The Conservative Manifesto includes a pledge to revive first past the post for Mayoral elections in England. A pity the same can not be done for Scottish local government. While there are several hung councils in England, the voting arrangements in Scotland make this sort of mess the norm. Most attention has been paid to Aberdeen – where agreement between Labour and Conservative councillors has caused the Labour councillors to be suspended.
The website, Labour Uncut, suggests that Labour, as well as the Conservatives, could make gains in Scotland with unionist tactical voting – but that Labour’s treatment of their councillors in Aberdeen is unhelpful:
“If the anti-SNP vote coalesces behind a single candidate, the nationalists will lose significant numbers of seats. Yes this would mean some Tory gains, but Labour is a close second in key seats and should be a beneficiary of this kind of tactical voting.
“The more savvy Labour Scots campaigners were furious at the suspension last week of Aberdeen Labour councillors for forming an anti-SNP pact with the Tories, precisely because it undercuts the unionist message.”
Aberdeen South is one of the seats that Labour hopes to gain if they are lent enough Tory votes. If Labour want those votes – they had better be nice.
Nor do some of the arrangements in town halls elsewhere in Scotland provide much encouragement. In East Renfrewshire, the Conservatives are the largest party, but Labour and the SNP have done a deal to run the Council. Fife also sees joint Labour and SNP leadership.
Then there is the West Lothian question: who will run West Lothian Council? The Labour councillors wanted a coalition with the Conservatives, but this has been blocked by Labour – and in West Lothian, the Labour councillors have deferred to their leaders.
In North Lanarkshire, the Conservatives and Labour have voted together to form a new administration – but Labour deny any “deal”.
In Edinburgh the situation is still unclear. Clackmannanshire saw the first meeting of councillors unable to agree any administration. In Moray the councillors met for two minutes before giving up and agreeing to come back after more talks.
Often there will end up being a minority administration run by whichever is the largest party. This weak government means a lack of democratic accountability. Even more than in other councils the bureaucrats are left to make the decisions. The councillors just collect their allowances unable to reach agreement on anything very much.
This is not just the fault of the Single Transferable Vote system – which is used in local elections north of the border. There is a strong tradition of independent candidates which, combined with the SNP, Conservative, Labour, and Lib Dem four party system, makes coalitions more likely than in England. But the voting system makes this problem much worse.
The Scottish Parliament passed the Local Governance (Scotland) Act in 2004 which imposed this new voting system on councils. I don’t think the Scottish Labour Government really believed in it – but it was the price Jack McConnell paid for being propped up by the Lib Dems. Thus a bad, messy deal begat many more bad messy deals. What shows a huge cheek by the Scottish Labour Party is that having been responsible for this dreadful legacy, they are now disrupting efforts by their councillors to make the best of it.