Edinburgh Council’s bungled attempt at propaganda raises question for Labour – John McLellan

Adam McVey told councillors it was better to fail trying to succeed than not to have tried. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Adam McVey told councillors it was better to fail trying to succeed than not to have tried. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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With no small degree of haughty self-congratulation, the city council administration has presided over two years in which an informal left-wing alliance has rammed through an extreme programme which in the last month has begun to come apart.

The informal but tight association with the Greens always guaranteed the SNP-Labour coalition had enough numbers to win the day, and all they had to do in return was approve every gesture or pilot scheme the Greens produced. So hugger-mugger were some senior SNP figures with Green councillors that a split wasn’t in the script.

But last week everything changed and by the end of Thursday’s full council meeting the usual sneery smirks had been replaced by darting glances of anxiety as the administration was left reeling as vote after vote was lost.

Five times the coalition was defeated, the most embarrassing being over a hopeless report on how the coalition’s 52 commitments were faring, even to the point where a commitment to deliver the Newhaven tram by 2022 was “on track” even though a delay to 2023 had already been announced.

All three opposition parties agreed the report was worthless propaganda designed to give the programme at best a veneer of progress when the reality is that the assessments were so vague as to be meaningless. Even the coalition’s deputy finance convener, Lezley Cameron, pointed to inaccuracies. Some of the commitments were valueless in the first place, like keeping Lothian Buses in public ownership when no-one is arguing that it shouldn’t.

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Tellingly, the Coalition seems to think repeating claims often enough will make them come true, like the Newhaven tram will not go a penny over £207m and 20,000 affordable homes will be built by 2027. The tram is already later than planned and the council’s chief housing manager has publicly said there is only enough land for 8000 homes and more Scottish Government support is needed to hit the target anyway. At least there was a glimmer of honesty in council leader Adam McVey’s response that it was better to fail trying to succeed than not to have tried.

But the Conservative Group has been saying all this for months with no hint the Greens were about to break ranks, so what’s happened? The mould was cracked in May when the Greens agreed to merge a motion with Conservatives to end the £25 Garden Tax because it was hitting recycling rates.

The Conservative Group certainly isn’t banking on another day like last Thursday, not least because the discomfort amongst some Greens about what they were being told to do was clear, with one Green councillor contacting coalition members to apologise for what they had done and another warning our group not to gloat on social media.

If associating with us makes them unhappy, then why vote against their erstwhile Socialist soul-mates? Call it pragmatism or call it cynical opportunism, maybe they realise nothing will be gained by continuing to shore up an administration whose programme is already proving undeliverable. To continue to do so risks association with failure, so why do it?

Unlike the Coalition, we on the Tory seats will never be fooled into thinking the Greens are our friends, certainly not while they support the break-up of the United Kingdom, but if it helps bring about a greater sense of honesty and realism on the administration benches, then welcome to opposition.

But the most interesting question must be for a Labour group already torn between those who want to be in administration come what may and those who recognise that the problem is an SNP Government which has slashed local government spending by eight per cent when it’s budget is down by less than two. Why maintain a minority coalition with no guarantee it can achieve anything other than restrain criticism of the SNP while it eats their lunch.

Don’t ask council officers to produce whitewashed reports

The rejection of the Coalition Commitments Report means the SNP-Labour administration has to go away and produce a more honest assessment of its programme, knowing that trying to pull the wool over opposition eyes runs a high risk of an embarrassing second rejection.

In defending the report, Labour Councillor Ian Perry inadvertently summed up the problem; the commitments are an amalgamation of promises made by the two parties before an election, so their justification is party political. But if official analysis is to be presented in a non-party political format by the council’s non-political officers it must therefore be able to stand rigorous scrutiny.

The report was overtly political, even though it came not from the political leaders but Chief Executive Andrew Kerr, so we can only conclude that officers were compelled to produce something which put their political masters in the best possible light.

Officers act under political direction which comes from a vote of councillors and is relatively straightforward when there is a clear majority, but as of last Thursday the officers now know they cannot guarantee from which direction that will come.

If the administration groups want to produce propaganda which says how wonderfully well they are doing, that is not a matter for officers but the parties. They can brag about their achievements all they like in their leaflets and on social media, but putting professional officers in the impossible position of producing little more than a whitewash is a different story.