As the dust settles on coalition and other arrangements across Scotland’s 32 hung (or balanced if you prefer) councils, now is good time to look at how councils will operate in this environment.
While proportional representation is intended to reflect votes cast and therefore likely to produce hung councils, having all 32 without one party having overall control is somewhat surprising. Sixteen councils have settled for formal party coalitions (8 involving Labour, mostly with the SNP), the three islands are run by coalitions of independents, with the rest going for minority administrations - six Scottish Labour and seven SNP.
On paper, formal coalition deals can be fairly stable arrangements and have operated reasonably well since the new voting system was introduced. They usually have a written agreement between the two (or three) parties that sets out which party gets which posts on the council as well as committee chairs. These agreements often include procedures for dealing with disputes and at least an outline of the policy programme. Obviously these cannot cover unanticipated events or falling out over other matters, but with a degree of trust they can work perfectly well.
Minority administrations are often much less stable. Even if there is an informal understanding, councillors are free to vote as they see fit on particular issues. That can be quite challenging for medium and longer term strategies. If it continues to happen on a regular basis, the administration can either be forced out of office or decides to abandon office on its own initiative.
Scottish Labour rules require all agreements to be approved by its Scottish Executive Committee; in practice a panel of this governing body. This is nothing new, it’s a long standing rule devolved to Scottish Labour from the UK rules.
The same rule applied in 2012, although technically it was only administratively devolved. At that time the approval regime was fairly light touch, although several were sent back to be renegotiated. The main problem was a focus on the split of positions on the council, rather than the policy programme. Cynics might point to the payment of responsibility allowances that supplement the modest councillor allowance for this focus. However, a wider problem has been the absence of political leadership and engagement.
In fairness to councillors, it is very easy to get sucked into the day to day administration of the council and lose sight of their political purpose. This is reinforced by senior officials who encourage a technocratic approach to the role.
It was this lack of political engagement that led to a more robust approach after this election. UNISON Labour Link published a strategy paper last year that set out the sort of political strategy councillors should be adopting. This was followed by a broader strategy and policy paper from Trade Unions for Scottish Labour. At this year’s Scottish Labour Party conference both UNISON Scotland and the GMB tabled motions that set out a clear opposition to austerity in local government. These motions formed the basis of the SEC’s approach to coalition’s involving Labour groups this time around.
With the focus on austerity, coalitions with the Tories were much less likely than in 2012. They are the driver of austerity, although the SNP has passed on austerity to councils, so are not exempt from the spirit of this approach. Differences on the constitution did not feature in this policy approach. This is why almost all Labour coalitions are with the SNP, who at local level share similar priorities. The tensions come from policies decided by the Scottish government on finance and reform, and it remains to be seen how these will be managed.
The form all Labour groups who wanted to reach local deals were obliged to complete put the emphasis on policy rather than positions. This resulted in a better understanding of what was required, aided in some cases by a change in the group leadership and councillors. Nearly half of Labour councillors have been elected for the first time.
There was absolutely no obligation on Labour groups to enter into coalitions. In fact, many SEC members would be quite happy for Labour groups to be in opposition, on the basis that this might promote greater political engagement and it means Labour is less likely to be associated with difficult decisions that don’t reflect the party’s anti-austerity position. More than one Labour group described their previous coalition agreement as a success, when they subsequently lost nearly half their seats. The question was reasonably asked, who other than you thought this was a success!
I have considerable sympathy with that view, but we should remember that it was a Scottish Labour led government that introduced this voting system, and that leaves us with some responsibility for making it work. In some cases, the electoral arithmetic leaves little option other than coalition government or in other cases abandoning communities and the workforce to Tory councils administering Tory austerity.
Going forward, there is a need for Labour groups to refocus on their political purpose. Labour does not exist simply to manage councils - it exists to be the vehicle for socialism at local level. It would be a disaster if a new generation of councillors are sucked into the local government administrative machine. Scottish Labour will need to give careful thought to the mechanisms needed to ensure that councillors help build on the spirit of the general election campaign.