6 April 2012

Glaswegian implications of Labour's "politics of bulling..."

Local elections may be taking place across the country, in every corner of Scotland, but the biggest political story will almost certainly be the fate of Glasgow City Council.  After Labour’s drubbing in May of last year, the loss of five of eight Glaswegian constituencies in Holyrood to the SNP, and the recent turmoil engulfing the party in the City Chambers, not unreasonably, the press sense that the last solid bastion of Labour in the country may well be crumbling. Scallcrows, they’re always up for picking over the carcasses, and for the past year, almost all of our spent political cadavers have worn red rosettes.

However you analyse it, the 2012 local elections don’t look grand for Labour. In order to regain majority control of Glasgow City Council by the slimmest possible margin, the party has to win forty of the city’s seventy nine councillors.  This is a tall order in a proportional system, made all the taller by changes in SNP strategy, seeing them run more than one candidate in every city ward, so depriving Labour of a key advantage enjoyed in 2007. 

There is always the possibility of forming a minority administration, but that relies on the benevolence of your opposition and their inability to form a cohesive alternative administration which would enjoy a majority on the council.  Relevant factors here are not purely mathematical. If a coalition is to be countenanced, we have to ask ourselves: what has the experience of Labour leadership in Glasgow done to the councillors of other parties who have experienced their style and manner of operating? Would you enter a coalition with a ruthless cabal of hatchet men, or alternatively, do everything in your power to exclude them from office?

After all, even a plurality of councillors doesn’t straightforwardly entitle a minority party to take local authority power alone. Consider, Angus by way of example. After the 2007 election, the SNP won the most councillors, taking thirteen of the twenty nine council wards (45%), but was kept out of office by the “Angus Alliance”, comprising of Independent, Liberal, Labour and Tory councillors, combining to form a majority from disparate political strands, to oust the Nationalists after donkey's years of SNP control in Angus.  Sound familiar?

So if a balance of power between the SNP and Labour is to be held at all in Glasgow, who might hold it? There have been a number of defections since, but the 2007 local authority, 85% of seats on the council were divvied up between Labour (45) and the SNP (22).  Save for these sixty seven, five councillors apiece were elected for the Greens and the Liberals, one Tory, and one Solidarity Councillor, who has since defected back to Labour. After Glasgow’s recent budget fiasco, Green councillor for Partick West Stuart Clay wrote:

“… as every opposition councillor will tell you, there’s absolutely no point in trying to negotiate with Glasgow Labour – you always feel they’re trying to get one up on you, or trying to force you into a position that suits them, not you.  With every other political party the Scottish Greens have worked with in Glasgow, there has always been a feeling of honesty, respect and being treated as equals.  Now people may say that Glasgow Labour's stance is just politics, but it's a politics of bulling, and to be honest if people just sat around a table and discussed things (like the Combined budget) rather than trying to get one over each other, I think it would lead to much more sensible decisions and processes.”

Although it never does to underestimate the allure of political expediency, it is difficult to see how the proposition“Glasgow Labour doesn’t care about what anyone else thinks, they don’t care that you have good ideas that could help benefit Glasgow’s citizens, they don’t care what its union members are saying to them, all Glasgow Labour seem to care about is winning” – can be transformed into the stuff political coalitions are made of. And as Clay's comments demonstrate, the combined budget cunningly sprung on the Labour Party in Glasgow is concrete testament to the fact that workable, workmanlike and apparently convivial coalitions can form in the city, absent Labour participation. 

I’ve a post germinating, taking a closer look at the augurs for the Liberal Democrats and Greens in the approaching local authority election. But if – as some commentators suggest – the Greens may soon be enjoying a balance of power on Glasgow City Council, and there is every chance Labour fails to regain one-party majority control, Clay’s damning account of the modus operandi of his Labour opposite numbers ought to set the Labour administration’s collective colons throbbing.


  1. The Angus Concil example has had me wondering - and worrying - these past few days that, given the current political climate, if the SNP win a plurality of seats in a large number of councils the other parties will band together to deny them control out of sheer spite.

    Of course, to do so in a deliberate, countrywide manner would be sheer insanity (not to mention difficult to organise) because the SNP would milk the situation for all it was worth - but might they just be desperate enough to try it?

  2. I can't say I'm massively impressed with the SNP's Glasgow leader, but Matheson seems a right nasty little nyaff. I can't see him finding many friends in the other ranks if it comes to a coalition.

  3. You ought to be impressed with the SNP leader. Admittedly she us no great shakes as a public speaker or media performer but that's not what she does. Her forte is winning elections, from Govan in 1988 to Govan in 2007, Glasgow East in 2008 and countless points in between. In her years as Director of Organisation of the SNP no-one has done more than Allison Hunter to make the SNP the campaigning force it is. I still remember her coming to our branch to explain what this thing called voter identification was all about! Little did any of us know at that point how it would transform our campaigning. Nothing says more clearly that the SNP is serious about winning Glasgow than the fact that they chose her to lead the campaign.

  4. Glasgow needs a change, simple as that. So does South Lanarkshire, where I live. Labour only held control because of the loving support of a Tory.

    Change is important at all levels. A party retaining power for so long breeds contempt. Power certainly does corrupt.

  5. "Admittedly she us no great shakes as a public speaker or media performer but that's not what she does. Her forte is winning elections, from Govan in 1988 to Govan in 2007, Glasgow East in 2008 and countless points in between."

    Fair enough. But can't the party's coffers stretch to a LITTLE bit of media training?

  6. I'll train her. And for less than a training company would charge!

    Public speaking skills are absolutely essential in politics, including anyone who is face to face with the general public. It doesn't always means standing before a large audience. One person counts as an audience.

    Media training is a bit different. You have to get your facts absolutely correct. Experienced journalists sometimes have the facts already to hand, in an attempt to create a story by tripping up their victim.

    Good presentation skills count for a lot. And the more high profile an individual is, the greater the necessity.

  7. AFaulds,

    It would be a mistake, I think, to see the national Unionist/nationalist schism as exhausting the resources encouraging alliances one way and t'other in contemporary Scottish politics.

    After all, the very being of unionist politics invites us to draw other oppositions: Labour vs Tory - and indeed, other closer alliances: Labour vs Tory and Liberal. On the local level, as I tried to suggest with respect to Angus and to Glasgow - past experiences of your opponents are also weigh with councillors countenancing coalitions.

    The 2007 local election results shows combinations of councillors going every which way, to take office in circumstances of no overall control for one party (which is now, by dint of proportionality, the norm).

  8. Indeed - there are all sorts of alliances in local government. Not too long ago in Glasgow the SNP did a deal with the Tories to try to pass an opposition budget.

    If there is no majority party in Glasgow the Greens, Tories and Lib Dems (if they get one or two elected) will have some thinking to do.

  9. @Barbarian of the North

    Glasgow really does need a change, as does Renfrewshire. My local ward is a prime example of the tribalism that Labour sticks to: after the former councillor graduated to Holyrood, guess who was put forward as his successor? His father of course! Renfrewshire seems to be stuck in a mire of infrastructure decay and political stalemate, and I don't think inherited councillor nominations are going to improve this.

  10. Sphintcers a trembling, the colons are already rumbling, even before the vote.