Where now for Scotland’s Unionist Parties?

Will Burstow

Unionist parties cannot now rest on their laurels after a good set of results in Scotland for the Lib Dems and a great set of results for the Conservatives, there is much more work to do to keep separatism at bay. So with that in mind I thought we’d have a look at what underlying Unionist trends there seems to be within the 2nd place finishes of the election.

So, exhibit A is a map of all second place finishes on the 5th of May in Scotland. So far, so good. Lots of blue, but in the urban central belt a lot of red too and the Lib Dems are clear Unionist challengers in the highlands.

Exhibit B are the regional breakdowns of second place by party and by majority. What is telling is that the Conservatives are now significant challengers to the SNP in all regions bar Glasgow and Central Scotland.

Displaying 2nd Places SP16.png2nd Places SP16

SNP far out of reach for Labour.

Drilling down into the data, the first thing to note is the position of the Labour Party across Scotland. Labour are second in 38 constituencies, but the majorities they have to overcome are large and larger. They have 8 seats with majorities to overcome that are between 1,001 & 5,000 votes, 26 between 5,001 and 10,000 and 4 with majorities that are 10,000+.

The problem Labour have here is twofold. 30 of those 38 seats have majorities over 5,000, and Labour are in a real pickle in Scotland. Usually on a good night you will be able to pick up a number of seats with majorities of over 5,000, look at how the Conservatives did in the South West of Britain in the 2015 general election, but the problem is that Labour have not had a good night in Scotland in years.

Literally years. So really it is highly unlikely that they will be able to make serious gains next time. In reality they only actually have a chance in places like Cowdenbeath (Maj 3041), Coatbridge and Chryston (Maj 3779), and Rutherglen (Maj 3743), all the lowest SNP majority held seats with Labour in second.

Conservatives best placed to gain next time.

The Conservatives come in at 17 second places. Now their second places are a lot more competitive, with just under half sitting on majorities less than 5,000, they are also on the ascendancy in Scotland so it will be much easier for them to make further gains next time round than say Labour.

If the Conservatives can keep the momentum up, hold the SNP to account and see more Unionists rally to their cause they could expect to turn much of North East Scotland and Mid Scotland & Fife blue.

You are looking at potential gains in Perthshire South and Kinross-shire (Maj 1422), Angus North & Mearns (Maj 2472), Aberdeen South & North Kincardine (Maj 2755), Perthshire North (Maj 3336), and Angus South (Maj 4304). We’re not talking just Unionists coming to the party from the Lib Dems and the Labour party, in the North East and Mid Scotland there were huge swings from SNP to Conservative.

In the NE, Aberdeenshire West where the Conservatives won, their vote was up 17%, the SNP vote down 7%. In Aberdeenshire East the SNP vote fell a ground trembling 18.7% while the Conservative vote jumped 15%. Even in Dundee City East, where the Conservatives are still third they advanced 7.6% and the SNP fell 6.2%.
In Mid, Perthshire South and Kinross-shire the SNP voter fell by 9.1% while the Conservatives were up 9.9%. It suggests to me that former Conservative and Unionist voters in the NE are going back to the party after a prolonged absence fighting the Labour party using the SNP. Significant because it shows that unabashed Unionist parties can win votes off the SNP in places that they have of late been piling them up.

Highland party for the Lib Dems.

In the Highlands and Islands it is the same picture for the Lib Dems. They are, bar North East Fife and Edinburgh Western, almost a regional party in constituency terms at the moment. The bulk of their vote share is based in the Highlands and Islands. They have the Orkneys and Shetlands and are second placed in Caithness, Sutherland, and Ross (Maj 3913), Argyll & Bute (Maj 5978), and Sky, Lochaber, and Badenoch (Maj 9043).

While they may only be in within 5,000 votes of the SNP in Caithness, Sutherland, and Ross, they are taking chunks out of them (alongside the Conservatives, who look well placed to take Moray (Maj 2875) next time) across the Highlands and Islands. Lib Dem vote share is up by 8.8% in Caithness, Sutherland, and Ross while the SNP are down 5.1%, while in Argyll & Bute the Lib Dems are up a stonking 13.6% and the SNP are down 4.6%.

Next steps for Unionism in Scotland

So in summary I see the most potential for gains for the Unionist movement in the Highlands (Lib Dem led), North East, Mid Scotland (Conservative led), and if the Labour party can get their act together, potentially in Central Scotland and maybe one Glasgow seat.

For future cycles, or if the Conservatives have another huge night in 2021, we could see further Unionist gains in South Scotland, again in Mid Scotland & Fife, and perhaps finally in Lothian. Watch out for Midlothian South, Tweeddale, and Lauderdale (Maj 5868), Clydesdale (Maj 5979), Stirling (Maj 6718) and Edinburgh Pentlands (Maj 2456) next time.

Many people talk of Unionist Unity, often considered a last ditch attempt to keep republicanism at bay in Northern Ireland, but it seems to me that Scottish Unionists are best placed to work on targeting their own parts of the country for the moment. Right now, strategically speaking the best thing for Scottish Unionists is to get candidates selected early, get them working in the community and telling people about that work, and get canvassing and by 2020 those SNP majorities won’t be looking so big.

The biggest worry for Unionism, much like it was in 2014, is what will happen to the Labour party. It was admirable for Dugdale to try to talk about bread and butter issues at this election, but ignoring the SNP’s push for another referendum is not the way to put the issue to bed. In ignoring it they have ceded Unionist ground to the Conservatives. Whatever way they go they will be seen as Independence or Unionist-lite.

The problem is that the voters that they want to win back have went SNP. There are two ways of going about fixing this, Labour swing behind separatism and try and out left the SNP (The latter of which has not worked so far) or they stick to their guns and stand as the left wing party that believes in the Union.

The key thing is that the latter of these paths is the only one that has worked in Scotland so far. With the Conservatives they demonstrated that they would stand up for the Union and sell the emotional and rational advantages of it and they pulled voters back from the SNP by the bucket load. Labour could try tacking left and become separatists, but their performance so far has proved this to be a losing strategy, and becoming a separatist party won’t change that. As you would expect me to, I strongly advise the Labour party against doing this, they will be squeezed out of Scotland by the SNP and their Unionist vote will never come back.

Now if Labour where so foolish to commit political harikari the Lib Dems would truly have a place as the left leaning Unionist party in Scotland, They would be in a position to do with Scotland what they did with the South West of Britain in the 80’s and 90’s. A thrilling prospect for them no doubt.

Whatever happens going forward, we Unionists can feel a little more confident, for we have clearly reached peak SNP and have went beyond it. As they say, what goes up, must come down. The Unionist Doomsday clock ticks a few minutes more away from midnight this week.

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