Alison Johnstone: Let’s get back to work – for our local democracy

Alison Johnstone celebrates with Councillor Melanie Main at the count. Picture: Neil Hanna
Alison Johnstone celebrates with Councillor Melanie Main at the count. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Despite the importance of council services, such as schools, social care and housing, last week’s local elections were overshadowed by national events. Those of us who care about local democracy faced an uphill battle.

With little national media interest, a Tory prime minister trampling over the campaign by calling a general election in the middle of it, and other parties cynically trying to make it about constitutional issues, it was one of the toughest campaigns I can recall.

In the end, Greens secured 19 councillors on six local authorities, up from 14 councillors on five authorities in 2012. We came close in many other areas and know where to push next time.

Here in Edinburgh, our expanded membership with its stronger campaigning culture has helped broaden our support base. We expanded into Portobello and Craigmillar, Craigentinny and Duddingston, and the city centre. Likewise, in Glasgow, Greens broke through in areas such as Dennistoun in the East End, Pollokshields and Govan. Elsewhere in Scotland, such as Highland and Orkney, we have our first councillors who will bring fresh thinking into stale council chambers, and we’ve held on to seats in Aberdeenshire and Stirling.

Pleasure at our progress is tinged with sadness at the loss of two great community champions – Nigel Bagshaw in Inverleith and Ian Baxter in Bonnyrigg. Both were incredibly hardworking councillors, delivering real improvements for their neighbourhoods. Politics can be a rough business at times but I know that Nigel and Ian will continue to contribute in other ways.

As for what happens next in the city chambers, my Green councillor colleagues have made clear that they are happy to work constructively with other parties who share their ambition for a greener, fairer and more open Edinburgh. In particular, there’s a chance to make real progress on affordable housing, better social care and improving city transport.

There are a number of different models for securing those changes and I’m confident that my councillor colleagues in discussion with the other groups will reach a decision that is right for their communities and right for the city.

While it’s pleasing to see more Greens elected, I’m struck by the increased number of Tory councillors.

This is a party that campaigned not on relevant local issues but on the constitution. The real danger is that these new Tory councillors, whose party has shown little interest in supporting vulnerable people, use any influence they do get to cut back or privatise the local services and facilities we all rely on.

New and re-elected Green councillors around Scotland will stick up for communities. All our candidates and activists should be proud. But given the stubbornly low turnout – less than 30 per cent in parts of Glasgow and below 50 per cent in eight of Edinburgh’s 17 wards – it’s clear all parties need to do more to strengthen local democracy. Successive governments have stripped councils of control, undermining their authority. We must start to reverse this trend if we value our local services.

Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian