Can the Conservatives capitalise on Labour's misjudgement?

Can the Conservatives capitalise on Labour's misjudgement?

by Andy Maciver
article from Wednesday 9, April, 2014

IT IS EASY to be bold and to see the future as binary from behind a laptop. It is much harder to do it standing up in front of the country. That's helpful for occasional strategists and commentators like me. When the walls come tumbling down, they don't fall on us. They fall on the politicians who attempt to put into practice the things we urge them to do.

It is in that context that people should view the contributions to the debate, and the criticism of its participants, made by people like me. I have, at times in the past, applied such criticism to Tory leader Ruth Davidson, as I have to others (including, yesterday, Johann Lamont).

It's nothing personal. I don't know Ruth but I suspect that over a drink we'd get on pretty well. Both state-schoolers who went to Edinburgh university; both centre-right types operating in the left-wing environment of Scotland’s political and media establishment.

I think Ruth has endless potential as a leader, combining brains with personability and the crucial attribute of being a ‘normal’ person. They are in short supply in the Tory party.

But I always felt she was shackled. She looked like a 21st century politician trapped in a straight jacket fitted by the dinosaurs who backed her. I doubted that those people – whose understanding of Scottish politics was formed in an era where colour TV was novel and goalkeepers using gloves was cheating – would ever allow her to break free.

This may be unsurprising chatter from the guy who helped Murdo Fraser run his leadership campaign for a new party for Scotland. My personal view has not changed. I believe that the Conservatives have been on the wrong side of the constitutional debate in Scotland for 40 years, and that is responsible for the party’s steady and ostensibly irreversible decline. 

However, as John Adams said, facts are stubborn things, and whatever our wishes, inclinations or passion, they cannot alter the state of facts. 

The fact, here, is that the Scottish Tory party is not dead. And the proposed new party is not living. That leaves the only vehicle for the promotion of liberal, free-market ideas in Scotland as the Conservative Party. It is not fast, nor does it look good; it is a money drain and it may struggle to pass its next MOT; but it is the vehicle.

Ruth Davidson is increasingly looking like a good driver of it. Most importantly, she has shown important signs of ejecting the prehistoric passengers.

Change

Displaying increasing comfort in the job, Ruth has begun to show Scotland what she is really about. She has proposed a cut in ‘tartan tax’. It is illogical to cut tax in our current fiscal construct, but that is not Ruth’s fault – she is showing a direction of travel and a belief in the moral case for low taxes, which is the best she can do.

She also seems committed to tackling Scotland’s education establishment. Education is the single most effective way to reverse life fortunes, but our unreformed system fails to push the brightest, and consigns the poorest to a life worse than their parents’. Ruth seems to understand this, and good on her for saying so.

Crucially, she has taken bold and important steps to reverse her party’s corrosive position on devolution. Though we should not overestimate how far the party has moved (not very), we should understand how difficult it will have been to stare down those who made her leader and say “Step aside, your ideas are dead and your time is done”.

Opportunity

On this most pivotal of issues - Scotland’s constitutional future - Ruth now has the opportunity to take the next step. I’m going to resist the temptation to discuss precisely which taxes and legislative powers I think the Tories should devolve. Constructing a number of specific hurdles can surely only lead to disappointment if and when one or two of them are then not vaulted.

When Ruth announces the new policy she needs to show vision (and she should be in no doubt that it will be interpreted as Tory party policy even if, technically, it’s an advisory report by Tom Strathclyde with a narrow remit for consideration vis-a-vis the next manifesto and blah blah blah). She needs a tangible message that leaves nobody in any doubt as to the destination of her journey. She needs to make crystal clear to the voices of the past that they should get on board or get out of the way. This isn’t about attracting Tories – it’s about attracting people who are not Tories, and they are a far larger number. 

At the margins, this could help the referendum cause, particularly if David Cameron backs her with a guarantee of further legislation. 

But the game-changing moment was in Johann Lamont’s hands, not Ruth Davidson’s. So instead, Ruth should consider this as an investment in her own future (as leader of the centre-right force in Scotland) and as the last throw of the dice for her current party. The Tories should extract maximum opportunity from Labour’s chaos. The tag ‘party of devolution’ is up for grabs. There seems no reason why the party of the centre-right cannot grab it, and there are four compelling reasons to do so.

Firstly, the self-styled party of localism cannot credibly claim to be so if it simultaneously denies Holyrood (and indeed local authorities) some usable powers. The Tories either believe in freedom and responsibility or they do not. There’s no such thing as being a little bit pregnant.

Secondly, the current fiscal construction of devolution makes it, effectively, impossible for centre-right arguments to prosper. What is the point in prudent expenditure when any savings are simply returned to the pot in Westminster? What is the point in cutting tax when the benefits of that tax cut accrue to London, and when the inevitable result is pressure in London to cut the Barnett grant? We are engaged in a spending competition with no associated responsibility, and a centre-right party cannot win that.

Thirdly, the party simply must learn from its past mistakes. It is where it is because it has not been a party of Scotland or a party for Scotland. I spent years as its Head of Communications telling people that the party had its own agenda and had freedom to control its own destiny. Guff. London paid the piper, and London called the tune. Voters knew that and they saw a party that didn’t stand up for Scotland. They were right. We were wrong.

Fourthly, it is the only way to preserve the UK in the longer-term. At least half of the Yes crosses in September will not be from nationalist hands – they’ll be patriots, who are British and Scottish but want more for Scotland and see nobody else offering it other than the SNP. If someone doesn’t give them what they want, they will eventually walk away. Labour, clearly, failed to understand that. Do the Tories?

The Fundamental Question

Ruth Davidson is a player in Scottish politics. But she is not an impact player. She can be. She is already a good leader; she can be a great leader. The fundamental question is this – does she want to be?

Because, to become one, she must be an agent of radical change. Robert Kennedy said that great change dominates the world, and unless we move with change we will become its victims. Ruth must not simply move with change; she must lead it.

The Strathclyde Commission is her history moment. What will be the message that sits behind the announcement? Will we be able to scratch the surface and see the same old Tories, deferring to Westminster and putting Scotland second, with no genuine vision for how the country will look a generation from now?

Or will the message be that this young woman has a 30-year plan to take her party from 15 seats, to 25, to 45, to government? That she wants to go from being leader of a wee bunch of outsiders, to leader of the opposition, to First Minister?

If it sounds fanciful, just look at the SNP, which 30 years ago was polling numbers worse than the Tories’ now. Or look at Stephen Harper, a 3-time Canadian Prime Minister whose party didn’t even exist 15 years ago. 

These things happen. Seismic change happens. Voters are sophisticated. Give them a great leader and a great idea, and they will lend their vote, and their faith. 

 

Yesterday, part 1 - What has Labour done?

Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters, strategic communications partners.

 

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