If it had been me – and it’s probably a good job it wasn’t and isn’t – I’d have taken a few soundings locally.
I’d have asked the people who had just voted for me what they wanted. I’d have consulted community leaders and influencers for their opinion. And importantly – given that I was probably elected by only about 10% of the people living in my ward – I’d have asked a representative smattering of people who didn’t vote for me and didn’t vote at all.
And I’d have factored those views into the whirl of instruction from the party central. For Labour and the SNP, that appears to have amounted to a Get Power strategy. And just over a week after the elections, the colour of local government in Scotland is becoming clear. I hesitate to suggest that the rainbows breaking out all over the country will last for the next five years, because I doubt many of them will. Scotland’s need in the medium and long term has lost out to short term advantage, fuelled purely by party political considerations and attendant tribal enmities.
The usual mould for coalitions is a big party and a wee one or several ones, and that is what we have largely got. A sprinkling of majorities aside and that seemingly noble experiment in Edinburgh, it’s either SNP or Labour leading, with Tories, Lib Dems and independents trying out their committee chairs for size. It’s all rather worked out better for Labour who appear to have been more willing to buy off/in the wee-er groups.
But these are not usual times. In two elections in quick succession, one national, the other local, the section of the populace that voted has largely rejected the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Even the number of Independents has diminished. They have voted for more SNP councillors and significantly in small party terms, for more Greens. Yet, both have been frozen out.
The SNP is harrumphing that it’s all a Unionist plot. On the surface, it does rather look like this but it’s probably more complicated than that. Negotiations involve giving way on key policies and more practically, key convenorships. I’m not sure the psychology of all this sits well with the mindset of many in the SNP. There’s also the issue of naivete, in its truest sense.
A lot of the SNP councillors elected are new and unfamiliar with the wiles and guiles of local government. Some groups might have struggled with the negotiations and their concept and purpose.
The Greens, meanwhile, appear happy to occupy the high moral ground of principle. Some of their groups of one are also new and would not necessarily have wanted to jump straight into administration while learning their craft. If this has happened, then expect a slide back next time round. A wee party on the up needs to get its hands on the levers as quickly as it can. As Councillor Steve Cardownie pointed out this week, the point of politics is power. Not power in itself, but power to achieve a purpose. And if you stay on the sidelines you can be ignored.
On the opposite side, so alien is the raison d’etre of Green politics to the establishment parties that in some areas, they will simply not have been factored into the mix. Ignoring the electoral arithmetic from last Thursday and the trends in favour of donning comfy old political slippers is a dangerous approach.
Maybe this is what folk want but I doubt it. Had the councillors just elected consulted people in their communities about the big issues bothering them and what influenced how they voted on 3 May, they would have heard a lot about fear. Fear of cuts, fear for jobs, fear for the future. If they had bothered to ask who they are most fearful of, the Tories would have been the response. It’s become a reflexive reaction that might not bear much connection with reality, but it is what it is.
Moreover, people who might once have been proud to call themselves Liberal Democrat voters now sneeringly refer to the party in pejorative terms. As a credible force in the current political landscape, the Lib Dems are finished. They are on the slide and haven’t yet reached rock bottom.
And more than anything else, people want security and stability. They want reassurance that there are people in charge who know what they are doing and who can be trusted to put local interests first. And the parties people trust, by and large, are the SNP and Labour – something the groups in Edinburgh almost uniquely managed to grasp, either by necessity or design.
Labour’s eagerness to get its hands back on the tiller – clearly, a deliberate strategy from on high – has pushed it into alliances which might work now but did anyone bother to look at the budgets forecast for the next few years? The cuts they are a-coming.
Between now and 2015, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government is scything Scotland’s funding settlement, leaving us with nearly £1 billion less to spend in revenue and almost £300 million less on capital. In real terms.
The grant from central to local government for general and non-ring fenced expenditure will be cut by over £400 million over the next two years. Not because this SNP Government wants to, but because it has to. The money simply isn’t there, simply isn’t coming from the Westminster Government.
Effectively, Labour has put itself in charge in most parts of Scotland of managing an unprecedented era of cuts to services. All those promises to maintain and preserve some services and improve still others? Might as well rip them up now. And who have you got helping you in this endeavour? The very parties who got us into this mess in the first place. Yep, be careful what you coalesce for and with whom.
The SNP might not, at this stage, have wanted to be on the outside but actually, bearing noisy witness to the wreckage about to befall us, might not be a bad place to be. Just like Labour managed before 2010, the SNP will be able to play the opposition card at this level of government. And Labour only has itself to blame.
For as they survey the rainbow coalition administrations forged in their areas this weekend, can people feel satisfied that they – including the ones who stayed away – were listened to last Thursday, that how they voted is reflected in the make-up of coalitions?
Can they look ahead, confident that the parties have set aside tribal enmity and all thought of party political advantage to work together, to lead their communities through the terrible times to come?
Or will they shake their heads and silently mutter what’s the point of it all anyway?