THE SNP put a lot of effort into taking control of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and succeeded. Weeks of wheeler-dealing and offers of favour to the unwary did the trick and delivered the key posts to loyal supporters of the Scottish Government.
It is the first time this has happened and could be another blow to our political diversity. On the other hand, it should encourage those who remain outside the magic circle – trade unions, individual councils not under SNP control and community bodies that see their funding cut – to fight harder and louder than before.
If COSLA is neutered by its new leadership and their party loyalty, then there is no point in looking to it as any ally in the battle against policies pursued by the Scottish Government. It is at least possible, that by closing down one major source of potential irritation, the SNP high command might encourage others to be bolder.
Certainly, it seems unlikely that the organisation’s new president, SNP councillor Shona Morrison from Moray Council, will be a thorn in anyone’s side – which is exactly why so much effort went into installing her by the narrowest of margins in a secret ballot. I wonder how many “independents” will declare how they voted – and why?
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The outcome doesn’t have a lot to do with democracy. The SNP won a third of the votes cast and of the seats contested at the recent council elections. Not bad but not great. However, the likelihood of a house-trained COSLA leadership makes depressing news for council services and the people who depend on them at a time when resistance to St Andrew’s House is needed rather than acquiescence.
Even the most ardent SNP apologist, a category in which Ms Morrison can safely be included, would be hard pushed to defend the party’s record on the treatment of local government, if they even bothered to try. Over a sustained period, the policy has been to cut council funding and centralise powers which rightly belong at local level. Devolution stopped at Edinburgh and was then put into reverse.
The Scottish Government’s guiding principle is to control and badge in its own name as much as possible of what goes on in Scotland. Dissent and diversity are not welcome. Up to 80 per cent of council funding is ring-fenced, leaving minimal discretion for councils to take the kind of initiatives that localism demands, particularly in the most needful communities.
Myriad official figures confirm that cuts to council budgets have been out of all proportion to any fiscal inconvenience suffered by the Scottish Government itself. As recently as March, the Accounts Commission reported that “excluding the effect of Covid-19 funding, the underlying cumulative funding position for councils has fallen by 4.2 per cent in real terms since 2013/14”.
According to the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, per capita funding for local councils since 2009 has fallen by over 16 per cent. Glasgow and Edinburgh suffered per capita cuts in their core budgets of over 20 per cent. But where were the cries of pain from the loyal Nationalists administering the cuts?
For the current financial year, council budgets across Scotland were cut initially by £371 million. This time, every council leader in Scotland signed a letter of protest. Then, in the usual ritual, the cut was reduced by £110 million – but was still a cut of £261 million, at a time of immense pressure from National Insurance increases and imposed service obligations, even before the recent surge in wage demands.
In her recent financial statement, Kate Forbes told local authorities that their budget is frozen in cash terms for the next three years. Who knows what that will mean in real terms, as double-digit inflation kicks in? At this point, the harsh treatment for more than a decade comes home to roost because there is so little left to cut.
COSLA needs to be more than a wholly owned subsidiary of the Scottish Government, which is now the real fear. The problem is not so much in its leadership being of the same political hue as the Ministers they are dealing with as in the question of where first loyalties lie – party or community?
In times past, there were big figures in Scottish local government who were prepared to take on their own political colleagues. Indeed, the serious local politicians who ran the big regional councils revelled in that opportunity because it gave them more leverage on behalf of their communities, their employees, their councils.
Such battles of will were reflected in plenty Labour Party conferences I attended at which there would be good old ding-dongs between the Parliamentarians and the local authority barons, with the trade unions active in their members’ interest. That was the dynamic of real politics from which local government usually emerged well at the hands of people who actually believed in it.
It is a dynamic currently missing. The Nationalist appeal, even at council elections, is based on the constitutional issue which means 30-odd per cent support is pretty much guaranteed. Until that syndrome is broken, the current regime can do pretty much as it likes – not least to local government – without any great sense of danger. Or can it?
Curiously enough, Ms Morrison’s own local election experience demonstrates how voters eventually catch onto the fact that using their votes tactically can derail the Nationalist bandwagon which, it should never be forgotten, unites people of views which stretch across the right-left political spectrum, not least in Moray.
In the Fochabers Llanbryde ward, the SNP put up two candidates for seats they previously held. Ms Morrison was elected at the third stage. However, the vast majority of votes that transferred from other candidates as they dropped out went to the Labour candidate who was elected at the age of 19 – perhaps to his own surprise.
Nobody had told people to vote tactically but they just did it, to prevent the kind of local domination that the SNP assume to be their right nationally. Resisting single-party domination should equally be Scotland’s priority and if COSLA fails to speak for local government, others must fill that void.