SP21 Party Profile – Scottish Conservatives

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Douglas Ross (2020 – )
MP for Moray (2017 – )
MSP for Highlands and Islands (2016 – 2017)

Deputy Leader

Office currently not in use

Holyrood History

For a party that was strongly opposed to Devolution, it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Scottish Conservatives. In the 1997 UK election, the party was completely wiped out in Scotland (and Wales). That the new Scottish Parliament was elected in part by proportional representation, again strongly opposed by the party, was a lifeline. Though they didn’t win any constituencies in 1999, they did pick up a raft of regional MSPs.

2003 was effectively static for the party, though they did trade in a handful of their regional seats for constituencies – they’d already won Holyrood’s first ever by-election for the Ayr seat in 2000. They dropped a single seat in 2007, but the resulting SNP minority gave them substantial influence, particularly at budget time – a level of co-operation it’s perhaps hard to envisage these days!

Compared to the wholesale Lib Dem collapse and substantial losses for Labour, the Conservatives defeat in 2011 was less severe. They only lost two of their seats, but it did seem as if their long-term decline was continuing, and the near-loss of their sole MP in the 2015 election did nothing to dispel that feeling.

One year later, and it was a very different picture. To general surprise, myself included, the Conservatives mounted a spectacular revival. Not only did they double their number of seats at Holyrood, but they overtook Labour to place second, a position they held consistently at the Local and UK elections since. With the constitution front-and-centre of Scottish politics, the Conservative and Unionist Party likely benefitted from the latter portion of their name.

(2021 Polling Average figure is as of 1st of April.)

2016 Vote Distribution

What might happen this time?

At the time of writing, the Conservatives are polling almost exactly where they were in 2016. Although the party were by no means polling terribly by mid-2020, they were still behind their 2016 result, and were facing complete SNP dominance. That was concerning enough for then-leader Jackson Carlaw to resign from (or, perhaps, be unceremoniously pushed out of) the role after less than six months in office.

There was no initial honeymoon period for new leader Douglas Ross, as a polling decline continued until a low of just over 18% in late January, when Labour were closing in on second place. Since then they’ve nearly recovered to their 2016 levels, and have opened up a more comfortable lead over Labour, averaging a smidge below 22% one month ahead of the election.

That would likely translate to a handful of lost seats, especially if the Greens or other new parties grow their seat numbers. There’s still a little bit of growth in polling figures needed before we could expect them to increase their haul of seats, but they no longer appear to be at risk of a serious reversal.

Key Seats

Note that in the regional vote charts, “Seat 7” indicates the minimum “safe” vote share to win the final seat in 2016. This safe value can be different for each party, as the assumption being made is that their vote changes but everyone else’s stays the same. It’ll also be different in 2021. This isn’t a predictable measure, but instead something we can only pinpoint after the fact.

Central (Region)

When the Conservatives burst back onto the scene in 2016, it wasn’t just in their historic strongholds. Even the heart of the (de-)industrialised Central Belt where Labour had historically held sway and which had massively repudiated the Conservatives after the Thatcher era saw a big swing in the Conservatives favour. Whereas they’d only every won one MSP in the region previously, last time around they won three.

However, that third seat is relatively vulnerable. Although they have a reasonable degree of breathing room relative to Labour who were their closest competition for the final seat in 2016, the Greens only needed to hit about 5.4% in order to take it instead. They could therefore lose that seat on some relatively small swings.

Glasgow (Region)

Glasgow remained a tougher nut to crack than Central, as a similarly post-industrial profile sits alongside a younger and more diverse electorate. That said, they still doubled their vote here and picked up a second seat. Similar to Central though, that second MSP may be vulnerable to small swings.

Projections on current polling averages for example have the Greens narrowly (around 0.2%) pulling ahead of the Conservatives and thus nabbing the last seat at their expense. It’s unlikely the Conservatives can afford to lose very much, if any, ground in Glasgow at the moment.

Edinburgh Central (Constituency)

As part of the party’s remarkable comeback in 2016, then-leader Ruth Davidson managed to narrowly win the Edinburgh Central constituency from the SNP. This is their most marginal constituency, and with Davidson standing down at this election, it may be a challenge to hold with a lesser-known candidate.

Given the level of marginality here and the profile it had from Davidson’s win in 2016, this is the single constituency we’ve heard the most about since then. The SNP had a pretty dramatic selection contest here that eventually led to former MP Angus Robertson being named the candidate.

Adding to the messy nature of this one, it’s fair to say a certain degree of pressure was piled on the Greens by the SNP not to stand, viewing them as responsible for defeat last time. The Greens refused to yield, and are once again fielding Alison Johnstone. As noted in the Greens’ profile, had the SNP won this seat in 2016 they’d have distorted the proportionality in the Lothian region at the Greens’ expense, so I don’t think the latter are (nor is there reason for them to be) particularly apologetic.

Ayr (Constituency)

Ayr is the longest-held Conservative seat at Holyrood, becoming their first seat when John Scott triumphed at Holyrood’s first ever by-election in March 2000. They’ve held it consistently since, including following boundary changes in 2011.

The SNP have been nipping at their heels for the past two elections, and despite the length of Scott’s tenure this is currently the Conservative’s second most marginal seat. It could tip the SNP’s way on a good day, but if the Conservatives are back on the up as recent polling suggests, they might be just fine here.

Aberdeenshire West (Constituency)

Large part of Aberdeenshire and the wider North East were Conservative heartlands for decades, before the Lib Dems and SNP swept them entirely away by 1997. Aberdeenshire West was their first foot back in the constituency door, flipping a seat in a region that had been so strongly SNP in 2011 that they’d won every constituency and a list seat on top.

They won the rough Westminster equivalent of this in 2017, and narrowly held it in 2019, which may bode well for their chances this time around.

Dumfriesshire (Constituency)

At this point it may be becoming clear that these key seats are highly marginal and therefore may be getting more comprehensive coverage as part of the Ballot Box Battlegrounds series in April. So we’ll just give them the most basic descriptions. This overlaps with UK Parliament constituencies the Conservatives won in both 2017 and 2019, so their chances look good.

Perthshire and South Kinross-shire (Constituency)

An SNP seat for the entirety of devolution, the Conservatives briefly held an overlapping Westminster seat from 2017 until 2019. With Roseanna Cunningham retiring, the door to a gain may be easier to push open.

Eastwood (Constituency)

Although Labour had managed to hold this seat at every previous election, a tight three-way contest saw this return to historic form for the Conservatives in 2016. Westminster’s East Renfrewshire also went Conservative in 2017, before going back to the SNP in 2019. However, Eastwood lacks the SNP-favourable Barrhead and Neilston areas, so don’t assume the same will happen here.

Galloway and West Dumfries (Constituency)

Surprising as it may seem in these times, the SNP actually won the original version of this seat in 1999, having won the Westminster seat in 1997. The Conservatives have held it since 2003, and the UK equivalent since 2017.

Edinburgh Pentlands

A Labour seat in 1999, the Conservatives then-leader David McLetchie gained it in 2003. The SNP won it in their 2011 landslide and have proven pretty hard to budge since, but if the Conservatives were to gain another constituency in the capital, it’d be this one.

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