So, it’s the final stretch. I have avoided blogging about the upcoming local election partly because I have an interest in it and partly because the great majority of normal people don’t. It doesn’t matter that they should; it doesn’t matter that over £2,000 per head is spent locally of behalf of each and every one of you, nor that holes in the street, dog fouling and scaffy service are on far more minds than nuclear submarines, refining laws or endless enquiries in London about who tweeted whom when about what.
The result in my own East Lothian will not be spectacular; Labour took its unexpected thrashing five years ago but, other than local Lib-Dems following a nationally expected trend of doing a snaw-aff-a-dyke act, the dust will settle on the local SNP running the council in some form. If there is any focus, it will be on the contest in Glasgow where, through their own silly internal wrangling, Labour have lost overall control and don’t look likely to get it back. But smart money—including the SNP’s—is that nobody will be able to secure an overall majority there.
And that is likely to be the main outcome—Labour losing its remaining strangle-/strong-holds in Midlothian, Glasgow and the two Lanarkshires. Rather than anything radical, this is simply a kind of political hysteresis—a natural delay of cause and effect in any monolithic organisation, as when a brontosaurus has a heart attack, everything functions normally for a while before the scattered physiology realises that it’s dead.
Though it will not be a good outcome for Labour, it will be no wipeout. Despite the fact that La Lamont and others on the bridge have proved themselves incapable of adjusting to reality and have logged five years of ill-tempered reactionary opposition with hardly two ideas to rub together, that’s not true everywhere. West Central Scotland may still see many tear-stained red rosettes because they still don’t ‘get it’.
But read Edinburgh Labour’s manifesto and here is a group who have taken recent electoral drubbings to heart and have a set of policies as close to visionary as anyone has managed in their party since Blair. The only question is, if all these shiny ideas are so good, why they had done nothing about them pre-2007 when they ran the place? But the voter is a fickle creature and such history counts for little. Labour won’t surge back into control of the capital but nor will they suffer much further loss.
And that is more likely to be the story where the local party has been dragged into the 21st century and no longer quote Thatcher and the miners’ strike as their main rationale. They will wallow directionless in Dundee, Fife, Ayrshire and the like for a while longer but they may start to come back elsewhere—non-traditional areas where they have good local candidates, instead of the traditional party-loyal-numpty-with-red-rosette.
Wee Ruthie Davidson has made a weak fist so far of here tenure as Tory leader. National appearances have simply echoed the miseryguts attacks on the Scottish government but locally, they claim to want devolution from the centre. Not a bad idea, except that the SNP was already parading that idea. In stark contrast to the pre-2007 bickering within Labour, Swinney and the councils have been a revelation in co-operation and those who claim this is from supine passivity of SNP councils awed by His Eckness have clearly never met many SNP Council Leaders.
So the Tories might be talking sense but then—to one section of the population—they always did. However, their appeal elsewhere remains risible and, as long as they make the mistake of conflating the independence debate with the SNP’s competence in running councils and country, there will remain marking time in the wilderness. As for the Lib-Dems, this will be their worst election to date, comparable to the great collapse of the Liberals in Scotland almost a century ago. They won’t disappear but they’ll be decimated, with Tories overtaking them in votes and councillor numbers.
And, while there are plucky Green, UKIP, BNP and Independent candidates all over the country, those elected are likely to be sitting councillors or in the cities where they had colleagues. That means UKIP/BNP get none, the Greens a handful in Edinburgh and Glasgow and the independents will retain their Borders/DG/Highlands-and-Islands dominance, albeit with a few losses.
Which leaves the SNP. They are considered to be riding high, have firm control of the government and varied levels of control in a dozen councils. This could be the time when they sweep all before it, much, as they did last May. That is possible, and, speaking as a party member of 35 years, desirable. But it’s not going to happen.
First of all, apart from well oiled machines like Perth & Kinross that never make the news, the SNP has been thrust into power in a swathe of places new to them. That meant relative inexperience, not least because Labour was venal in its refusal to share power with anyone unless forced. This has resulted in some understandable mistakes; Edinburgh’s clumsy handling of the trams hot potato is perhaps the best known.
Secondly, the mess that Brown’s administration left in Whitehall (“all the money’s gone” read the note on the Treasury desk) had its parallel in Scottish councils. Aberdeen was left with a financial bombshell; Renfrewshire was little better; my own East Lothian had to deal with a £149,000 payoff to its Chief Executive that the Accounts Commission and CiPFA reversed in embarrassment. Many SNP councils have struggled to right the ship.
Thirdly, although the now-double-dip recession has been well advertised, people still were used to the decade of Labour control when council spending almost doubled from £6bn in 1999 to £11bn last year. Although expectations, children, social care and elderly are all rising in demand, the money to do it is now going the other way. Objective understanding is one thing but when the local school closes or bins get lifted only every other week, people focus on that and forget why.
So, the reality of being in the line of fire at a difficult time will bring disadvantages that have not been experienced before. But the fourth and final thing that will hold the SNP back in this election will be the insistence of a Scottish Government with its tail up of getting started on the independence debate when the decision is still two years off. While a long and decisive debate is in everyone’s interest, for every voter out there who already supports a ‘yes’ vote, there is one still undecided and one dead against.
Since elections are mainly fought (and won) in the media, unless strong local candidates make their mark, the debate as seen by the public has been about the referendum and not about the frequency of bin collection. Because people are not yet ready for the referendum, this will deflate a fair bit of the momentum the party built last year. That does not mean there will be unexpected losses but nor does it mean there will be sweeping gains (i.e. Glasgow) to parallel last May.
As Angus McLead of the Times put it “Many tabloid readers don’t read the politics but goes straight to the back pages.” The level of political debate may seem complex to the press offices and SpAds. But out in the real world, this local election is not causing much of a stir; the low (circa 37%?) turnout will favour the Tories and, despite being decoupled for the very purpose of not being overshadowed, won’t attain the prominence in history that the ‘overshadowed’ 2007 local result did.