Scotland's council elections produced a slew of coalitions, but why can't the public have a say in their make-up? – Alastair Stewart

Scotland's local councils are now well on their way to forming a range of cross-party coalitions. The question is, why is there not much outrage over the practice?

Former allies: The SNP's Adam McVey, right, is furious at Labour's Cammy Day after the latter managed to take control of Edinburgh City Council with help from the Lib Dems and Tories
Former allies: The SNP's Adam McVey, right, is furious at Labour's Cammy Day after the latter managed to take control of Edinburgh City Council with help from the Lib Dems and Tories

The SNP backlash against Labour's pact with the Conservatives and Lib Dems to lead the City of Edinburgh Council was predictable. The hypocrisy is deafening, given nationalists led it for five years in partnership with Labour and served as a junior partner five years before that.

Six councils have formed coalitions at the time of writing, with 18 to go. The SNP formed minority administrations in Perth and Kinross and South Ayrshire and Labour in Fife. Dundee is under majority SNP control, and Labour won West Dunbartonshire Council outright. Na h-Eileanan Siar, Shetland and Orkney have majorities of independent councillors.

Scotland's single-transferable-vote system necessitates parties working together to bring forward policies and coalition governments are a legitimate part of the process. But they highlight the extraordinary extremism across the political chasms of modern Scotland.

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The entire 2022 local election was framed as a national argument. Parties campaigned on the fallout surrounding the Westminster 'Partygate' affair and ongoing Scottish constitutional debates. Election literature and social media focussed on national issues with slogans like "send a message to Boris."

The election was a depressing insight into how little consideration some prospective candidates of all political stripes gave to articulating a view on local problems. It was simply enough to say who they were or were not. A rare minority were posting hyperlocal material.

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There is a general disconnect between what people think local councils do and their actual remit. 'Bins, potholes and roadworks' is a pervasive part of a broader picture that undercuts the critical importance of local authorities.

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Local council powers can be divided into three main categories: mandatory, permissive and regulatory.

Mandatory powers include the provision of schooling and social care, and permissive authority comprises recreation services like leisure facilities and economic development. Regulatory powers give councils control over licensing and permits, such as taxis, trading standards, and environmental health.

We all love to hate on local authorities. They are simultaneously to blame for everything and too powerless to have any measurable difference. But their portfolios are serious, the challenges are dire, and coalitions add additional confusion. Are central, national political parties dictating homogeneous policy across the country, or is there an evolving carte blanche remit?

Bringing together truly disparate values like the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour creates an entity that no one voted for. Even the SNP and Greens are incompatible on a host of issues.

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If local elections are irreconcilably toxic and framed in response to issues like independence or judging Boris Johnson, how can those elected then govern honestly? Either the national debate is not as hot-headed as we think it is, or local parties are transcending divisions to a remarkable extent.

The outcome of high-level party deliberations to form an agreement to govern is not what a vote at the ballot box was cast for. People voted for manifestos and candidates. Single-party minority administrations have more moral legitimacy than the hybrid consequences of behind-closed-door deals.

There are even calls to give councils more powers and control. The Scottish Lib Dems want more local say over funding, transport, planning, energy and housing. Leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said too many policies are set by central government ministers who are "far from the consequences of their decisions", and he is right.

Local parties trying to form stable coalitions find themselves accused of being “in bed with the Tories” or facing jibes about “Labour's betrayal" from those who forget it's a local administration.

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The problem materialising is the expectation that local councils should be both more independent and pragmatic, while also being governed by national political divides, of left and right, nationalist or unionist.

Voting for candidates and parties in good faith is not, and should not be, a licence for them to enter a coalition with whomever they like. Asking their members would be a simple tick-box exercise and the public should have a say.

The situation is worse when party leaders themselves make the problem so hostile. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said it was "frankly ridiculous" to suggest Scottish Labour had entered coalitions in all but name. Previously, both Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Sarwar said Labour would not form any coalitions with any party on a local and national level.

Alex Cole-Hamilton says he needs to be persuaded of the merits of any Liberal Democrat coalition with the SNP or Tories. He previously said he was willing to work with Sarwar. “The SNP's focus is not on local government – it's on independence. The Conservatives are part of the problem.”

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Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said he wouldn't rule out a coalition with either of them to unseat the SNP at Holyrood. Ross called for a 'pro-UK coalition' after the launch of Salmond's Alba Party last year. Asked if he would do a deal with Labour after the Holyrood 2021 election, Ross said he would "work with anyone and everyone" to enact his policies.

This would be less of an issue if Scotland's democratic deficit was not decried daily as part of that national debate. It is a central pillar of the independence argument. The SNP and Greens have long complained Scotland does not get the UK Governments it voted for. But who voted for local coalitions across the country?

Watered-down manifestos and negotiated values are not democracy. What is the point of voting for a party if it then picks and chooses, in discussion with partners, what it keeps and abandons?

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