Can the Conservatives take Labour’s place as the Opposition in Scotland?

PLMR Scotland Manager Robin Dyet discusses whether Ruth Davidson's Scottish Conservatives could supplant Labour in the Holyrood elections

There is increasing speculation in Holyrood that, come May, Ruth Davidson could lead the Scottish Conservatives to second place in the Scottish Parliamentary elections, ahead of Scottish Labour.

The Conservative Party has endured decades in the doldrums in Scotland, culminating in their complete wipe-out in Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, when they failed to win a single seat. While their fortunes have improved slightly since then, the party still only has a single MP north of the border.

So just how can it be possible the Tories, so long maligned in Scotland, could beat the party of Keir Hardie, Red Clydeside, John Smith, and Gordon Brown, which up until just last year seemed to be the default option for so many Scots voters?

The answer lies in no small part in the leadership of Ruth Davidson.

While the SNP is enjoying a period of unprecedented domination, with many left-leaning voters preferring to back Nicola Sturgeon’s party over a Labour Party accused of losing its way and forgetting its core voters, the Conservatives have been enjoying a quiet resurgence.  At the forefront of this is the 37-year old Davidson.

With a number of recent polls putting the Conservatives and Labour virtually neck and neck, and Kezia Dugdale still bedding into her role as Scottish Labour’s third leader in less than two years, Davidson has provided voters with a real alternative.

Praised for her strong and consistent performances during First Ministers’ Questions, it was Davidson’s impressive speech at the 2015 Conservative Party Conference which made the Tory faithful south of the border sit up and take notice. She has since fielded media questions about whether she has one eye on Downing Street rather than Bute House.

Not one to follow the herd, Davidson has spoken out on a number of controversial issues in recent weeks, including describing free university tuition as a ‘middle class freebie’, detailing why more needs to be done to ensure technology giants pay their fair share of UK tax, and calling for Britain’s biggest businesses to link executive pay to company performance. Her approach now seems to be making real inroads with the Scottish electorate.

The last time that the Conservatives gained more votes than Labour in Scotland was 1959, and even then they ended up with fewer seats. While it would be naïve to ignore this historical precedent, and after last May’s UK General Election confounded pollsters it is prudent to take their predictions with a pinch of salt, the mere possibility of a Tory Opposition in Scotland is significant. It not only illustrates how far Scottish Labour has fallen in the eyes of the Scottish electorate, it also shows the extent to which Ruth Davidson has transformed her party’s fortunes.

Scotland’s political landscape has changed dramatically and irrevocably over the last year. With Davidson apparently ‘ready to serve’ as the Leader of the Opposition in Scotland, more change may yet be on the horizon.

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