The recent Scottish local election campaign was dominated by issues that didn’t matter to the contest, be it the constitution or the cake presented to the Prime Minister. However, the aftermath of that vote has been equally absurd, with mudslinging on all sides of the spectrum about ‘backroom deals’ and evil Tories/Nationalists (delete as applicable) going into coalition, or arrangements closely resembling a coalition, with other parties.
Scottish politics at a national level has long been stuck in a rut, with an unsinkable yet sometimes complacent SNP triumphing at Holyrood again and again due to a fractured opposition, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon, no matter if ferries aren’t built or if the trains aren’t running on time – or at all. This dispiriting affair also now extends to local government, particularly the aftermath of the elections as new council administrations are formed, which has illustrated Scottish politics at its very worst and immature.
Amidst the calls of a carve-up, it should come as no surprise that a proportional representation electoral system tends to result in councils operating under no overall control. That’s the whole point; politicians are meant to reach across boundaries, yet mainly in Scotland remain depressingly wedded to a first-past-the-post mindset where the winner takes all. Our PR system for local government is meant to result in more representative and mature, consensual European-style politics, or so they say. Of course, that sounds good in theory but then you add in pettiness, by which I mean the kind of politics we’ve seen since 2014: the binary option of unionist vs nationalist with no middle ground.
Leader after leader has ruled out formal coalitions, from Sarwar to Slater, due to differences over national politics. Then you’ve got the spin when parties do eventually enter into some kind of partnership – ‘this isn’t a coalition, it is a working arrangement’, such is the deal between the SNP and Scottish Greens in Glasgow. Everyone knows the saying about a duck both resembling and sounding like a duck.
Under STV, the largest party in a locality, be it in terms of percentage of the vote or highest number of seats, does not have a divine right to rule. Some nationalists are angry that in areas where they have topped the poll, unionist parties have struck a deal which side-lines them, such as in Fife or South Lanarkshire. So what? Again, this is just how the voting system works. Suggesting otherwise is deliberately misleading, or just plain ignorance.
At the same time, unionists should be relaxed about the SNP forming coalitions with their fellow nationalists, the Scottish Greens. If they do so, let them explain to their electorate about council cuts stemming from national level and how that impacts local services. However, when they do something in the public interest, back them. It is not that difficult and voters are savvy enough to know.
Equally, it shouldn’t matter if a unionist and nationalist party enters into an agreement in local government. That’s happened between the SNP and Lib Dems in Aberdeen and it doesn’t necessarily follow the latter are now closet separatists. The constitution, while an easy electoral vote winner for an absence of policy, ought to be an irrelevance for municipal contests. It might be more than a generation ago, but from 2007 to 2011, the Scottish Conservatives and SNP ran Dumfries and Galloway Council together. From what I understand, the sky didn’t fall in. For the sake of local services and local democracy, perhaps we need to go back to the future?
‘All politics is local’ is a commonly used phrase in political discourse. However, in the Scotland of 2022, there’s too much poisonous national politics in our local politics.