Ian Swanson: So who will be cuddling up to whom after May 4?

Ruth Davidsons Tories could overtake Labour in the city. Picture: Jane Barlow
Ruth Davidsons Tories could overtake Labour in the city. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IT’S official: there will be no independence referendum this year. Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out any IndyRef 2 for 2017. But voters across Scotland will still be going to the polls in just a few months – to decide who runs our towns and cities.

After the dramas of last year – the Scottish Parliament elections, the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump over in the United States – choosing local councillors may seem a little tame. But arguably decisions over schools, roads, housing, planning developments and even pavements and street lighting have more impact on people’s day-to-day lives than some of the grander affairs of state.

Labour kicked things off yesterday, launching its “vision for local government” and calling for an “honest debate” about the kind if public services people want and how they should be paid for.

Labour is widely predicted to perform poorly in the May elections, though the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system – where voters rank candidates in order of preference by marking the ballot paper 1, 2, 3, etc – should serve as a brake on any landslide against them.

STV, used for council elections in Scotland since 2007, make it very difficult for one party to secure a majority of seats, making a coalition of some sort almost unavoidable.

Edinburgh first had a Lib Dem-SNP coalition and since 2012 a Labour-SNP partnership. So what is likely to emerge after May?

Although voting patterns are different for local elections, national trends do still have an influence and the SNP’s continued popularity together with Labour’s decline lead many to conclude that the Nationalists are likely to overtake Labour as the biggest group at the City Chambers.

Some say Labour could even slump to third place behind the Tories after Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson’s successes in the Holyrood elections – making the Tories the biggest opposition party in the Scottish Parliament and wining her own Edinburgh Central constituency.

Ms Davidson this week signalled that Tories would not be rushing to do coalition deals with the SNP, though the leader of the Tory group on Cosla (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) expressed surprise at the idea of a central policy on the matter, arguing local Conservative groups should be left to decide their own position.

An SNP source in the Capital says there has already been an informal approach from the Tories here, asking the Nationalists’ likely attitude after the elections. But the informal answer was there was little likelihood of the SNP working with the Conservatives.

Indeed, when it comes to coalition only a limited range of options look acceptable. Labour could go in with the SNP again. Greens and Lib Dems could help out if they had the numbers.

But having campaigned on the promise of strong opposition to the SNP, it would be difficult for Ruth Davidson’s Tories to cuddle up too close to the Nationalists – or Labour.

And it would be equally damaging for the SNP to be jumping into bed with the “toxic Tories”.

Labour will likewise be reluctant to throw in its lot with the Tories even if circumstances made such a scenario a serious option. The embarrassment of being seen as allies of the Tories in the anti-independence Better Together campaign during the 2014 referendum still lingers.

Despite pollsters saying that voters like to see political parties working together, the experience in Scotland suggests that is not really the case.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com