Brian Wilson: If parties work well together to serve communities, get on with it

Kezia Dugdale's decision to suspend Aberdeen councillors was dunderheaded, says Brian Wilson. Picture: John Devlin.
Kezia Dugdale's decision to suspend Aberdeen councillors was dunderheaded, says Brian Wilson. Picture: John Devlin.
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It is hardly unknown for politicians to rely on shortness of memories but decency requires some restraints in the interests of credibility. Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a place at the Brexit negotiating table breaches any such convention.

Only eight weeks ago, Ms Sturgeon was insisting that the Brexit negotiations should run concurrently with campaigning in a second Scottish independence referendum. Presumably, she expected the Prime Minister to shuttle back and forth between the two processes.

Quite rightly, Mrs May called the First Minister’s bluff on that ridiculous proposition. At that point, Ms Sturgeon shifted her ground. There was to be a “compromise”. The launch of the second referendum campaign could be delayed until the outcome of Brexit negotiations was due to emerge.

This might generously be described as disingenuous, Any such timetable would merely have elongated the referendum campaign which would, by now, be underway in all but name. By this point, the Scottish public was stirring itself in protest against the prospect of “IndyRef2”.

Then Mrs May called a general election. Ms Sturgeon promptly intimated that it would serve as a referendum on holding “indyref2”. Day by day, this seemed like less of a good idea. So the script changed yet again. The election is no longer a referendum on a referendum but about “standing up for Scotland” in the Brexit negotiations.

This, Ms Sturgeon tells us with straight face, necessitates giving the Nationalists an overwhelming mandate to allow her a place at the negotiating table, side by side with Mrs May. Anyone who takes that seriously is beyond my assistance. As soon as the votes are counted, every single one cast for an SNP candidate will revert to being a vote for “indyref2”. The memory stick will be wiped once again.

In truth, sending a phalanx of Nationalist MPs back to Westminster will be a waste of time and space. Equating noise with influence is a fundamental mistake. They are masters of the former but their mindset prevents constructive engagement with the latter. When everything is a tactic towards a single objective, there is no shared interest in positive outcomes along the way.

Particularly in Brexit circumstances, Scotland needs diversity of representation. It would be perverse not to have MPs from the party of government, particularly in areas where there are specialised interests to pursue and protect. Forget, for the moment, party labels. It just makes sense to elect some MPs who have direct lines of communication to decision-makers.

Equally, we need MPs capable of working across party lines in pursuit of particular causes and sectoral interests. Unless the opinion polls are far wrong, there is going to be a Tory government. The corollary of that is that all other MPs will be in opposition. They will decide nothing (which is the stark reality of opposition, noise or no noise).

This does not mean they cannot exert influence but that requires hard work and a degree of reasonableness. The candidate who can tweet most offensively about the Tories is likely to be the most useless potential representative in Parliament. More than ever, voters should make judgments about what candidates might be capable of contributing, on matters of substance or scrutiny.

Brexit is an uncharted journey and I will be surprised if it is completed within a couple of years. Scotland needs a mature collective decision on whether we want these negotiations to be accompanied by a non-stop cacophony of grievance and alleged betrayal or if we would prefer representation which offers constructive participation in the many issues which will ensue.

Even if the electorate is beginning to think along such ecumenical lines, the high command of Scottish Labour seems to have some way to go. Whatever else the dunderheaded decision to suspend Labour councillors in Aberdeen was intended to signal, it was certainly not the kind of political flexibility which our times demand (and Labour needs).

The same coalition of Labour, Tories and independents had worked well together for five years without attracting the stamp of disapproval. So why now? Why, at the same time, is it acceptable to create a new coalition in Fife with the party which has inflicted a 20 per cent cut on Scottish local government over the past five years?

I don’t criticise Fife Labour any more than Aberdeen Labour. These things are best left to local decision-making. The voting system means that coalitions will be required in most councils and often, at local level, potential for co-operation lies as much in personalities as ideology. If folk can work well together for their communities, then get on with it.

After the Nationalists fared less well than expected in the council elections, Nicola Sturgeon dusted down the old ploy about “no deals with the Tories” as a badge of virtue; notwithstanding the fact that there have been quite a few local council deals between SNP and Tories – not to mention the 2007 pact that gave Alex Salmond power at Holyrood. I suspect that Labour was lured into a bit of me-tooism that it would have done well to avoid.

Kezia Dugdale might usefully have taken a leaf out of Annabel Goldie’s blue book. When Salmond pulled the same stunt in 2014, the former Tory leader responded: “When his political fate depended on us, he didn’t think twice before seeking and taking our support. To hear him now dismissing the Tories as a the pariahs of politics, as the name that dare not be spoken, is just utterly hypocritical.”

Utter hypocrisy indeed – and was Ms Sturgeon not also the beneficiary of that cosy arrangement? Labour should have reminded her of that, told her to mind her own business and allowed local Labour groups to make the arrangements that best serve their communities, even if they involve holding noses and working with austerity Tories and/or austerity Nationalists, as they saw fit. Simple.

The dividing lines in politics at present are not wholly or mainly about social and economic issues. In Scotland, the threat or promise of another deeply divisive referendum is just as important, whether we like it or not.

Treating people as “pariahs” when, in these circumstances, they might actually think of voting for you, does not seem like a masterful strategy.