With May’s local government elections fast approaching, what are the big topics the main parties will be campaigning on?
Without a doubt, all eyes will be on 3 May. After the SNP’s landslide win in the Scottish Parliament last year, people will want to see if the party can maintain its momentum at a local level, as well as to observe how Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats bounce back after shedding MSPs – and leaders – in 2011. Many will also see this election as an important measure of how far the Scottish people continue their love affair with the SNP.
It comes as no surprise the main parties are keen to stress that local issues lie at the heart of their campaigns. Council elections are more specific and more intimate than their burly Holyrood and Westminster counterparts, but this does not make them any less important. For many people, the question of who governs their local council is more important than 100 MSPs.
Unsurprisingly, financial issues and the economy are major topics for politicians as they kick off their election campaigns.
Labour’s chief whip MSP James Kelly puts it succinctly: “The biggest issue by far is funding,” he says. “Local government is being hammered by the SNP with £700m of cuts being passed on to local authority budgets. So our councils are being told to do more but have been given fewer resources to do it. Massive cuts to the housing budget will hurt. This year, John Swinney is cutting capital investment even faster than George Osborne. Making the same economic mistake as him is proving disastrous.
“The biggest issues in Scotland right now are jobs and unemployment. Four years ago, Scotland had lower unemployment than the rest of the UK. Now we have higher. For the last year, the Scottish economy has grown even more slowly than the rest of the UK. It is clear the Scottish Government’s strategy isn’t working. So there is an even more important role for councils in creating jobs.”
But after Labour’s defeat at Holyrood last year, when the party lost nine seats, how will it fight this election? “People vote in different ways in different elections,” says Kelly. “In the last two years, Scotland has voted overwhelming for Labour at the general election, and very strongly for the SNP in the Scottish Parliament elections. I think the days of people being tied to one particular party are diminishing fast. We have a very involved electorate in Scotland who vote in very sophisticated ways. We are taking a much more co-ordinated approach, with Labour councillors, MSPs, MPs working much more closely together than in the past. Part of that flows from the changes we made to the Scottish Labour Party after the review led by Sarah Boyack and Jim Murphy. We are also investing heavily in campaign technology, and have some really sophisticated approaches to speak to particular groups of voters who are interested in particular policies.”
The SNP is planning to field over 600 candidates across the country, a significant increase on 2007. MSP Derek Mackay, the party’s campaign manager, says the council elections will be fought on both Scottish and local issues, stressing it will not be a “referendum on the performance of the government, although if it was, I think we’d do pretty well”.
He adds: “The SNP has shown it can deliver on local government, we lead 11 authorities out of Scotland’s 32, more than any other party. We are the national party of Scotland but we are also the party of local government, we have won successive by-elections with some astounding victories. In 12 out of 16 by-elections, we topped the poll of first preference votes.
“This emphasises that our popularity in local government remains. We’ll have council tax as a big issue but we will also show we can get things done. We are delivering on economic recovery and infrastructure spend, ensuring resources are distributed equitably across the country and we will field a fantastic team of councillors with a wide range of backgrounds and experience, candidates young and not so young.
“When people vote in local elections, they do think about their local candidates and they do think about who they want running their local council and on those grounds we believe the SNP will fare equally well, because of the calibre of our candidates and the strategy we will deploy. We now have an excellent record in local government that we can herald and show people what we can do when we’re in administration, delivering massive investment, freezing the council tax and reforming local services. On outcomes, we have made a difference, so communities are safer, [we’ve put] more police on the streets, crime is at a record low, class sizes are at a record low. These are issues which really matter to people.”
Conservative local government spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell believes the independence question will colour the election. She says: “It is important people realise that if they cast a vote for an SNP candidate, it will be taken up as a vote for independence. It is going to be quite a different election than in the past with the prospect of the referendum hanging over everyone’s head and the uncertainty in the air.
“From there on, it is going to be a matter of looking at how every local authority tends to prioritise its spending. The preventative spend and the bottom line of the Conservatives is that local government is there to deliver a service and the very best service it can for local people. There will be stark choices in terms of spending and the general philosophy of what every local authority wants to spend its money on.
“Every vote counts so, as far as possible, we will be looking to make sure that the candidates will be local people with local knowledge. That is really important because they already have a community interest. There is everything to be gained by saying to people, ‘Look, your vote is not wasted, if you don’t give us your first preference, please give us your second.’”
For the Liberal Democrats, May will be an important test. Last year the party haemorrhaged 11 seats in the Scottish Parliament, as many people punished the Scottish Lib Dems for the actions of the Coalition Governments in Westminster. However, director of campaigns in Scotland, Adam Stachura believes people vote for very different reasons in council elections.
He says: “We will be focusing on the significant achievements that Liberal Democrats have made in the councils that we are part of running all over Scotland and demonstrating why we are the best advocates for the communities we serve. We have pioneered the building of council homes for the first time in a generation, seen recycling rates rocket under our watch, providing better council services than ever before. The de-coupling of elections has made it possible to fight this on local issues rather than being drawn into national political scraps. People vote for a whole raft of different reasons but we will be making the local case and demonstrating how Liberal Democrats have improved their community.
“There won’t be the same kind of traditional “air war” that has surrounded previous elections so, now more than ever, solid grassroots campaigning methods will have the biggest impact.”
The Scottish Green Party has vowed to continue to defend public services and public assets in the face of cuts from Westminster passed on to the local authorities by the SNP. Co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, MSP Patrick Harvie says: “We’ve helped defeat privatisation plans in Edinburgh and have backed communities facing the closure of local facilities like Leith Waterworld. Scottish communities will be poorer, not richer, if we sell off, cut back or close down our public places.
“No one is going to deny the SNP won an impressive national victory in last year’s Holyrood election. However, this is a very different set of elections, with a wide variety of local issues dominating each and every council area in Scotland. Voters will be passing judgement on the actions of their local councils: the decisions they’ve made in response to funding cuts, how they’ve protected public services and on the headline projects they’ve managed in recent years. We think our current Green councillors have a strong record of local action and of promoting positive, progressive policies.
“We’re a small but growing party and this means we have to use our resources very carefully. We’re putting more emphasis on getting Green supporters out meeting people in their communities, finding out what affects them where they live and work. We’ve seen Edinburgh joining other Scottish cities and banning lamppost placards for elections. This will save us some energy and twine but we think the decision will be bad for the turnout and bad for democracy.”