Scott Macnab: Who's left to stand up to Holyrood?

The SNP is poised to seize control of town halls but opposition to diktat from Edinburgh may suffer, writes Scott MacNab

Nicola Sturgeon celebrates SNP success during the 2012 Scottish local election count in Glasgow. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon celebrates SNP success during the 2012 Scottish local election count in Glasgow. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The political map of Scotland is poised to alter radically once more in the months ahead. The shifting plates of power which have marked the past decade are again on the move as the council elections loom and the outcome is likely to be another brick in the wall of the SNP’s hegemony of the country’s public life.
Sweeping gains are likely for the Nationalists. And as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reigns supreme, the omens look bad for Kezia Dugdale and Labour, with one weekend poll suggesting the party is flatlining on just 15 per cent and poised for another crashing defeat to the Conservatives.

The SNP can hardly be blamed for being popular and establishing itself as the natural party of government in post-devolution Scotland. The fault here lies with the opposition in failing to provide an attractive alternative which the increasingly slim non-independence majority can coalesce behind. But the situation raises further questions about the checks and balances in Scotland when one party, governed by notorious top-down discipline, can enjoy such widespread control over the levers of power.

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The SNP made political history at the last Scottish town hall elections in 2012 by taking more seats than Labour for the first time, but the vote was an overall disappointment for the party. The key target and “crown jewel” had been to seize power in Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city and the bastion of Labour control after its Holyrood wipeout the previous year. But Labour took back overall control, not just in Glasgow, but in three other council areas across Scotland. It has since added a fifth, while the Nationalists were left with just two councils, Dundee and Angus, under their control.

And as worrying questions emerged during the last Parliamentary term about the “bulldozer” approach adopted by the SNP, using its Holyrood majority to push through often unpopular measures, it was councils around Scotland which joined the vanguard of opposition to what was happening. Even this year, finance secretary Derek Mackay found himself under immense pressure to get his Budget passed after he set out initial plans to cut £327 million from direct council budgets. This move prompted a huge furore as town hall chiefs warned of the dire impact on jobs and cuts to frontline service including schools, libraries, bin collections and social care. The SNP had tried to claim that other funding streams meant the budget for frontline services was going up by £240m, but council number crunchers were quick to calculate the true impact on local budgets which corralled the SNP Government into compromise. In the end an extra £160m was found by the finance secretary to alleviate the impact. It was a similar situation last year when councils found their funding axed by about £500m.

The SNP looks poised to gain widespread control of many councils across Scotland in May, with a weekend Panelbase poll suggesting the party is on 47 per cent going into the elections. But will we continue to see similar agitation from Nationalist council chiefs against an SNP finance secretary imposing hardline cuts from the centre? Well, the omens don’t look great. As North Ayrshire faced the prospect of a £9m cut to its budget in this year’s draft budget – on top of £10m last year – the Labour council leader Joe Cullinane sounded a defiant tone, pledging to “fight for a fair funding deal”. Nationalists on the council took a different approach, with SNP finance spokesman Alan Hill insisting the cut had been “fully compensated” by other funding sources and urging Labour to stop the bickering and “get to grips with managing council finances”.

Similarly, when North Lanarkshire council leader Jim Logue warned that the local authority would face £35m of service cuts if the draft budget was accepted, there was little in the way of local solidarity from the Nationalists. SNP group leader David Stocks insisted this was “good SNP government budget that will increase local services.”

Local democracy was once a prolific and powerful organ of Scottish civic life with more than 200 local authorities in the 1970s. That has since been whittled down to 32, a move described as “one of the most radical programmes of decentralisation that we can identify anywhere in the world” by the recent Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy in Scotland. It recommended that the European Charter of Local Self Government be adopted into law in Scotland to offer some legal protection for the role of councils.

But there is growing anger that the authority of local government is being undermined. For a decade it was effectively stripped of its power to raise finance locally through a council tax freeze imposed from the centre. Town halls are nominally responsible for education, but when some council leaders suggested a cut in teacher numbers as budgets fell, they were effectively told “No” by Scottish ministers, or they would face even more brutal cuts to their funding from Edinburgh. Moves are also afoot to create new “educational regions” in Scotland, bringing together school clusters as part of a drive to tackle the attainment gap. But this has a prompted fears that education could be taken out of council hands altogether.

David O’Neill, president of local authority umbrella group Cosla, recently said councils should be a “key check” on Scotland’s system for sharing power to make up for shortfalls in the single chamber Holyrood set-up. Too much control from the centre, he warned, will “hinder this spectrum of checking and balancing and hinder Scotland’s overall democracy”.

This goes beyond the SNP – they just happen to be in power at the moment. It was doubtless the same when Scotland’s town halls were entrenched Labour dominions and council tax bills were whacked up in way that would make energy firms today blush. It comes down to local representatives of whatever political hue putting their duty to constituents above ingratiating themselves with party hierarchies in Edinburgh.