Deal is done: City council is SNP and Labour coalition

LABOUR and the SNP today hailed the dawn of a new era following the shock announcement that the parties would form a coalition to run Edinburgh for the next five years.

Tuesday, 8th May 2012, 1:02 pm

Declarations were signed to form an administration binding the parties to work together to run the city council.

Labour group leader Andrew Burns will become council leader with the SNP’s Steve Cardownie as his deputy. Labour will also choose the Lord Provost.

The deal came an hour after a bid to build an all-party coalition collapsed last night, after which Labour also rejected plans to enter a coalition with the Conservatives.

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Councillor Burns and Councillor Cardownie said the partnership would provide strong and decisive leadership for the city as it emerges from the recession.

Together the two parties have 38 of the 58 seats. The last administration held 29 seats and the opposition 29 – forcing council leaders to repeatedly rely on the casting vote of the Lord Provost during key decisions.

Until last night a Labour-Tory deal was being touted as the most likely outcome, but one source said such a coalition was “pretty unsellable” to either party.

Labour-SNP coalitions are unusual but not unheard of. A Labour insider said the deal had the advantage of providing real stability for Edinburgh and an administration of experienced councillors.

He said: “The problem last time was you had people in coalition who were not used to power and they made some huge mistakes early on.”

Labour and the SNP have much common ground on policies, but there are still areas of divergence.

Labour has previously ruled out any major new transport project for the next two years, but the SNP has pledged in its manifesto to embark on a major upgrade to key areas of the road network. These include areas such as the Bioquarter, where the city is attempting to attract international investors.

Critics had suggested that a Labour-SNP deal would not happen because of political and personal tensions – Cllr Cardownie was a Labour councillor until he defected to the SNP in 2005.

But today Cllr Burns said: “I’m confident I will be able to work with Steve and the rest of the SNP group without any difficulty whatsoever.” He said the two parties would finalise a detailed programme in the next couple of days.

The new Lord Provost and deputy will be appointed at the first meeting of the new council on Thursday, May 17.

Cllr Burns said: “After intense negotiations over the last few days I am delighted we have managed to reach an agreement to lead the city of Edinburgh for the next five years.

“Edinburgh electors gave a very clear mandate to Labour and the SNP, delivering 38 out of 58 councillors. A Labour-SNP coalition will now provide the stability and certainty needed to move Edinburgh forward.” Steve Cardownie, who served as deputy council leader between 2007 and 2012, added: “With this strong partnership we are best placed to ensure Edinburgh serves its citizens well and emerges from the recession quickly and strongly. Our groups’ economic policies are almost one and the same, and we are confident they will deliver for the people of the city.”

Due to the nature of the Single Transferable Vote system securing an overall majority is unlikely, but support for Cllr Burns’ grand coalition was flagging from the start. As early as Friday afternoon the five parties began planning to form various coalitions and behind-the-scenes talks ran on throughout the weekend.

The Nationalists, who ran the city with the Lib Dems for the past five years, were sceptical about Cllr Burns’ plans for an all-party coalition from the start.

The Evening News has learned Cllr Cardownie approached the Tories just hours after the election results became clear with a view to forming an administration – which would have seen Labour frozen out despite being the largest party.

One source said “you wouldn’t believe” how much the SNP were offering the Conservatives to try to bring them on board, adding: “Steve Cardownie still wants to be Lord Provost. He has been away to the Tories offering them anything and everything.”

A senior Tory confirmed the SNP had originally made “some fairly serious offers” if the Conservatives were willing to go into coalition but that the party had held out for a deal with Labour.

In a separate move, Cllr Cardownie – a councillor since 1988 – also offered Labour a formal coalition on the condition he become Lord Provost and SNP number two Alasdair Rankin become deputy council leader. But Labour made clear it wanted to pursue the idea of an all-party coalition first. However, after the SNP, Greens and the three surviving Lib Dems walked away from the grand coalition, Labour could not do a deal solely with its rivals, the Tories, for fear of a backlash by party members.

One senior Labour source said a Tory-Labour coalition had been “pretty unsellable” to either party.

Another source claimed Cllr Cardownie was “under the cosh because he had failed to deliver what the party expected” at the elections.

The SNP had been widely tipped to top the polls but failed to emerge the biggest party when Labour secured two seats to the SNP’s one in the battle for the 17th and final ward.

One of the key policies Labour and the SNP agree on is the introduction of the £7.20 living wage for council workers. One Labour source said: “We wouldn’t have got support from the Tories for a living wage.”

Another Labour insider said despite all the problems with the trams, there was no reason for that to become a source of tension with the SNP.

“It’s still an issue for everyone,” he said. “But all parties are agreed we have to get on and deliver it.” Many senior councillors believe the grand coalition was “an unrealistic starting point” and that a two-party solution with a clear majority is preferable.

The Edinburgh Greens, who doubled their presence in the chamber to six, had been expected to play a major role in a new administration but said they would prefer to deal on a policy-by-policy basis.

Leader Steve Burgess said: “We recognised that the arithmetic meant Green councillors would always be dispensable and that would be a major weakness.

“However, by making our intentions not to enter coalition clear we ensured that a Labour-Conservative coalition was no longer attractive to Labour either.

“I hope the spirit of consensus of the last three days will continue. The Greens will continue to work for that as well as offering robust scrutiny of the administration and the development of bold and innovative policies for the Capital.”

Labour ‘gambit’ fails as coalition rescue plan collapses

A LAST ditch attempt to keep Labour’s grand coalition alive collapsed within minutes last night as, one by one, the parties refused to join in the plan.

Labour leader Andrew Burns gathered party leaders to ask them to back his vision of a “big tent” approach – but rivals argued it was unworkable.

Critics argued that Labour’s proposed return to the previous system of governance, where fewer decisions were delegated to committees, took power away from locally-elected councillors.

Nationalist leader Steve Cardownie was first to reject the offer, arguing the new model was not thought through, followed by Green leader Steve Burgess.

Cllr Burgess (pictured) suggested the grand coalition was not a realistic option and questioned whether it could deliver the change which voters expected.

By the time Cllr Burns reached the Liberal Democrats the talks had collapsed.

One senior negotiator involved with the talks later suggested that the grand coalition idea has simply been a “gambit” on the part of Labour. He suggested Labour feared a pact with the Tories or SNP would anger its supporters and hoped to save face by offering all parties the chance to enter a deal with the knowledge they were unlikely to accept.

However, Andrew Burns has previously insisted he wants to move towards an inclusive system of consensus politics. The source told the Evening News: “I’m not sure they [Labour] ever had any desire to do what they’re doing. They never mentioned this reform of the system in their manifestos. The current system is far more inclusive.”

Green leader Steve Burgess suggested an offer to include his party was “cover” for what would be a two-party coalition between rivals. However, his party has said it is happy to work on a case by case basis to deliver its policies.

He said of the grand coalition: “It would result in policies which fall far short of the ambition that Edinburgh needs to show. And it would pose real challenges as to who was accountable for the programme.”