Why Tory victories in Scotland could be good news for Labour

Independence is, in part, an argument about how to best keep out the Tories.

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“It was devastating," Labour's last MP Ian Murray told me in 2016, recalling the general election which wiped out most of his Scottish colleagues the previous year. "You watch it like a slow motion car crash." Most Scottish Labour activists have a similar traumatic tale to tell. Expectations for Scottish Labour were gloomier than a haar in November.

So the early election has been surprisingly upbeat. Not only does Murray look likely to hold onto his seat, but East Renfrewshire and East Lothian are talked about as possible Labour wins

Both these seats are currently held by the Scottish National Party. But while any gains for Labour will set the pro-union hearts a-flutter, it may in fact signal a return to business as usual - keeping out the Tories. 

An STV/Ipsos Mori poll found that Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has enjoyed an eight point uptick in her approval ratings since September, while the charismatic leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson,  has become more divisive (although she still commands a five point net approval rating). 

More interesting, though, is what happens in individual constituencies. Both Labour and the Conservatives were the preferred party of 19 per cent of voters. But when voters are asked which party they would vote for if it had a chance of winning in their constituency, 35 per cent say Labour, compared to 16 per cent who would vote Conservative. It seems that despite the best efforts of Davidson, the Tory brand is still toxic to the 60 per cent who say they would never vote for her party. By contrast, voters are least likely to have an objection to voting Labour. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Tory revival in Scotland is how pro-independence voters have refused to believe these voters exist, even as Labour veterans speculate about a future Tory Scotland (Davidson herself recently lamented that "apparently, I have to choose between being Scottish and being Conservative". The local elections may have changed this. 

Labour campaigners have long complained that both the SNP and the Tories have thrived thanks to the divisions over a second referendum. The admission by Scotland's SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that an independence referendum will occur at the end of the Brexit process, if it happens at all, removes some of the immediacy of the question.

Scots have voted tactically on constitutional lines, but the independence argument is based at least in part on keeping out the Tories. A Labour MP is more attractive than risking a Tory. The litmus test will be whether Labour can show in the general election 2017 that it can win more constituencies. If Labour looks like a credible anti-Tory bulwark, its return to favour may be faster than expected. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.