Archive for category Local government

A Labour-SNP Coalition, how grand

Another guest from Dan Phillips, a post-election wrap-up of his Edinburgh coverage.

What drama? What conspiracy? What intrigue, hey? But in the end the most obvious result came to fruition. Only a mile up the road from the partisan backbiting of Holyrood, Labour and SNP are in coalition.

I cannot condemn that result. Two parties, largely agreeing on the direction of Edinburgh, forming a coalition with a stable majority. Why wasn’t it so obvious? How much hatred can there be between these two parties that a constitutional divide – whilst real on the national level is illusory on the local – remains a sticking point.

My own suggestion of the Traffic Light 29, whilst mathematically possible, was politically impractical. With the SNP wooing the Tories heavily we could have a neatly divided council, not with one potential administration but two. Red/Green/Yellow vs Tartan and Blue. An entire election and the fate of Scotland’s capital coming down to the cut of the deck. Exciting drama, but such antics are best left to the telly. You could argue that Labour had a moral right to form such a group, but one thing politics is not about is putting your opponent into power if you have a realistic stab at it yourself. Plus with the election leaving Edinburgh littered with Lib Dem bodies, they didn’t want to join, or supply confidence. Not that the possibility was discussed.

The curious attempt to skewer the Greens, with opposing parties’ activists condemning their refusal to join a Lab/Tory/Green mash up is also nonsensical. As soon as Lab and the Tories disagreed with their Green fig-leaf there would be nothing to stop them jettisoning their junior partner. Such realpolitik would leave the Greens open to use, then abuse.

Similarly Labour’s hopes of an ‘all talents’ coalition with all five parties foundered on such stony ground. The only example of such a coalition existing is in Northern Ireland’s Assembly. It only works there because the parties are compelled to do it and legislation can only be passed if a majority within both the unionist and nationalist bloc assent. Here there is no such structural guarantees. Indeed there are arguments in Stormont that it barely works there, with a ‘government within the government’ emerging as the DUP and Sinn Fein find out that they have a little more in common than they ever expected.

So Labour, fearing the most almighty of backlashes from bedding the Tories suddenly saw those personal differences, the historical division and Cardownie’s defection as not that insurmountable at all. How grown-up of our political chums. Long may it continue.

City of Discovery

The SNP achieved their first council majorities under the STV voting system in Dundee and Angus last week.

In Dundee, every one of the 16 candidates standing for the SNP were elected, giving an amazing two SNP councillors in every one of Dundee’s eight wards, including in 3 three-member wards.

The results in Dundee are testament to how the SNP has focused on building electoral support over the long-term, but also shows the strategy the rest of the party needs to heed if they want control of Scotland’s other cities.

From its Victorian past as ‘Juteopolis’, with harsh working and living conditions and low wages for its predominately female workforce, to the loss of thousands of jobs in the last quarter of the 20th century as the shipyards, carpet manufacturing and jute factories closed, Dundee has been shaped both by industrialisation and post-industrialisation. In recent years the city continues to be beset with the creation and removal of manufacturing jobs, the most striking being the loss of almost 1,000 jobs as NCR has ceased the manufacture of ATMs in the city, where it has operated since 1945.

The public sector – the universities, NHS Tayside and Dundee City Council – remains the city’s main employer. But the development of the waterfront – from Scottish Government funding for an outpost of the V&A, to a memorandum of understanding to attract offshore wind suppliers to the city – as well as continuing developments in biosciences and computer games means Dundee’s moniker of the ‘City of Discovery’ gives promise of a better economic future.

The story of Dundee’s transformation is a story reflected in the SNP’s gains and now control of the city. Labour consolidated its parliamentary position in Dundee post 1945, but its share of the vote hovered around 55% well into the 1970s. Dundee may have been a working class city, but this figure indicates a third of Dundee’s working class consistently voted Conservative.

The rise of the SNP since the 1970s mirrors the collapse of support for Scottish conservatism. Starting with the SNP’s near miss in the 1973 Dundee East by-election, anti-Labour voters began to drift away from the Conservative Party to an increasing affection for the SNP, developed through de-industrialisation and the perception that Westminster governments, especially under Thatcher, cared little for the city and the problems of her inhabitants. Former SNP leader Gordon Wilson won Dundee East in February 1974, holding it until 1987 from where it remained Labour until Stuart Hosie’s close victory in 2005, with his vote consolidating in 2010.

The growth of the SNP in Dundee post-devolution – taking both Holyrood seats and comfortably holding one of the two for Westminster – may have sprung from a foundation of working-class Conservative support, but its success comes from adopting Labour’s traditional garb of social democratic policies, eating into the Labour vote. Even the headline figures in the SNP’s local manifestos in 2012 give a pithy reminder of how this strategy is one the SNP needs to succeed. Where Edinburgh SNP’s £20m for road repairs looks a little lacklustre next to Edinburgh Labour’s utopian promise of a co-operative council, Dundee SNP was bold and bright with the promise of £320m local investment “through building council houses and five new primary schools, as well as freezing council tax until 2016 and introducing a living wage for all council staff.” I’m sure Edinburgh SNP had similar policies, but they certainly didn’t put them front and forward.

Coupled with weak organisation on the part of the Labour Party, centered around maintaining its hold on Dundee West at Westminster, it has been possible for the SNP to straddle the spectrum of both being competent city leaders as well as the anti-establishment choice. As Dundee’s economic future seems brighter, despite setbacks like the loss of NCR jobs, the local SNP has been able to trumpet successes and blame losses on others.

It is a dichotomy the rest of the Scottish National Party needs to excel at, for winning council seats, the referendum and to retain power in Holyrood. To be competent at governing to give confidence to non-traditional SNP voters, while maintaining its allure as an alternative to the forces of conservatism south of the border and the fatigued Labour Party to the north.

Dundee is a city of innovation and re-invention, transforming itself from producing jute to producing graduates, with profound social and political consequences that the SNP have surfed to success. While many look at the chicken bones of Glasgow and Edinburgh for divination of the future of Nationalism and independence, I think the exemplar of how independence could be won can be discovered just a little further to the north.

All go for traffic lights in Edinburgh

Another Edinburgh-centric guest post from Better Nation’s esteemed friend Dan Phillips, following his previous posts on the SNP and the Lib Dems locally. Dan’s a press photographer by trade but a political obsessive at heart. A small ‘l’ liberal, he blogs at

So there we have it. 20 Labour, 18 SNP, 11 Conservative, 6 Green, and 3 Lib Dems form the new council.

As the journalists and myself pored over these numbers and argued the toss, ‘definitely Lab/Tory’, ‘it has to be Lab/SNP’, ‘Lab/Green/Lib Dem traffic lights for me’, leader of Labour in Edinburgh Andrew Burns swept through with a Cheshire cat grin spread across his face.

‘We’re just trying to work out your coalition Andrew’, I said.

He replied: ‘So am I!’

Everyone tells me this was a boring campaign. Geek that I am, I thought it sensational. Turnout wasn’t awful at just over 40%, Labour won despite most people’s expectations and the Lib Dems provided a Portillo moment with Jenny Dawe’s hopes for safety in Meadows/Morningside being dashed as her seat was removed by the SNP. I’m sorry for her but the Lib Dems had a defeat coming and didn’t try to defend themselves until the last few weeks. The Greens made the jaws drop of supporters and critics alike as they not only won 6 seats but topped the poll in Fountainbridge, removing a ‘safe’ Tory, and then made lightning strike twice as Burgess won the top spot in Southside/Newington. Although I had expected them to win one more, the now councillor who waggled his finger and said: ‘You underestimate us, you Liberal Sell Out’ was proven correct, and I am delighted to be wrong.

Much will now be made of the SNP’s strategy. Their vaulting ambition did over-leap itself. But that doesn’t mean they were wrong to stand two candidates in Leith Walk, or Craigentinny and in many other seats. In a higher turnout those seats could have swung their way. But they also discovered the huge problem standing two risks: the pesky electorate might pick the ‘wrong’ one. They still have a councillor in Leith, just not Rob Munn, so it was a bitter-sweet victory for Adam McVey. I don’t suppose they’ll try it again.

And then the Tories pulled a Nick Cook shaped rabbit out of the Liberton/Gilmerton hat. No one saw that coming, apart from the proud Conservative activist I overheard saying ‘I knew it would work!’ Good for you Nick.

So now comes the hard part. If you follow conventional wisdom, Labour gets to govern and SNP form the opposition, giving the Tories the mathematical possibility of getting in bed with the Reds while the Greens and Lib Dems are left in the cold.

For me that would be a crazy conclusion. Just look at the manifestos. And then look at the behaviour of Greens and Labour at the tailend of the last session, they marched in lockstep on so many things they reeked of a government in waiting. Their policies agree on the end result, Labour say ‘co-operative council’, Greens say ‘Participative Budgets’, they just propose different means. They can work it out.

Which leaves a Lab/Green coalition on 26, short of the magic 30 for a majority of one. But hold your horses, the last administration only had 28, with 17 Lib Dems and 11 SNP until one swapped parties within the coalition.

I suggest that means a traffic light coalition which gives us 29 is a wide open door for the Lib Dems. But do they pass through? They were utterly defeated, reduced to a rump of 3 in the West of the city. But this is not a time for sulking. Either they form a part of the government or they buy one of Edinburgh’s police boxes and have their own meetings within as everyone else gets on with running Edinburgh. They need to prove there’s still a reason for loyalty to the Lib Dems, contributing to the administration is the best way.

Which leaves 29, one short of a proper majority. But the Lord Provost has the casting vote so they could still get their budget through.

Of course I’m ignoring the glaringly obvious. A Labour/SNP coalition. It could work, of course. In fact it’d have a stonking majority. But better informed people than I talk of the deep personal animosity between some of the councillors. Those hatchets buried in each other’s backs will have to be dislodged and the wounds healed over. If there’s any message to take from the last administration it’s don’t form a coalition if you can’t agree. Even if they don’t form a coalition at some level arguments that stem from a different political era need to be consigned to history. Edinburgh doesn’t need a dysfunctional 5 years, it needs leadership and with a divided council that means co-operation. So it could work.

But the Labour/Green love-in is such a tantalising prospect and with so many ideas bursting from their manifestos this would be a chance to set Edinburgh on a new course. The Lib Dems are surely compelled to join this coalition of the willing or they risk irrelevance. This is the only extra traffic light Edinburgh requires. Red. Yellow. Green.

Festival of democracy posted missing

Today’s election is not just the first STV local election not held on the same day as a Holyrood election, it’s also the first time the capital has voted since banning lamppost placards. In June last year the SNP and Tories voted the ban through, meaning Edinburgh, like Glasgow, Dundee and other local authorities, would be placard-free this year.

It’s a baffling decision, given the legal requirement, largely well-observed by all parties, to take them down promptly. When the turnout figures are published, it’ll probably be forgotten amongst the reasons given for low numbers.

In general I have less of a problem with low turnout than media commentators tend to do, and compulsory voting means we get results driven more by those who don’t really care about the results. But government and agencies at all levels should still be making it easier to vote (including a move away from Thursdays, or towards voting on more than one day), and easier to remember to vote.

It’s unlikely that placards ever change elections much, although 1999 may be an exception – a sea of Green placards across Edinburgh gave Robin Harper’s candidacy a boost. What they do do is remind everyone that there’s an election on. They spark conversations about politics, and they used to give the city a “festival of democracy” feel. The city allows placards for the Fringe and for the actual festival, which is fine – but is an election not equally worth promoting? Whoever wins in Edinburgh I hope this bizarre rule gets overturned before the city votes again.

Vote exhaustively, vote locally

All too often local elections get billed as “a crucial mid-term test of support for the Government”, or even described as “the biggest opinion poll since the general election”. It’s intensely irritating and it should be ignored. Sure, Holyrood and Westminster have more powers, and sure, people’s opinions of the parties nationally will play out tomorrow. But a week’s worth of punditry about the national implications will be quickly forgotten – these elections will again elect local councils for a long five year term.

And they should be regarded as important in their own right. Local government matters, despite the long years over which power has been sucked from them by Westminster and more recently by Holyrood – notably, does anyone think they’re electing a local administration with the power to make tax choices based on the needs of their community? Local councils can cock up important transport projects or they can expand safe cycle networks, they can privatise and close down local services or instead pay a living wage, they can send their own leadership around in limos or make them walk, cycle or take the bus, and they set the tone for planning too.

It matters what the parties in office have achieved, and what are the other credible candidates offering? Do they have principles that matter to you locally? I’m in favour of independence, but it doesn’t tell you much about what SNP councillors or candidates would do, for instance. In Edinburgh their shambolic administration with the Lib Dems means the Nats will be marked down my ballot paper. Conversely Glasgow has been run by Labour for Labour alone, with incompetence and the whiff of something worse, and I’m not surprised to see Green councillor Kieran Wild arguing that that city needs a change too.

Also, your candidates matter, if you can find out enough about them to make an informed judgement. Until I moved house in the run-up to the 2007 local elections I lived in a ward represented by the Labour councillor who rammed the doomed Caltongate project through planning. If I’d stayed where I was he’d have probably got my last preference. If I lived in Aberdeenshire I’d look very closely at who backed the Trump application, or in Aberdeen who voted which way on Union Terrace Gardens.

The electoral system is the most proportional we get to cast, and not using all your preferences only makes sense if you genuinely can’t choose between two candidates – for instance, if there are two indistinguishable Tories standing in your ward and they’d get your last two preferences. SNP MSP John Mason recently posted his completed ballot paper on Facebook, which apparently isn’t quite a breach of the 1983 Representation of the People Act, and he’d only voted SNP with his first two preferences, despite it being a four member ward. John: is it really the case that you don’t care whether the other two councillors elected are Green, Labour, Lib Dem or Tory? Seriously?

Using all your preferences is also a particular kind of anoraky fun. In 2007 I had the pleasure of putting a 1 next to Alison Johnstone’s name – a good friend as well someone who knew would make a great Green councillor – then putting my least favourite Lib Dem last, and filling in the gaps. Personally, I tend to put the Tories second last with Lib Dems last, because at least the Tories tend to be more honest about their plans, but it’s not easy. This time I’ll need to work out where UKIP fit in amongst that tail end.

This is the first time Scottish voters have had a local election using STV without a Holyrood election on the same day. Turnout will be down, of course, but that may not be the disaster the pundits will claim it to be if those who do vote are those who care about their local area and vote both locally and exhaustively. Don’t worry about your country. Your local authority area needs you.