National issues look set to dominate council election

The Union flag, Scottish Saltire and the European Union flags flying outside the Scottish Parliament

The Union flag, Scottish Saltire and the European Union flags flying outside the Scottish Parliament

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THEY may not attract the same attention as the battles over Brexit or indyref2, but next month’s council elections do have the potential for considerable drama of their own.

The May 4 poll will allow voters to give their verdict on the Labour-SNP coalition which has run Edinburgh for the past five years and help choose who will govern the city for the next five.

But the varying fortunes and ambitions of all the parties point to the possibility of some major upheaval.

Labour likes to recall that last time, in 2012, it polled well and stayed ahead of the SNP in Edinburgh despite the Nationalists winning an unprecedented overall majority at Holyrood just 12 months earlier.

But there is little expectation of similar success for Labour this time. Polls show the party losing ground badly across the country and even ending up in third place behind the Tories here in the Capital.

The SNP is tipped to become the biggest party at the City Chambers, but the Single Transferable Vote system tends to make a big surge for any party less likely. So however well the Nationalists do, the result will not compare to their capture of 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats at the 2015 Westminster election.

None of the parties is fielding enough candidates to have an overall majority, making a coalition of some kind inevitable. But if the SNP does emerge with the biggest share of the 63 seats available, which party would it do a deal with?

Even if Labour finishes in third place, it could be seen as the most obvious choice for the Nationalists. The two parties have managed to maintain their partnership for the full five-year term despite differences. But it might be hard for Labour to accept the idea of being the junior partner in a renewed coalition.

A deal between the SNP and the Tories - who are also aiming to be the largest party - seems unlikely. The hostility between the two parties and their supporters is probably just too deep - although everyone will likely leave all options officially open until after the results are known.

But if the Greens - who are aiming to at least double their current five-strong group - ended up with enough councillors to give the SNP a majority, that could be a serious option for the Nationalists.

And if there were a revival in Liberal Democrat fortunes it is not impossible they could also find a role - the SNP was in coalition with them for five years at the City Chambers up to 2012.

Council elections often get mixed up with national political issues - whatever happens to be the dominant debate at the times - and they are taken as a barometer of the wider popularity of the parties, although in the past Scots have sometimes shown they do treat them separately by backing different parties for Holyrood and council even on the same day.

But such is the dominance now of the independence debate that some have predicted voting patterns on May 4 will be dictated by that, with SNP supporters giving their second or third votes solely to the pro-independence Greens, and Tory and Labour voters more likely than before to consider backing each other’s parties.

It would be a pity if local issues were trumped by the constitutional one in what is after all an election for the council. But perhaps all roads do now lead to Brexit or indyref2.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com