And when the leaders of those two parties are as unlikely drinking buddies as Lib Dem Jenny Dawe, a fairly strait-laced academic, and the SNP’s Steve Cardownie, a communist-turned-socialist-turned-nationalist who has a reputation as a good-time guy, then the splits should be inevitable.
Yet the political marriage between the two, which many predicted would collapse in a few months, has lasted five years.
Now, though, both parties are separate again and courting votes for next week’s elections – which is why Jenny Dawe, earlier this week, pointedly suggested that the SNP had ridden on Lib Dem coat-tails, its only contribution to the coalition perhaps oiling the wheels of communication with Holyrood.
“I don’t recognise that scenario at all,” laughs Cardownie, relaxing back into the sofa in his office. “When we were in negotiation for coalition in 2007, we felt our manifestos were quite compatible. The big sticking point was, of course, trams. We told them not to rely on our support, as we were against the whole idea, but they didn’t need it as there was a built-in majority for the trams with all the other parties in support. And if the timetable had gone to plan the tram would have been up and running and so it would no longer be an issue. We didn’t think we would be here in 2012 without a tram.”
But the city is still waiting and surely, as part of the administration which oversaw the mismanagement of the project, his party is partly culpable? Even more so by refusing to take a place on the board of TIE, where it could have scrutinised everything closely? He thinks not.
“It’s farcical to suggest that our opposition has in any way undermined the project. TIE was set up in 2002 and there were three Labour councillors on it, then that was extended to members of all political parties. We felt it would be incongruous of us to take a seat on the board when we were against the project in principle. How could we pronounce against it in the council and sit on the board?
“But there were four councillors on the board and at no time did they come to the council and say they felt there was something wrong, that things were astray. I don’t want to be personal, but either they were asleep on the job and didn’t ask questions, or they did ask questions and were satisfied with the answers, in which case they were duped.”
He adds: “I don’t blame the politicians for the failures in the contracts which were drawn up with Bilfinger Berger. Our legal advisers should have told the council they were flawed. We didn’t oppose the signing of the contracts because by then we’d lost the argument. We did oppose the Labour and Tory plan to only run the tram to Haymarket, though, because that was ridiculous. After all the money spent and disruption, the tram has to come to the city centre. Economically, a Haymarket terminus didn’t stack up.”
He stresses again that should there be any move in future for more tram lines – as suggested by the Lib Dems – that the SNP would demand a referendum. “Given what’s happened before, I think people would expect to be given a voice. But our plan is to put Lothian Buses first and look at ways to bridge the funding gap they are now experiencing. And in no circumstances would we allow Lothian Buses to be sold off.”
While the tram was always going to be a thorny problem for the coalition, another reared it’s head fairly quickly – that of the closure of 22 schools and nurseries.
“Almost immediately the press started talking of a hit list of schools, which was wrong,” he says. “It was just a suggestion of schools which should be looked at. But it inspired a big public campaign against any closures, which totally derailed the process and we, in the SNP, felt that the administration was no longer in control of the process.
“We decided we should pull out of the process, so it could start again and it would go more slowly and not create such alarm. In that regard we did take the Lib Dems by surprise but I think now they will thank us for that and see it was right to pull back.”
At the time, though, the Lib Dems spoke of disappointment and even “betrayal”. Cardownie is unrepentant.
“There was a genuine attempt to rationalise the school estate because many were operating way below capacity, which wasn’t good for the education of the children. But the way it was handled, meant the administration lost control of the process.
“Our actions put it back on track. And the kids who moved to other schools, our anecdotal evidence has shown they are flourishing.”
He adds: “I took Jenny through why we came to the decision we did. I poured oil on troubled waters.”
But there was a third division between the partners – over the alternative business model (ABM), or the outsourcing of council services to private contractors.
It could hardly have surprised the Lib Dems that someone with Cardownie’s left-wing leanings would end up refusing to go along with the plan. In fact, the SNP’s manifesto now not only promises staff a living wage but also no compulsory redundancies.
“We have a presumption against privatisation, we want to keep jobs in the public sector,” he says. “We went through the process of looking at ABM but always made clear we would make up our minds once we’d spoken to all parties and looked at all reports.
“There might have been an assumption made by some that we would ultimately agree with ABM, and the fact that we didn’t might have surprised some, but it wasn’t cold feet.”
While some might suggest that failing to back its partners in three major policy areas makes the SNP untrustworthy in coalition, Cardownie says three “spats” in five years – especially with so many new councillors – was good going.
“Some of our new councillors in 2007 felt they should be in opposition first, worried about their inexperience. But I said, ‘you don’t stand for election to be in opposition but to be in administration’. I feel that we have excelled, particularly Tom Buchanan in economic development.
“We also managed to preserve the funding for the city’s festivals which is vital to the city’s economy – they give the coffers a £250 million boost – and which are the envy of the world.
“Along with the Lib Dems, we’ve seen department budgets come in balanced for three years in a row. People might not appreciate that, but if we hadn’t done it they would be feeling the consequences. And while borrowings have risen, we’ve had financial advice that it’s well within the terms of a city this size.”
So what if the SNP still rides the wave of popularity which saw it sweep up the majority of Edinburgh’s MSP constituency seats, and become the largest party at the council? Who would it work with?
Like most other parties, there’s a message of consensus and co-operation. “We want to set up a leadership board where all party leaders would be invited to discuss and deal with the strategic issues facing the city. We want to hear from everybody.
“But that should not be confused with a lack of will to provide leadership. We will lead if we are returned in enough numbers to do so. But we want to work in the interests of the city and work with others to that end.”
And what about the big question, that of independence, the SNP’s reason for being? “People are not talking about independence. They’re talking about services, about roads, and employment. People know this election isn’t about independence but who you want to run the council. They can still vote SNP and vote against independence in the 2014 referendum.”
Cardownie obviously believes his party will be the largest in the Chambers come May 4. “Given our position in the coalition and nationally I’d be disappointed,” he says. “We want to be the senior partner in any coalition so that this time we can enact our policies and take the city forward.
“There’s been a lot of good work done by this coalition, but next time we want to be in the driving seat.”#
• Roll out more efficiency measures to ensure maximum value for money from the public purse.
• Introduce the Living Wage of £7.20 an hour for all council employees, and encourage contractors to adopt it.
• Commit to a policy of no compulsory redundancies in the council.
• Commit to council tax freeze.
• Strengthen neighbourhood partnerships and the particpatory budgeting model.
• Establish a more sustainable funding framework for the Third Sector.
• Develop the Edinburgh Business Gateway, Canal Quarter, St James’ Quarter and BioQuarter, Leith and the Waterfront to build on city’s reputation for inward investment.
• Establish a Consultative Board for all council group leaders to attend to discuss strategic matters and put Edinburgh above politics.
• Support the Small Business Bonus scheme which provides exemptions from business rates.
• Develop the Edinbugh Guarantee apprenticeship scheme.
• Protect Edinburgh from the imposition of major transport projects, such as trams, by ensuring people have given their support.
• Immediately embark in restorative programme to ensure roads network is up to scratch, increasing the road repair budget to £20m.
• Protect and develop bus services through Lothian Buses.
• Consult on extending 20mph zones and low-emission zones to improve air quality.
• Support the allocation of five per cent of transport budget to cycling and look to increase it.
• Roll out programme of cycle training for children and driver awareness of cyclists.
• Continue to invest in festivals and events.
• Strengthen the development of Club Sport Edinburgh and devolve decision-making process over awarding of small sports grants to it.
• Aim to provide smaller-scale skate parks where there is demand.
• Replicate the recently opened Drumbrae Library and Community Hub elsewhere.
• Ensure library opening hours match the needs of residents.
• Establish a business partner for every secondary school to foster relationships to help school leavers.
• Implement a statutory guarantee of over 600 hours of free nursery education for every three and four-year-old and looked-after two-year-old in Edinburgh.
• Examine ways to provide all-year-round nursery provision,
• Commit to rebuilding of Gillespie’s and Boroughmuir high schools.
• No reduction in the number of school crossing patrols.
• Extend the collection of food waste.
• Reduce the city’s carbon footprint by more efficient waste collection, improving recycling and transport policy.
• Roll out low-emission and electric vehicles in city fleet.
• Achieve a Blue Flag status for beaches.
• Appoint a Care Champion to represent carers and their interests in the council.
• Prioritise further care home development.
• Continue commitment to direct payments for care and shift balance so elderly receive as much care at home as possible when that’s what they prefer.
• Build more affordable homes.
• Continue to work for and invest in higher standards in public housing.
• Continue to implement the strategy to reduce homelessness numbers.
• Strengthen enforcement against bad landlords and HMOs, and seek a solution to party flats.
• Improve the process and ensure a one-stop shop for applications and objectors and increase access for potential objectors.
• Continue to invest in police officers who work with council environmental officers dealing with littering, vandalism, dog fouling and excessive noise.
• On serious crime, improve on how we deal with persistent and hardcore offenders, putting the victim first.
• Work with Scottish Government to tackle the underlying causes of crime.
• Encourage communities to apply for funding under the Cashback for Communities scheme, putting proceeds of crime towards projects.