Some of us might have thought we lived in a douce wee country called Scotland. Today, at least in Council Chambers across the land, it seemed more like the Wild West.
There was a big gunfight in Glasgow. It was the day the Opposition sheriffs rode into town to reclaim their patch from the baddies but Labour’s leader, Gordon Matheson, was not going to be drummed out of town without some high drama. He made a speech for which the word bizarre was created. An adjournment allowed the ruling Labour group to turf their sick and absentee cooncillors into taxis and into the Chamber, to save the administration from certain defeat. They scraped through, just.
What the SNP did today was remarkable high stakes politics and they nearly pulled it off. But it was also vital in the battle to win Glasgow in the May council elections. For decades, Labour has ruled the roost, driving fear into everyone, throwing its weight around, convincing everyone of its infallibility. There has been little point in mounting a posse to chase them out because the party has been utterly dominant.
No longer. Today the people of Glasgow got a whiff of change, of rebellion, of what can be achieved. Labour is not invincible, when cornered and left with no choice, it resorted to low blows. Few will forget seeing a female councillor reduced to tears on the telly, describing how her disabled son’s apprenticeship was threatened if she did not toe the line.
Suddenly Labour doesn’t look so big. Its shots were wide of the mark, tired old jibes that no one listens to anymore. The victory remarks made by Cllr Matheson afterwards were etched with fear. He knows it, his party knows it and the people know it.
Somewhere in the midst of all this high drama was a budget. An attempt to do right by the goodly folk of Glasgow was the justification given by the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens, Tory and motley assortment of mercenary ex-Labour types for acting in consort. The fact that the city had some unpalatable choices to make today and had to work out how to spend its money wisely, to prevent some of Scotland’s poorest people becoming even poorer (if that were possible), is posted missing in action. Sometimes, politicians would do well to remember what politics is actually supposed to be for. But actually, this probably wasn’t one of those times.
This was a battle for the political soul of Glasgow and the SNP won it, if not the actual budget vote. The party and the electorate will be emboldened now and it will take a miracle – or more of the bullying and bluster in evidence today – to prevent Labour losing control in May. Labour is holed up in the saloon and won’t be able to shoot its way out.
Elsewhere, proceedings were rather more prosaic. The SNP/LibDem administration in Fife circled its wagons, turfing out the private and voluntary sector and bringing more services in-house. Everyone inside the wagons will be kept cosy round the campfire; the rest can take their chances with the coyotes. Yet, it makes neither good fiscal nor social policy to cut swathes through other sectors in order to balance the books. It’s municipalism writ large and the direction of travel is not one that anyone else recommends, including the Scottish Government. Short term safety for the mass of employees in the council does not necessarily make for strong local communities and this kind of siege mentality nearly always ends in tears.
In Edinburgh, the LibDem/SNP administration bought their way out of potential trouble, rather than resorting to their six shooters. It put together a £26million programme of investment, with only £5.2 million worth of cuts. Has the council been panning for gold in them there Pentland hills? Close. Not only did it raid £6million from reserves but Edinburgh City Council is raking it in from council tax revenues. It only had to find £213.4million to plug the gap between government grant and spending requirements; even with a fifth year freeze, the council will earn £15 million more than it needs. But be assured, lowly citizens, for it shall spend your money wisely, investing £85,000 in planting trees, an extra £50,ooo on winter festivals and also managing to refurbish Joppa tennis pavilion. (There are, of course, other gold-plated spending plans of greater import but clearly the idea of cutting council tax never entered these Sheriffs’ minds).
North Lanarkshire is where Labour has ruled since dinosaurs roamed the land. It really would appear to be the land that time forgot, for the council is only now hitching its wagons to the efficiency trail. Who said there was no fat left to be trimmed from the local government herd? Some of North Lanarkshire’s savings came from cutting out the midday clean at high schools, cutting free transport for secondary school weans living less than three miles away, stopping night time street cleaning in town centres, reducing spending on publications and newspapers, introducing charges for gardening assistance and stopping water coolers in offices. Some farflung outposts had to slaughter such cows many years ago.
Less helpfully, the council cut the grant for a breastfeeding initiative, despite the area having the worst feeding rate in Scotland; closed Motherwell Heritage Centre to use it as a store; and increased Maths and English class sizes, cutting 20 teacher posts. This last one the SNP might want to remember when faced with Labour taunts about falling teacher numbers.
But while the bairns can go without the best start in life, the denizens can do without culture and yoofs’ literacy and numeracy can be compromised, never fear, there will be no pensioner revolt to contend with: the council will continue to pay £25 to elderly citizens at Christmas. This is one council clearly with plenty of salted beef still to see it through the harsh financial winters ahead.
Finally, to Dumfries and Galloway, where the Conservative-led administration opted to trade with those pesky Indians to stave off trouble. Each tribe came bearing their beads and furs in the form of alternative spending commitments, and it was the SNP whose gifts were accepted. A modern apprenticeship and young entrepreneurs programme, inflationary increases in foster and kinship care allowances, increases in school clothing grants, and a new welfare advice service – all these measures and more, and the peace pipe was shared with only Labour choosing to huff rather than puff.
Tomorrow, the clean-up will begin in earnest and it will require much settling of dust before citizens can determine the real impact from today’s battles. But the calm will be an uneasy one before the parties saddle up to do battle all over again in May.