places like Clackmannanshire and North Ayrshire where they were close in 2017 and passed them at Holyrood last year.

Bad Election

A loss of seats is obviously a bad election but, quite frankly, so would be failing to make up some of that under-nomination gap. Much like the Moray vote share thing, only real nerds will be aware of 2017’s under-nomination, but nerds do things like run Ballot Box Scotland. Worryingly for the Conservatives, all the evidence points to a worse election being the likely outcome. They were always unlikely to match 2017’s peak, but after last year’s Holyrood result I’d have said they might have been able to publicly mask that with picking up 2017’s under-nominated seats.

That’s no longer the case. If one of the things I’m dubious about from my exclusive local poll is the absence of Independent candidate support, and the Conservatives are strongest where Independents are, that could mean an already poor figure for them is worse on the day. Even if the poll was instead an underestimate of Conservative support, their polling for Holyrood and Westminster all points the same way – downwards. It’s entirely possible the Conservatives do indeed come third, and they’d find that a real blow.

If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.
(About Donations)