Politics

Scottish Conservative Murdo Fraser Wants To Rebrand And Rename His Party - Can You Ever Rebrand Politics?

The Scottish Conservatives thought they hit rock bottom in 1997 when they lost every one of their seats in parliament.

Since then, their vote has declined – and while they have managed to return one MP to the Commons, that seat is now under threat by the changes proposed in the forthcoming boundary review.

Into that context, enter Murdo Fraser, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservative Party in the Scottish parliament and one of the three candidates to replace Annabel Gouldie as leader. His verdict on how the party is doing in Scotland? “We're not even flat-lining. Our votes are continuing to decline.”

The 46-year-old has a plan to create a new Scottish Tory Party, an as-yet unnamed centre-right group who will take the Conservative whip in parliament but want to remain a different party. His opponents in the leadership race - Jackson Carlaw, Ruth Davidson and Margaret Mitch - don’t support the audacious plans but he maintains the Tories are “unsellable” in Scotland.

“Our vote share has been shrinking fairly steadily over the last couple of decades. At the general election in 1997 when we had our famous wipe out we still polled half a million votes but this year in Scottish parliament elections we polled half that amount 250,000.”

But can you ever really re-brand a political party? And is Fraser’s plan to change the party, subject to his winning the election for leader, by June 2012 workable?

For him, there are two templates: New Labour and the Bavarian Conservatives – a splinter group from the main German Conservative party.

“I think a party can successfully re-brand itself and I think the template of that is Tony Blair and New Labour. That wasn't just re-branding, the changing of the name would not have worked without a re-brand.

“I think we need to have a complete change of direction and be seen as being enthusiastic about devolution. That will allow us to credibility re-brand”, says Fraser.

For Deborah Mattinson, co founding of Britain Thinks and Gordon Brown’s former pollster, it takes a long time to re-brand a party.

“The electorate aren't stupid and I think what it's easy to forget is that the whole new Labour thing took a long time to develop, get off the ground”, she says.

“It takes a long time, a lot of energy, you have to have a lot of people behind you. Authenticity is absolutely everything and if people think you're putting a quick lick of a paint on it, it won't work.”

Fraser says he acknowledges the difficulties, stressing “it’s time for a completely new approach”.

“A lot of voters in Scotland share Conservative values but they're not voting Conservative.”

Internal party research showed that voters in Scotland had noticed “the lack of a distinct Scottish identity” for the Tory party. The problem for Fraser? "They thought we were putting English interests first.

“Party polling shows that people want us to be more in touch in ordinary people and the second thing is they want us to have a stronger interest in Scottish affairs.”

When David Cameron became Tory leader in 2005 in 2005 he promised to modernise his party and embarked on an ambitious programme of reform. But Fraser says it “seemed to stop at the border”.

Dr Heather Savigny, an academic at the University of East Anglia and the author of the Problem of Political Marketing, branding is not enough.

She says instead the public needs “believable policies”: “There's a media environment that politicians respond and are stylistic and have a shiny presentation but there needs to be some substance behind that branding. There needs to be some policies and some believable policies behind that.”

And for Dr Savigny, Cameron’s rebranding is falling apart.

“The big problem was that is it was all PR and now that's coming home to roost. At the moment the ideological component is undermining the branding that they did, like Cameron's commitment to climate change. Now he's dropping his green pledges."

Mattinson says she is unsure how the New Labour reinvention would have worked under two parties.

“It wasn't a marketing thing, it was actually about the party changing in a very root and branch sense, and policies changing. The party was basically a different party. This isn't something that can be done superficially. When people talk about brands they talk about logos or names but it's much, much deeper than that.”

Fraser, however, remains optimistic both about his chances of winning and about the rebirth of the Scottish Conservatives. He says the feedback he is getting is “positive”.

In parliament, he maintains differences will “seldom” arise. MPs will take the Conservative whip but they will be elected under a different banners.

“Clearly there is the issue of conflict to arise but in practice it seldom will.”