Are local elections just a proxy for the constitutional debate? Sadly, yes.
Since Ruth Davidson’s call to make 4 May a test of support for another independence referendum, the unionist Press will doubtless use any drop in seats or voting share to conclude that Scots have rejected Nicola Sturgeon and her #scotref strategy.
That may not be fair but since all is fair in love, war and elections, we might as well accept it as inevitable. That’s why SNP members are spending every waking moment canvassing, determined to take Glasgow and other important Labour council fortresses in the west of Scotland, partly to bring long overdue local change and partly to force commentators to a different conclusion - that voters are open to indyref2 as a future escape route should Brexit prove as disastrous as predicted.
Of course this “independence v the union” overlay makes a mockery of local elections. Scotland desperately needs a powerful local realm, impervious to the storms that beset the national domain. But a resilient, independent local tier of government does not currently exist and these elections cannot create one. Only a Scottish government can bite the bullet and create a system of local democracy worthy of the name.
Meanwhile remoteness has helped create this dilemma for local democracy. Since our councils are the largest in Europe by population and physical size, few voters know the local candidates on parade and national party rosettes are therefore the easiest distinguishing feature and the biggest motivating factor in even turning out to vote.
Tory leader Ruth Davidson has decided to take advantage of this democratic disconnect and her party’s current poor standing in Scottish councils. She wants to turn the elections into a vehicle that derails the second independence referendum and this weekend her deputy Murdo Fraser turned up the heat by urging union supporters to vote tactically, listing any party but the SNP as their second, third and fourth choices.
By not giving any preferences to the SNP, he said, the party will suffer more losses and that will set back Nicola Sturgeon’s plans.
His letter to voters in Fife – where he is an MSP - includes a headline stating “how to stop the SNP here” and a bar chart setting out the level of support for the main parties in Mid Scotland and Fife at the 2016 Holyrood elections. Clearly it’s intended to show Unionist voters that if they use their second and third preferences for anti-independence parties after a Tory first preference, there will be a better chance of defeating the SNP.
This tactic demonstrates almost all that’s wrong with the cynical, top-down way political power operates in Scotland. But it’s a free world and in the confusion, low turnout and feelings of disconnection likely to prevail on 4 May, it could work. The question is whether independence voters should meet that ploy with their own - putting every Yes supporting party or candidate top and then backing Labour and the Lib Dems to make sure the Tories come last.
It would make electoral sense for Yes supporters but will it happen?
Mebbes aye, mebbes naw.
The SNP is running a bullish, first-past-the-post style strategy telling supporters to vote SNP first, maybe Green second and then stop. The Scottish Greens are not making any suggestions about how supporters should cast their second votes, never mind strategising to make sure the Tories come bottom.
Will the SNP and Greens regret their refusal to play a tactical game? Could those decisions to stay positive, campaign locally, ignore opponents and forget about ranking beyond the first and second preferences rebound badly and allow the Tories to oust Labour in key council areas?
Maybe. And if the combined SNP and Green share of the vote hovers around 40 per cent and the Conservatives win wards and even councils, commentators will interpret the result as a negative verdict on indyref2.
So what to do? There’s currently a lively debate on social media where some SNP supporters say they can’t bring themselves to rank Labour or the Lib Dems third or fourth or put any ranking beside the Tories – even if it’s last. But others argue that’s the only way to “send a message” back to Ruth Davidson and the tin-eared Theresa May – especially in the wake of the row over the vicious Rape Clause and benefit cap.
As commentator Paul Kavanagh put it in his blog: “Under STV, when you rate a candidate last, you’re not voting for them, you’re voting against them, you’re saying that you want everyone else to get elected before them. Or, as they put it in Northern Ireland where they use STV for elections to Stormont, Vote Till You Boak. That’s how the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland managed to deprive the Unionists of an overall majority for the first time ever.”
To put it another way, by not ranking every candidate, voters are essentially saying they have no preference about who should get the other seats once their preferred candidate is elected. In fact most independence supporting voters do have a preference - they want Tories to get as few seats as possible, so logic suggests they should rank every other candidate ahead of them.
Will the SNP and Greens grasp this nettle or should they stay above the fray?
The Greens have been described as “touchingly naïve” to think these local elections are about anything but indyref2. With more candidates than available places, the SNP appear too confident to publicly advance an “any but the Tories” strategy. Of course, tens of thousands of voters support the Greens because of their innocence and the SNP because of their cockiness.
But systems are there to be understood. And there’s nothing to stop non-party members from thinking aloud about how to elect the best council candidates whilst also snubbing the Tories’ attempt to hijack these elections.
As columnist Iain MacWhirter put it this weekend: “The Prime Minister called on Scottish voters to “send a clear message” they don’t want another independence referendum. Well, they’re sending a message back. For many Scottish voters, Tory is still a four-letter word.”
Will that mean independence supporting voters adopt Tory tactics and use every preference to put the Tories last or vote conventionally and keep their fingers crossed?
We’ll see soon enough.