Be sure to vote in the local elections … and help pave the way to indyref2

Be sure to vote in the local elections … and help pave the way to indyref2
The National, by Lesley Riddoch


It’s the election that’s been completely sidelined by Theresa’s snap UK poll – forgotten by everyone that is except candidates, political parties, community activists and pollsters. But the local election results could be far more important than anyone expects – they could help deny the Tories their predicted 8-12 Scottish seats in the General Election, help regain momentum for indyref2 and make radical reform of Scotland’s unwieldy, oversized and sclerotic system of local government absolutely inevitable.


I realise that’s quite a heady claim for elections which prompted only 38 per cent of Scots to vote last time around. But leaked internal SNP figures, published in yesterday’s Herald, suggest the party is polling just over 50 per cent in Glasgow – a result that would see Labour finally lose power in Scotland’s largest city for the first time since 1979.


The psychological impact on Glaswegians would be massive – likewise the effect on the general Scottish mood in the run-up to the snap Westminster poll. If Glasgow and other West of Scotland councils fall to the SNP next week, it’ll be like Japanese soldiers finally surrendering 10 years after the end of hostilities.


Remember that for most Scots, half a century of Labour control ended way back in 2007 when Alex Salmond’s minority SNP government ousted Labour’s Jack McConnell from Holyrood. That same year, 35 years of alternating Tory and Labour control ended in Edinburgh with a LibDem-SNP coalition, and the same thing happened in Aberdeen.


Dundee went SNP in 2009 after 30 years of Labour at the helm. But Glasgow continued to vote Labour, despite increasing unease over the party’s outsourcing of council services and collective tin ear over allegations of favouritism and cronyism.


The SNP’s failure in 2012 was partly because local leadership was wobbly and the party had become a tad complacent, but mostly because sequencing of elections left voters in Scotland’s largest city with no chance to reflect their collective 2014 Yes vote at council level – until now.


Since the independence referendum, as political change swept Scotland, Glasgow Council remained immune, headed by a succession of flamboyant personalities as council leader including Gordon “Bring it On” Matheson, Steven Purcell, who quit the post after addiction problems, Charlie Gordon, who took Glasgow storming out of the umbrella group Cosla, and the incumbent, former MSP Frank McAveety. Labour also currently controls North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, North Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire councils and is the largest single party in Inverclyde, Fife, Dumfries and Galloway, North Ayrshire and West Lothian councils.


So even though Scottish Labour has crumbled at national level, locally it is still powerful – a third of Scotland’s 32 councils are run by the party including more than half of all local authorities in the West of Scotland. Now of course it’s true that Scots are probably less influenced by the political outlook of their council than folk in other European nations.


We have the largest “local” authorities, the smallest councillor cohort, the lowest turnouts and (consequently) the highest proportion of people who feel they have no power in their local domain (according to the Scottish Household Survey).


But if Labour lose control over large chunks of Scotland after next week’s local elections, it will feel like the end of an era, boost the SNP (and Scottish Greens) and reinvigorate tired supporters in the run-up to the General Election.


Commentators also have their eyes on the Tories’ performance at the council elections – but while it’ll be significant if they replace Labour as the main opposition with a bigger percentage vote in a few rural councils, it won’t displace the splash headlines that will accompany the SNP winning Glasgow.


But will that actually happen this time around or will confidence attract punishment in the form of tactical voting by Tory voters which lets Glasgow Labour hang on? Not likely, according to Stephen Bush of the New Statesman: “The nightmare for Labour is a massive increase in the Tory vote but no emergence of Unionist tactical voting, [meaning] … no electoral dividend for Labour there at all.”


Strathclyde University’s Professor John Curtice also said yesterday it would be “very surprising” if Labour retained control of any of the four Scottish councils it won in 2012. He wouldn’t put a number on Labour’s losses but warned: “Whatever evidence you look at – the most recent opinion polls, local election polls, local government elections – it just looks as though Labour is heading for disaster north of the Border,” and added that after next week “Scottish local government should become at least predominantly something that the SNP run”.


That prediction is not simply based on gut instinct but on the analysis of by-election results too – since the 2014 indyref there have been six straight SNP by-election wins.


But if the SNP does take over from Labour as the main party of local and national government, they’ll find it hard to pursue their centralisation agenda unchallenged. On Tuesday night in Oban, a meeting was held by a group of local 30-somethings who’re completely disillusioned with the vast scale and high-handed way Argyll and Bute Council is run.


The “People’s Council” event attracted 13 candidates and 60 members of the public – certainly that’s no audience avalanche, but the issues they raised were quite different to the ones that currently preoccupy local politicians of all main parties.


The audience was almost unanimous in supporting the devolution of budget to seven powerful area committees – in fact most wanted to dissolve Argyll and Bute Council altogether. There was unanimous support for allowing councillors to vote remotely – it can take a full day to reach the council HQ from islands like Mull, Islay and Coll but presently, though councillors can “attend” via home computers, the system is not considered sufficiently secure to allow remote voting. Voters viewed this as a lazy excuse preventing people from more remote communities becoming councillors.


It’ll also be harder for councils to ignore Nicola Sturgeon’s call for one per cent of council cash to be allocated through participatory budgeting, if most councils are henceforth run by the SNP.


So change is in the air — if independence-supporting Scots shake off voter fatigue, “vote till they boak” by putting SNP and Green candidates top but continuing to rank Unionist parties, and above all, put the date in their diary. Next Thursday is council election day.


Get excited, stay focused — and above all, vote.