Tory Victories banish spectre of the Poll Tax

Tory Victories banish spectre of the Poll Tax

by Murdo Fraser
article from Saturday 21, April, 2018

IT DIDN’T MATTER how hard we campaigned, how good our candidates were, or the reputation of sitting Councillors. For roughly two decades from the early 1990s, the Scottish Conservatives simply couldn’t make any progress when it came to local government.

Long-serving councillors, who had addressed constituents’ issues diligently over many years, or effective local campaigners putting themselves forward for election, simply found themselves losing council seats not because of anything they themselves had done. They were tagged with the Tory brand, and that meant being responsible for all the ills of the Thatcher and Major governments, most prominently among them the introduction of the Poll Tax.

The introduction of STV for local government elections from 2007 did give the Party some respite, making it easier to win Council seats across the country. But still, the transfer system did us little favours as we were hardly anyone’s second choice. If there was a dividing line in Scottish politics throughout this period, the Scottish Tories were on one side of it, and every other partywas on the other. We were picking up very few transfers. So even a good number of first preferences didn’t mean we could count on winning seats.

The spectre of the Poll Tax loomed large. No matter how many times we explained the Community Charge had been introduced in Scotland in response to a ratepayers’ revolt and that it had been a solution devised to address a specifically Scottish problem, the perception persisted that this was a Tory experiment with Scotland; that the Scots had been treated as guinea pigs, and no one was in the mood for forgiving us.

If the introduction of the Poll Tax was to be a cathartic event in Scottish politics, changing the weather for some two decades, it was going to take another catharsis to turn the tide. And that came in 2014, with the independence referendum. Suddenly the dividing line in Scottish politics was not whether you were a Tory or against them, but rather, whether you were a nationalist or unionist.

So, for the first time, Tory candidates began to be the beneficiaries of unionist transfers from Labour and Liberal Democrat voters, doing anything they could to defeat the SNP. 

And the trend became even more pronounced when Nicola Sturgeon set about her pursuit of a second independence referendum. If ever a policy could enrage Scotland’s unionist majority, then it was this. And as the Party best placed to articulate resolute unionism, it was the Scottish Conservatives who would become the principal beneficiary of the SNP’s approach. Now local government elections became about who could stop the SNP, rather than who could stop the Tories. 

I could not but help reflecting on all these factors when campaigning over the last few weeks in beautiful Highland Perthshire, in a council ward by-election. My good friend Ian Campbell, Leader of Perth and Kinross Council, died suddenly at the beginning of February, creating a vacancy for his seat. If ever there were an area that deserved the description ‘heart of Scotland’ then this is it – geographically at the centre of the country, comprising the tourist towns of Pitlochry and Aberfeldy, a few smaller villages like Blair Atholl and Kenmore, and a large scattered rural population.

This was, until recently, SNP heartland, in the constituency at Holyrood of the Deputy First Minister John Swinney, and at Westminster of the SNP’s longest serving MP, Pete Wishart. In the 2012 local election in this ward, the SNP achieved 48 per cent of first preferences, as against 24 per cent for the Conservatives. It was an area where the SNP was firmly entrenched.

But 2014 and all that followed after it saw a turning of the tide. When Ian Campbell was elected in the ward in May last year, he achieved some 45% of first preferences, as against just 36% for the SNP. Indeed, had we run two candidates in that three-member ward, the likelihood is that both would have been elected.

In this week’s by-election, there was again a significant victory for the Scottish Conservatives, improving even on our result last year. Our excellent local candidate John Duff (pictured above) won comfortably with nearly 47 per cent of the vote, achieving a swing of 1 per cent from a high-profile SNP candidate heavily backed by Pete Wishart and John Swinney. This is the second by-election in a row, following that in Perth City South in November, where we have seen an increase in the Conservative vote share in Perth & Kinross. It is a marked change from where we were just a few years’ ago.

What struck me whilst campaigning was not so much that people on the doorstep talked about the prospect of there being a second independence referendum, but the deep-seated antipathy many local residents now have towards the SNP. On doorstep after doorstep, there was a vitriolic personal dislike of Nicola Sturgeon, now a true Marmite figure in Scottish politics – loved by her own Party’s supporters, but firmly disliked by everyone outwith the SNP.

Pete Wishart doesn’t usually get much right, but his recent public comments on the direction of SNP policy in relation to both a second independence referendum, and Brexit, clearly suggest that he was hearing the same messages from voters as we were. For his pains, he has been derided by the cyberNats as a traitor to their cause as a result, and the comments from those scrapping to be the next SNP Depute Leader suggest that his views have little chance of being adopted as mainstream by the SNP membership.  His wafer-thin 21 vote majority now looks more vulnerable than ever.

What the result in the Highland Ward tells us is that the ghost of the Poll Tax has finally been laid to rest. It is no longer the Tories who are the ones to vote againstin Scottish elections – that position has now been taken by the SNP, a consequence of the party’s obsession with promoting Scottish independence above all other issues. And, with the SNP now having been in power at Holyrood for some 11 years, and facing attacks on all fronts – the health service, education, the economy, and justice – it is difficult to see how it can now turn things around.

It took two decades for there to be a Scottish Conservative revival, and it took the cathartic event that was the 2014 referendum to bring it about.  Just as we found out, the SNP might be about to discover that once you enter the wilderness it can take a long time to find your way out.

Picture courtesy of The Courier ©DC Thomson

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