The local elections affirmed the Conservatives’ new found position as Scotland’s second party—and they will likely claim some SNP scalps on 8th Juneby John Curtice / May 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ©Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images While the rest of the country looked to the local elections to see what portents they held for Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, commentators north of the border had their eyes on a different question—what might they mean for Nicola Sturgeon and the prospect for a second independence referendum? On 8th June, the SNP will be defending a quite remarkable performance by the party two years ago. It won 50 per cent of the vote and 56 out of the country’s 59 seats. Repeating that feat would seem near impossible. The local elections have underlined that fact. True, with 431 seats, the SNP won more or less the same number of seats as it did five years ago, when local elections were last held north of the border. However, its performance in 2012 represented something of a disappointment. The party won just 32 per cent of the vote, and was only narrowly ahead of Labour. This compared poorly with its success in winning an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament the previous year, let alone its subsequent achievement in 2015. So, to have repeated that performance is in practice a bit of a setback for the SNP. An early tally of the Scotland-wide vote suggests the party won just 33 per cent, up just one point on 2012. True, that figure cannot be compared directly with its vote in 2015. Around one in eight voters in Scotland vote for Independent candidates, which means that no party is likely to emulate in the local ballot boxes what it would be likely to win in a general election. But it does suggest that recent polls putting support for the SNP in the 8th June ballot at around 42 per cent—significantly lower than in 2015—could ring true. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have been on something of a roll north of the border. They pipped Labour to the post in the race for second place in last year’s Scottish Parliament election, while some recent polls have suggested that the gap between the Tories and Labour has widened since then. Led by the combative Ruth Davidson, Scots Tories have been confident and robust in their defence of the Union, and have used the issue to try and persuade Labour voters to switch to them. The local elections affirmed the Conservatives’ new found position as Scotland’s second party. The party won 14 more seats than Labour while early tallies of the vote put the party four points ahead of their principal rivals for the unionist vote. That perhaps was somewhat less of an advance than the party might have hoped for given some recent polls. Nevertheless, it means that the SNP will now be presented with a challenge that it did not have to face in 2015—a rising Tory tide. In truth, it will not be easy for the Conservatives to win many seats from the SNP. There is only one seat where they will start off less than ten points behind the nationalists, and only another five where they will begin between ten and twenty points behind. But the local elections indicate that some of the strongest Conservative advances on Thursday occurred in these seats, including in the party’s best chance of a gain in Berwickshire, and also in the Moray seat of the SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson. In combination, the Conservative revival and the apparent easing in SNP support seems likely to mean that the Conservatives will take a handful of SNP scalps. That, of course, would help the prime minister in achieving her objective of securing a large Commons majority. It may also serve to strengthen her apparent resolve to avoid any possibility of an early second independence referendum. Yet even if the SNP coterie of MPs at Westminster is somewhat diminished after 8th June, we should remember that until just a few short years ago no one would have ever dreamt that the party could win most of Scotland’s Westminster seats. It will take more than a few Tory gains for us to conclude that the nationalist bubble has now burst.