Cllr Dave Dempsey is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Fife Council.
Next May, Scotland re-elects its local councillors. As befits the homogenous Scottish public sector, all 1219 councillors in all 32 councils will be elected on the same day, using the same Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, with three or four from most multi-member wards. If the last couple of elections are anything to go by, a third of the new intake will be genuinely new rather than returning.
In the far north, there’s a tradition of Independents. “Council controlled by Independents” is an intriguing concept for those of us from party-dominated areas but it clearly works for them. However, come south into the central belt where the bulk of the population lives and you find something readily recognisable to those south of the border. With one exception …
Everything in Scottish politics is viewed through the lens of union v separation. Local government is no exception, even though the relevance at local level is hard to see. Discount a smattering of Greens in the biggest cities and Lib Dems in a few long-established redoubts and you have the Labour v Conservative choice available almost everywhere, plus the SNP. Last time, in 2017, the results were SNP 431 seats, Conservative 276 and Labour 262 – from roughly 32 per cent, 25 per cent, and 20 per cent of the vote.
STV, like most proportional systems, makes majority rule less likely. Of the 29 councils not controlled by Independents, 6 have minority SNP, and 6 have minority Labour administrations. It’s reasonable to assume that each of those involves an “arrangement”. The others are coalitions but it’s notable that there are no coalitions involving Conservative and SNP and none involving Conservative and Labour. Unless …
Unless you count Aberdeen City, where Labour formed a grouping with the Conservatives in 2017, a grouping that continues still. Labour rewarded its councillors by immediately suspending them. They remain suspended. When Anas Sarwar took over as Scottish Labour leader earlier this year, there were noises about reinstatement but no action so far.
So much for context and background. What can Scottish Conservative councillors look forward to after next May? We should make some gains as the gloss continues to wear off the Sturgeon government. Her authoritarian approach played well on the way into the pandemic but it’s looking less impressive as she tries to navigate the way out. In particular, parts of the media that were previously admiring almost to the point of sycophancy are turning critical, especially round problems with ambulances and the Scottish NHS more generally.
For some time, council by-elections have consistently returned good and improving Conservative votes all across Scotland. The abyss that many predicted from Boris, Brexit, and the departure of Ruth Davidson has not materialised. Instead, we’ve seen little more than a shallow dip and there’s good reason to think we’re mostly through it.
In areas, mainly the more rural, where the Scottish Conservatives lead council coalitions, we can hope for some gains and possibly even the odd outright control. Elsewhere, in the cities or the areas around about, formerly dominated by mining or heavy industry, we have a problem. These are the former Labour fiefdoms, where the vote was traditionally weighed rather than counted. Much of that vote has moved elsewhere. The SNP has done well from that but the Conservative vote has risen markedly in recent years as the voters discovered that they could vote for us without the sky falling in. It could rise higher next year to bring us close to Labour in terms of electoral success. But what might that get us?
A Conservative/SNP coalition is close to unimaginable. The ideological gulf over the fundamental question is huge. The SNP membership sees the UK Conservative Government as the final barrier to Indyref2, just as it sees an Indyref2 win as inevitable. In reality, it’s as inevitable as an Indyref1 win was – but that doesn’t worry the faithful. For them, separation is the answer and the question is whatever you want it to be. Their supporters don’t seem to notice that an SNP council is a waste of space because it has no particular policy platform at local level but waits instead for Holyrood HQ to tell it what to do (and think).
A Conservative/Labour coalition is more credible but it waits for two decisions from Labour. The first is to decide that they want to work with us. We’ll know more about that if they ever resolve the Aberdeen City question and either reinstate or expel their councillors there.
The second decision is whether Scottish Labour really is a truly unionist party. In 2014, there were three campaigns in Scotland. Yes campaigned for separation; Better Together campaigned for the Union; United with Labour campaigned for the Labour Party. Labour activists would turn out for BT and UwL on alternate days.
In the “good old days”, the UwL line made sense. Labour seen by many as the local answer to General Motors: what was good for Labour was good for Scotland. That was never true but the myth was maintained for decades. Scots are very conservative. Once they get a notion, it sticks, which explains why the SNP has stayed in power for so long.
The challenge for the Scottish Conservative & Unionist party is to maximise the benefit from the next big shift, ideally starting next May.