What chance the local government elections will be about local government?
The SNP conference this weekend will no doubt discuss the timing and route to an independence referendum, but the party has a real election to fight first
Each day the row over the timing of a second referendum on Scottish independence seems to escalate.
Meanwhile Scotland’s next trip to the ballot box, however, is rather sooner.
Given cuts in local government and the Scottish Greens taking credit for protecting council funds in the Scottish budget, you’d think the SNP would be facing a difficult local government election.
The Scottish budget debate saw the party finally come to terms with the fact it no longer has an overall majority at Holyrood.
Both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats enjoyed a week or two in the policy limelight as they pitched specific demands in return for support for Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s spending plans.
Questions were asked about whether the Greens were favoured over the Liberal Democrats because the party is on the same side of the constitutional faultline.
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie had pitched for spending boosts in areas the SNP has previously said are priorities, such as education and mental health. He said “considerable effort” had been made to engage in constructive talks.
Talking to activists in Perth since, Rennie suggested the arguments in the budget negotiations could carry into the local elections.
“I want our council candidates to take our mental health campaign into the council chambers of Scotland,” he said.
“Liberal Democrat councillors will work in partnership with local health services for better support for people with mental health problems. Councils can patch up the provision that is neglected by the SNP Government.”
The Scottish Greens, too, may have had an eye on the forthcoming ballot. The party avoided making budget demands on environmental issues but instead focused on local government, winning a commitment that extra proceeds from freezing the threshold on the top rate of tax would be handed to councils.
The party heralded the deal as “more than any party has won in any previous budget concessions” in Holyrood’s history.
Greens co-convener and finance spokesperson Partick Harvie said: “Other opposition parties set their face against the entire process, refusing to find common ground.
“In a parliament of minorities, it’s appalling that other parties would rather posture than roll up their sleeves and help protect local services.
“If we listened to them, the budget would fall and councils in every part of Scotland would have no choice but to immediately adopt emergency budgets with brutal cuts to services.”
Councils’ umbrella group COSLA welcomed the shift, but warned budgets were still down overall.
“What we have clearly seen is that some MSPs in the Parliament both recognise and indeed value the vital public services councils provide to communities and this has resulted in the Government’s concession today,” COSLA president Councillor David O’Neill said following the passing of the budget.
“We have worked closely with parliamentarians and will continue to do so as the budget makes its way through Parliament.
“Whilst I absolutely welcome the reduction in the cut, the simple truth is that there remains nearly £200 million of a cut to local public services and this is still not a good result, better but not good.
“That said, what I can promise is, as always, my colleagues in local government and I will do our very best to mitigate the impact of these cuts on communities.”
So, under the usual rules of political point-scoring, the SNP should find itself in a diminished position ahead of these local government elections.
Ah, but this is 2017 Scotland, and that particular rulebook was ripped up when politics polarised over the constitution. Since those comments were made, all parties appear to be getting dragged into their own constitutional battle positions.
The pace of the SNP’s rise to dominance means that in many council wards the party represents the change candidate to voters. Only in Dundee and Angus does the party hold a majority administration. Everywhere else, the SNP will be looking to make gains.
Nevertheless, doesn’t the context of years of squeezes on local budgets put some pressure on SNP candidates? Glasgow SNP leader and national co-chair of the local government election campaign, Susan Aitken, denies there have been cuts inflicted by her party’s government in Holyrood.
“Actually, local government budgets haven’t been cut over the last few years,” she tells Holyrood, claiming the 2016 budget was the first to pass on a cut to the Scottish Government’s budget to local authorities.
“That was the first time. It had actually been protected up until then. And even then, the level of the cut was nothing like the scale of what we’ve seen south of the border, for example.”
However Aitken wants to describe it, the fact is Scottish councils have been asked to do more with less for a number of years, with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighting an 11 per cent real-terms cut in Scottish council budgets between 2010 and 2016.
Aitken admits local government “has had a hard time”, but praises the Scottish Government for maintaining public spending “as much as it possibly can” in the face of “austerity cuts” from the UK Government.
“All public services in Scotland are having a hard time because we are on the receiving end of austerity cuts on public spending by the UK Government, and those austerity cuts are passed on straight to the Scottish Government,” she says.
Isn’t it the case, then, that the Scottish Government has in turn passed those cuts on?
“It’s not the Scottish Government’s choice to reduce public spending,” says Aitken.
“The Scottish Government itself has a reduced revenue settlement of nine per cent. It’s dealing with those circumstances. Both John Swinney and Derek Mackay have performed remarkable feats in maintaining the level and quality of public services across Scotland and maintaining the level of support to the National Health Service as well as to local government.”
Given the outcome of the budget negotiations, it will be easy for the Scottish Greens to point out it was they, not Mackay, who found a way to use Holyrood’s tax powers to do exactly that.
Aitken says this is the moment for local government to respond to the budgetary pressures by adopting the policy challenges laid down by the Christie Commission in 2011.
The ethos of shifting focus onto prevention and empowering communities through closer public sector collaboration is something “local government in Scotland has never really got to grips with”, she says.
But given the SNP is already involved in control of two councils, in power-sharing agreements in many others and has been in power at a national level for a decade, the question must surely be directed at the party itself. 2015’s Community Empowerment Act was supposed to transform local democracy, what else can central government do?
Aitken believes councils already have the powers they need.
“I think the Community Empowerment Act gives councils everything we need to get on with empowering communities, to get on with devolving decision-making powers, to get on with devolving spend and resources down to local level.”
She points to a commitment in the 2016 SNP manifesto to encourage local councils to devolve one per cent of their budgets through participatory budgeting. It is something she says the SNP will do in Glasgow.
“In Glasgow, one per cent of the council budget is equivalent to about £1 million for each council ward. That’s a significant resource, that’s not just project funding, that’s actually transformational,” she says.
“If we give communities the right support, which is crucial, and the right tools to be able to drive decisions about how that money is spent, then we’re actually giving them the power to make the changes they need. That can then be translated up in all sorts of directions to a whole number of decision-making processes and spending processes within the council as well.”
But even if voters are convinced by the promise of control over their budgets, is there a danger they might see an SNP-run council as too deferential to its party comrades holding the purse strings in government?
Current Glasgow council leader, Labour veteran Frank McAveety, has been vociferous in his attacks on the SNP. “What the people of Glasgow want is someone to stand up for the city,” he said.
Aitken, of course, is after his job. “The whole idea that the role of local government is to stand up against central government is, I think, a fallacy for starters,” she says.
“I think it’s actually a failure of administrations, like the Labour administration in Glasgow, who have behaved for a number of years as though their job is to be some kind of alternative opposition to the Holyrood Government. It isn’t. Their job is to deliver the best outcomes for the people of Glasgow, and the way to do that is to work constructively with the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government is our biggest ally, our biggest funder, you know. We have to be able to work in partnership with them.”
But the relationship between the Scottish Government and councils has declined in recent years. Arguments over the ringfencing of budgets has caused consternation, for example, in terms of the enforcement of teacher numbers.
“The Scottish Government has only ever got tough with local government, if you like, in the context of where there’s been political games being played, or where there have been actions that actively undermine an agreed national policy objective,” says Aitken.
But what about relationships within councils? With such a strong war of words between the SNP and Labour, particularly in Glasgow, the prospect of a harmonious power-sharing agreement such as in Edinburgh or East Renfrewshire seems unlikely.
That said, the city voted Yes in 2014 and has comprehensively thrown out Labour incumbents in both the Westminster and Holyrood elections.
Can Aitken make it a hat trick? She says the target is overall control of the council. “We’ve got a big tough campaign to fight.
“I would never underestimate the Glasgow Labour machine. It is machine politics in the real sense of it. We’ve already seen they’re directly getting donations from their big donors specifically to try and retain Glasgow, from people like Lord Haughey, for example.
“I don’t have that kind of resource coming into my campaign. I’m relying on, as the SNP always does, our activists.”
And if they fail to deliver the target of an overall majority?
“We have very significant differences to Labour in Glasgow, but I think if it came to it, we could work together for the good of the city. But as I say, our intention and target is to win a majority of the seats in Glasgow and gain overall control.”
But in terms of political game-playing, the biggest game in town is the constitution. And given the current political landscape, could it be that the local elections will be focused rather more on that than on dog poo and bin collections?
The Prime Minister certainly seems to think so. Writing exclusively in Holyrood, May urged voters across Scotland to use the upcoming local elections to express their opposition to Scottish independence.
And that proved to be a taster ahead of a speech to the Scottish Conservative conference which put the fight for the Union at its heart.
“We are four nations, but at heart we are one people,” she said. “That solidarity is the essence of our United Kingdom and is the surest safeguard of its future.”
Never mind her later refusal to be drawn into Nicola Sturgeon's preferred timetable, it seemed at that point very much as if the starting gun on indyref2 had already been fired, and in terms of the local elections, it is something Aitken says is raised on the doorsteps.
“I think it is going to be a factor, undoubtedly. It’s a discussion people are having round their dinner tables or in their pubs or workplaces or wherever,” she says, suggesting Brexit has provided a stimulus.
“I would say it is not the SNP trying to define these local government elections in the context of independence. That is not the route we are taking.
“We’re absolutely clear this is about policy, and about how we deliver for local communities, whether that’s the target to build 50,000 affordable homes with 35,000 for social rent, whether it’s the expansion of affordable childcare, closing the attainment gap, all those absolutely crucial policy objectives which will actually help people and communities.
“That’s what we want to talk about in these local elections and that’s what we are talking about, but [independence] is coming up on the doorsteps, and isn’t something that can be ignored.”
Meanwhile if the SNP was looking for the “process story” Ruth Davidson warned against, the party certainly seems to have got one.
As well as the series of challenges over a section 30 order, the matter of what powers are to be repatriated to Holyrood after leaving the EU appeared to provide one.
“The Leave campaign explicitly said that powers over agriculture and fishing would go to Holyrood and not Westminster – now the Tories are telling us the direct opposite,” said Joan McAlpine MSP after Davidson told a television interview: “In the first instance, the powers go to Westminster.”
But if the timetable belongs to Theresa May and not Nicola Sturgeon, could the SNP find itself pressured into holding an independence referendum it knows it cannot yet win?
Aitken says the swelling number of party members and activists can be patient.
“My experience of the SNP, both past and present, is that members of the party trust the First Minister, they trust our party’s leader to make the right decision at the right time about how we pursue the path to an independent Scotland,” she said.
“They’ll take their lead from Nicola.”
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