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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Council elections

As the dust settles on last week’s council elections time for a few reflections.

Lets start with the election results. The main story of the election was the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote. Last year, the SNP gained most from the Liberal Democrats’ collapse, this time the distribution was much more even. The trick in an STV election system is getting the number of candidates right. At the last election, the SNP had 83% of its candidates elected, but in this election it got 69% in. Scottish Labour, improved its election rate from 67% to 79%, suggesting it was better at gauging its own support, or just more realistic. I think John Curtice’s summary is about right;

“Overall, there was evidently hardly a cigarette paper between Labour and the SNP, as compared with the long run of Scottish electoral history that still represents a considerable achievement by the Nationalists. But as compared with where we were just 12 months ago, it is difficult to avoid the impression that it does not represent something of a setback. Certainly, as compared with the position a week ago, it is Labour, not the SNP, who have gained most from this latest verdict from the ballot box.”

There was an attempt by some commentators to rain on Labour’s parade. But no amount of number crunching can hide the fact that this was a significant comeback from last year. Politics is about momentum and comparisons with 2011 are more important than 2007. I thought Johann Lamont’s interviews over last weekend hit just the right tone. This was a good result, but Labour shouldn’t get carried away - there is much more to do both politically and organisationally.

Overall turnout was low, but not as low as had been feared and higher than the 32% in England. The media coverage was mixed at national level and limited by balanced coverage at local level. De-selected councillors and twitter musings do not make an election. However, at the least the debate was not totally lost in national issues as it was when held on the same day as parliamentary elections.

UNISON Scotland has long argued for council elections to be decoupled to allow for a focus on local government. In fact it was one of the few times we have supported a Tory Member’s Bill. I recall a meeting with Brian Monteith (when he was an MSP) at which he exclaimed his pleasure at this rare occurrence, to which I responded that we had many more policies, such as public ownership, that we could work on together. He didn’t sound too enthusiastic!

The number of female councillors marginally increased from 22% to 24.3%, still well below the 40% in England. Scottish Labour’s positive action programme did at least deliver a decent increase in female councillors from 17% to 26%, demonstrating again that positive action does work.

No joy for the fascists with the BNP (Britannica) & (Scottish)NF vote falling yet again to tiny proportions. Only nine votes in one ward, typically 20 to 30 votes. The austerity rise of fascism in France and Greece thankfully not translating into Scotland.

Post election the horse trading starts, and while not finalised everywhere, there has been a remarkable level of change in the leadership of Scotland’s local authorities. The main beneficiaries have been Scottish Labour who look like leading most of Scotland’s councils. Iain MacWhirter claims “It’s all about tribalism”. This view is a bit naive and simply ignores the consequences of the STV system. Naïve because it is inevitable that parties who are the main contestants in an area will be a little bruised and therefore less willing to engage with their main opponents. The personal always counts in politics and relationships with councillors from smaller parties are often better.

It is also a simple fact that the outcome in many Scottish councils are large Labour and SNP groups and the only way of running the council is an agreement, formal or otherwise, with smaller parties. In these circumstances a Labour/SNP deal would leave the council without an effective opposition. The usual cybernat nonsense about “direction from English bosses” wasn’t even the case when local government matters were in the UK Labour rulebook. After last year’s devolution of the rulebook, coalition approvals are now firmly the responsibility of the Scottish Labour Party’s Local Government Committee.

I do agree with Iain that coalition deals with the SNP make much more sense in policy terms and they would be my personal preference. The Edinburgh deal makes a lot of sense as does the arrangements in East Renfrewshire and Highland. I would predict that these will not be the only ones, depending on the outcome of negotiations. However, the electoral arithmetic in many councils limits the opportunities for such arrangements.

What we are seeing in coalition agreements is a real focus on jobs, apprenticeships, poverty, inequality, housing and the living wage. Being in power when budgets are being slashed may be something of a poisoned chalice, but to pinch a climate change term, mitigation is as important as adaptation.

So while there is an element of tribalism in all parties, in my experience this is rarely the determining factor in cutting coalition deals. The forthcoming referendum may be factor in some councillors views, but the overall approach is far more pragmatic. Getting as much of your manifesto implemented as possible, so you can deliver for the communities you seek to serve.


  1. Clever words but this still leaves Labour doing dirty deals with the Tories, taking their polices into coalition.

  2. Actually it doesn't. Where deals involve a small group of Tories the policy trade off is proportionate and none I have seen involve any of Labour's key manifesto pledges. In fairness I suspect the same is true of SNP deals in similar circumstances.