Andrew Burns: Time for politicians to co-operate

The SNP's Steve Cardownie with Labour's Andrew Burns. The two parties run Edinburgh in coalition. Picture: TSPL
The SNP's Steve Cardownie with Labour's Andrew Burns. The two parties run Edinburgh in coalition. Picture: TSPL
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Politicians can – and should – breach the constitutional divide to better serve the electorate, writes Andrew Burns

Take just one topical subject – the bedroom tax. In the Edinburgh council chambers, the local Labour Party and Scottish National Party have forged a joint-position which will mean a “no eviction” policy for the council tenants affected, as long as they are constructively engaging with the local authority. Many other councils, with a variety of local coalitions, have managed to arrive at more or less the same position.

Specifically, we are ensuring that those tenants who are subject to the under-occupancy charge and build up arrears because their housing benefit no longer covers their rent, are not going to be evicted. They will have to show that they have done all that could reasonably be expected of them to avoid falling into arrears and we will pursue the collection of arrears … but will not evict in those circumstances. Frankly, the last thing we want is to make people homeless and then have to pick up the even more costly pieces of destroyed lives.

Yet, glance at Holyrood and you would be forgiven for thinking that such an SNP/Labour agreement on the bedroom tax was an impossibility. This attack on the poor and vulnerable should enable us to unite both at local and national level. But, the level of tribal antagonism – and it does come across as near-hatred – between our respective parties’ activists, particularly on social media, is pernicious.

Most political commentators, and certainly many researchers, would acknowledge that trust has broken down badly between the electorate and politicians. I believe that this unnecessary tribalism does not help. For me, we’ll never successfully reinvigorate our democracy if we can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge that there is a problem to solve and to change the way we do things politically. Business as usual just cannot be an option.

It was doing things differently that enabled historically bitter enemies to create a Labour/Scottish National Party coalition in Edinburgh’s City Chambers after last May’s council elections. Most thought that SNP group leader Steve Cardownie and I were not natural political bedfellows – and they were right. And, on the face of it, neither are Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont. But, putting one’s ego aside and taking a pragmatic approach to make a much bigger impact together than you would apart is surely a prize worth striving for.

Out of Scotland’s 32 local councils, Edinburgh was the only one to form such a two-party Labour/SNP coalition. And, I think it’s fair to say, that it came as a surprise to many who did not believe the two parties could work together – at any level. Coalition politics by its nature means acknowledging differences as well as developing relationships built on trust and respect and I’m not claiming this was without its difficulties.

It just doesn’t stop at forming a coalition, though. In a few weeks’ time, Edinburgh’s Capital Coalition will have been running the city for a full year. Our joint programme to transform the way that services are planned, managed and delivered, and move Edinburgh towards being a truly co-operative council will ultimately be what matters. We want council services to be transformed by shifting power; so that the council is working more “in partnership” with the people it is here to serve.

We have embarked on a new approach to what we do. We have revised our budgetary processes, to be much more open and interactive, by publishing an early draft budget – thus allowing months of debate and discussion before any final decisions are made.

And yes, our electorate and city stakeholders can only interact positively with us if they know what we stand for. That is why we published a “Contract with the Capital”, which set out more than 50 clear service and policy commitments in detail. The “monitoring against delivery” of those promises is live via the front-page of the main council website: www.edinburgh.gov.uk

I’d contest that even our local, political opponents – while not agreeing with everything we’ve done – would acknowledge that we’re certainly doing politics differently.

If we’re to stand any chance of rejuvenating our political culture at a Scottish level, and regaining the trust and respect of the electorate, we surely must not allow party interests to get in the way of good policies, yet 
I see little evidence of this.

Here, locally, we have managed to agree on every significant issue facing the capital for nearly a year now and while it would be silly to deny that we have not had our moments of tension – as I watch our respective Holyrood colleagues, Lamont and Salmond, slog it out every Thursday at FMQs, I can’t help but think we’re not doing too badly. Yes, the constitutional debate in Scotland may not affect councillors as directly as MSPs – but are you really telling me that there are simply no issues on which our MSPs can co-operate for the next 18 months as we await the referendum? I understand the importance of the decision we all have to make on Thursday, 18 September, 2014. I understand the reality that the constitutional debate is going to dominate Scottish politics for the next 18-months. But do we need to suspend all political co-operation on all issues during that period?

Frankly, especially against the backdrop of current UK politics, I happen to think Labour and the SNP fundamentally agree on a huge swathe of domestic issues that have nothing to do with the constitutional debate, on which we are divided.

Here in the City Chambers of Edinburgh, we’re not going to suspend all co-operation on local political issues because of that constitutional divide.

• Labour councillor Andrew Burns is leader of the City of Edinburgh Council