Yesterday was the first day of term—the first meeting of the new East Lothian Council after the election of May 3rd. It would have been easy for me and my eight SNP colleagues to have grumped about the place but I was rather proud of the calm dignity with which handled ourselves under the political oxymoron of ten Labour and three Tory councillors forming an Administration.
We were put in this galling position by the Lib-Dem ‘snaw-aff-a-dyke’ act of losing all six seats they won in 2007 and thereby removing any option of working with them again. But it was not all bad. Whereas Labour administrations I had had to thole 1999-2003 and 2003-2007 would take every post for themselves then scoff at opposition impotence, the allocation of posts was equitable and approved nem con.
Having a Tory provost is a first, as is one who promises to be above party; he even resigned the group leadership to add weight to that assertion. But, as one of the two members with a quarter century of council service under his belt and a minuted record of strong moral dimensions, he certainly has the experience to make a decent fist of the job.
Indications of a more enlightened, even fair, approach to business was an allocation of one CoSLA delegate to each of the three parties, the allocation of chairs of the two Scrutiny Panels to the opposition members who the SNP group had nominated for them and a balanced spread of political balance among the committees allocated so far. Given we were the opposition (and in contrast to 1999 or 2003), there was no more to complain about than there had been when we proposed equivalent divisions in 2007.
So are the runes favourable for a quiet life in opposition over the next five years? Not quite. Of the 13 items on the agenda, the one that triggered most debate was Item 10 Manifesto. Unlike 5 years ago when the SNP & Lib-Dems took a month to hammer out a joint manifesto to bring to council for approval, this paper consisted of the two campaign manifestos stapled together.
Let’s leave aside that the Labour half still contained text decrying the SNP as a promise-breaking, baby-eating bunch of political barbarians that made our voting for it an exercise in self-immolation, there was such a gulf of philosophy that I’m not sure we need do much more than bring popcorn to meetings so that we can watch them go picnicking on each other.
Better yet, we had already had a chance to dissect both manifestos and, of the two, the Labour one, while showing a vast improvement in terms to having a few ideas to balance the flurry of brickbats aimed at their opponents, had some howler contraditions that may cause them some grief in implementation.
We are—as all but inhabitants of Rockall must know—in recession and money is getting tighter for all, including councils. Prominent on Page 3 of Labour’s manifesto was a promise “Every Council policy will be subject to an assessment of its impact on jobs and the economy in East Lothian, policies that threaten jobs will be rejected”. Laudable—and not far from our own policy of avoiding compulsory redundancies. But the manifesto is then peppered with unfunded promises, the logical conclusion of which is job losses, e.g.:
- “Introduce a £100,000 budget for each secondary school cluster for the schools to determine their joint priorities”. Cost each year? £600,000 = 21.4 jobs
- “Halt the outsourcing of home care services”. Cost each year? 280,000 = 10 jobs
- “Improve the quality and accessibility of public transport across East Lothian, including restoring rural bus services cut by the SNP administration”. Cost per year? £180,000 = 6.4 jobs
- “Restore “free special uplifts”, take action to reduce fly-tipping and introduce tougher penalties to deter dog fouling”. Cost per year? £300,000 = 10.7 jobs
- “Keep our school buildings open and available for community use outwith school time and review opening hours of community facilities with a view to increasing activities and use by young people”. Cost per year (because of Labour-approved PFI)? £96,000 = 3.4 jobs
- Not mentioned in the manifesto was a motion to take June 5th as a holiday at a cost of just shy of £500,000 = 17.8 jobs
There were plenty of other laudable promises in their manifesto but it would be difficult to give serious estimates of what delivery might cost. What is clear from the above is that, given a 3% shrinkage in money coming to ELC next year, the promises listed above would require almost 80 staff to lose their jobs in order that these promises could be funded.
We strongly opposed such contradictory irresponsibility. That their Tory colleagues voted for this classic Labour exercise in overcommitment speaks either for their innocence or for their ambition for power. I suspect in won’t take the next five years to find out which.