Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Scottish Conservative Problem

While the Conservatives won 307 seats in May only one of those was one of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats. In fact, excluding Scotland the Conservatives won a majority. A conservative-supporting friend of mine suggested, the day after Election Day, making Scotland independent on this very basis. The party gained just 0.9%, and Labour actually gained 2.5% of the vote north of the border, meaning that in actual fact there was a 0.8% swing AWAY from the Conservatives, towards Labour. The party’s vote was still 0.8% below 1997 and 9% below 1992.


Scottish Vote Share

Seats won

Second places

Third places

Fourth places

Fifth places















Lib Dems














While the Conservative party came fourth on the vote share it was only actually 3.2% behind the second placed SNP. It also had the second highest number of second places. While the party had the highest number of fourth places (and one constituency where it was pushed into an embarrassing fifth by an independent) they are rarely below 10% and below 5% on maybe one or two occasions. The Conservative problem is vote spread – which is their problem in much of the UK. In a first past the post electoral system all that matters is you win the seat, it does not matter if you win a seat by 10 votes or 10,000, if you have won it then that is that. Therefore there is a certain pattern of vote spread which can be advantage – win small, lose big.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Let’s say there are three seats each with 100 voters. Now both Labour and the Conservatives win 150 votes each, but in those three seats what happens is that Labour wins 55 votes in two seats and the Tories win 45 and in the final seat the Tories get 60 votes and Labour 40 votes. Both parties have the exact same number of voters, but Labour has won an additional seat by virtue of concentrating its voters in a useful manner, winning by small margins and losing by big ones. As any vote over the winning line is ‘wasted’ an even spread of votes is to a party’s advantage. This pattern largely replicates itself across the UK, with the Conservatives winning big and losing small in much of the country. It is particularly evident in Scotland however. In the Scottish Parliament, where an element of proportional representation is used, the Conservatives have a larger representation.

It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time the Tories were actually dominant north of the border or to be more precise the Unionist Party was. The Unionist Party was officially a separate political party though it, in most respects, acted as the Scottish wing of the Conservatives. The Unionist Party however, had a unique Scottish identity and branding. It was orientated towards working class Protestantism, and is the only party to have ever won a majority of the Scottish vote (50.1% in 1955). The breakdown of Imperial unity however dismantled the party’s main ideological plank and it began to lose seats rapidly. It was merged into the Conservative Party as a result, with Labour able to soak up support from the working classes, the SNP able to connect to those desiring a Scottish identity to their politics and the Liberals expanding slightly beyond their traditional Celtic fringe. Nonetheless even in 1992 the Scottish Conservatives were still able to muster 25.6% of the Scottish vote and eleven seats.

Some commentators like to suggest that Scotland is intrinsically left-wing. While perhaps it is one of the more left-leaning regions of the, Scotland has plenty of white, middle class, rural people who should, on paper, vote Conservative (and some of whom already do), it also stereotypes Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP as all being ‘centre-left’, as if they therefore have nothing to offer centre-right voters. While the centre-left label can be reasonably applied in all three cases all three parties are capable of reaching across the spectrum to centre-right voters. Indeed the SNP, are sometimes nicknamed the ‘Tartan Tories’ for this very fact, but perhaps the biggest issue is that none of the other three parties is seen as being as English as the Conservatives. Indeed Labour’s last leader was a Scot, and the Lib Dems two leaders prior to Clegg were Scottish as well. Meanwhile the Conservatives are perceived, in Scottish folk memory, as having adopted anti-Scottish policies during the Thatcher years, and then rejected devolution; policies for the redistribution of regional budgets, and ‘English votes for English laws’, are not helpful either.

The solution suggested by some Conservatives, particularly notably Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome is to separate out the Scottish section of the party and essentially recreate the Unionist Party of old. Montgomerie points particularly approvingly to the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria (Germany) which is a separate party which acts as the larger CDU’s Bavarian wing. The CSU is an extremely successful party (two thirds of Bavarian votes is not uncommon) but one can’t help but think that its independence is possible only because of its success. As it wins big and often it can draw in money and talent. This is the Scottish Conservatives long-term problem. Talented Scottish Tories head south of the border. There are in fact two prominent Scottish Tories in the cabinet: Defence Minister Dr. Liam Fox and Education Secretary Michael Gove. Fox’s constituency is in Somerset, Gove’s is in Surrey. Similarly former Conservative foreign minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind, lost his seat in Edinburgh and then moved to Kensington. A rebuilt Unionist Party will have trouble offering the “distinctive centre-right pitch” that Montgomerie dreams of if it continues to have trouble with talent, or if it is dependent upon the mother party for money. Instead it will be seen, rightfully, as a section of the Conservative Party in all but name.

Yet hopes should remain for the party. Coalition may be just the ticket to bring back Scottish voters. If the Conservatives can demonstrate that Scots have nothing to fear from a Conservative government, they may begin to rise. They may also be well placed to take advantage of a Lib Dem slump particularly in Edinburgh and in seats like Argyll and Bute where they are in second place. Winning seats in Scotland remains the Conservative Party’s best home of winning a majority in 2015, it must become a priority for the party.


  1. The Tories will have no problem improving upon their sole seat in Scotland come 2015. The only reason they look to do poorer in Scotland than elsewhere is because they've been largely denied rural seats by Scots voting Lib Dems there rather than their traditional party the Tories, probably because of the reasons you've mentioned - too English, anti-Scottish, Tory stigma in Scotland etc. - but as you correctly say, the Conservatives were in second place in those seats, and now the Lib Dems have alienated all those liberals/leftists, their vote will collapse to elsewhere and the Tories will win them, through no effort on their part. It'll be much the same in the South West.

  2. I agree with the bulk of the of the article, and I think you've highlighted all of the problems the Conservatives face.

    Of course, like you've mentioned, they face the same problem in Scotland that other parties do around Britain in that the electoral system is FPTP. So, if we had a more modern and fair electoral system, then this debate would be less relevant.

    Overall though, the Lib Dem vote collapsing might well work for them, unless their vote falls a lot too. Scotland is no different in that there is a lot of anger and disillusionment with Clegg and co, especially among people who voted LD to keep the Tories out.

    So in those specific seats especially, they might well sneak in because the most likely scenario is the LD vote will split among 2 or more parties. The biggest beneficiaries will be the SNP and Labour.

    However, as for some who voted LD partly because they're sick of the older, bigger parties (Labour/Tory), they might go towards the Greens (who of course are quite close politically to what people were voting LD for which will be another attraction) with more "extreme" members of the electorate perhaps going for SSP/UKIP.

    And in island/coastal seats, where renewable energy could flourish, people might go towards Green as well.


    I just noticed that the Tory party's internal review into this very subject has just been completed.

  4. Just to correct the reason given for the SNP being referred to as the 'Tartan Tories'. That nickname actually came about as the result of the SNP helping to bring down the Callaghan govt by supporting the 'No Confidence' vote in 1979. This led to the Tories under Margaret Thatcher winning the resultant general election and the SNP getting their new nickname.