Cllr Cameron Rose is Leader of the Conservative Group on Edinburgh Council.
Can the Scottish council elections in May continue the recent trend of Conservatives outperforming expectations? A surprise clear majority at the general election in 2015 was more than matched at the Holyrood elections in April 2016 – with the number of Conservative MSPs more than doubling to 31 – above the most optimistic predictions.
After a generation dominated by the rise of the SNP, the signs are positive for the Conservative renewal in Scotland to continue in 2017.
With a population of half a million and 63 councillors to be elected, Edinburgh could be a big prize. Here is a selection of national and local issues which are set to influence the result in Scotland’s capital.
First, the union remains a key issue. Yes, these are local elections but to those who turned out in droves in the 2014 referendum to secure a United Kingdom, the fear of another referendum is being kept alive by Nicola Sturgeon. Her combative response to the Brexit vote continues to threaten another independence referendum. Unionist voters don’t like that. But they are not the only ones. Polls suggest around one third of SNP supporters voted Brexit and there are signs that amongst previously passionate SNP voters, some are unhappy that the SNP leader is no longer representing them. And there is every prospect the national Labour disintegration will be reflected in Edinburgh. Many experienced Labour councillors have chosen to retire including two former Lord Provosts and the current leader of the council.
Just about every local authority struggles with the upkeep of roads and pavements. The Scottish capital, however, excels in its own brand of potholes and crumbling surfaces caused by incompetent management of the roads service – and the public have noticed. Refuse collection and street cleaning have also been the source of scores of complaints and the performance in these core local council services will not earn credit for the current administration.
For the last four years, the Labour-led coalition (with the SNP) has held together with some stability. Currently there are 21 Labour, 17 SNP, 11 Conservatives, five Greens, two Lib Dems, and two Independents. The PR system at local elections in Scotland means that second preference votes are significant. In turn this makes it more difficult to predict an outcome, and the chance of any party getting a clear majority is remote.
But there are other local issues which might tip the balance. The tram debacle should never be underestimated. Whilst the infamous and truncated line is now operating reasonably smoothly (albeit slowly), Labour, SNP and Greens have been pushing to complete the original line. While there is logic in the principle, the costs and timescales are ominous.
A corruption scandal between 2006 and 2012 involving council-led statutory repairs to tenement properties has still not been wrapped up and leaves a taint especially for aggrieved homeowners.
On the more positive side, the Edinburgh economy continues to grow. Tourism is vibrant and the four universities continue their inexorable growth. Unemployment continues to fall and the financial sector remains a mainstay of the city.
As ever, it is difficult to predict precisely how the numbers will end up – but there is good reason for Conservatives in the Scottish capital to be ambitious. The ambition is to become the largest party. That outcome would surprise many observers but we Conservatives are getting used to outperforming expectations.