Edinburgh council coalition talks: Why Labour wants to keep its distance from the SNP – Ian Swanson

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From one point of view, it should have been so simple. Once Edinburgh's council election results were known, it was clear the SNP and Labour could make up the only two-party combination which would produce an overall majority.

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After five years governing as a minority administration, the two parties could renew their partnership and no longer have to worry about winning over anyone else to get votes through.

That's the way SNP group leader Adam McVey saw it. And although he has not commented publicly, it's also understood to be the view of Labour group leader Cammy Day.

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The SNP's Adam McVey and Labour's Cammy Day sign their coalition agreement at the City Chambers in 2017 (Picture: Greg Macvean)The SNP's Adam McVey and Labour's Cammy Day sign their coalition agreement at the City Chambers in 2017 (Picture: Greg Macvean)
The SNP's Adam McVey and Labour's Cammy Day sign their coalition agreement at the City Chambers in 2017 (Picture: Greg Macvean)

But Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar had a very different take on the election outcome in the Capital. He had made clear well in advance that he did not want any formal coalitions, especially not with the Tories or the SNP. A majority of the council’s new Labour group agreed.

And any hope that there might be some flexibility shown in Edinburgh’s case or permission for a lesser deal that would still allow the party to join the administration appears to have been disappointed.

Nevertheless, despite predictions of an SNP-Green deal, the talks on who will run the city have dragged on for well over a week with much uncertainty over the outcome.

Faced with the option of coalition, there’s always a dilemma for the junior partner over whether to take a share of power despite the compromises involved or avoid any blame for unpopular decisions by going into opposition and hoping still to wield some at least some influence.

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Edinburgh coalition talks: lack of deal may force council meeting to be postpone...

Since 2007, Edinburgh has been run by three different coalitions – first Lib Dem-SNP, then Labour-SNP and most recently SNP-Labour.

When Labour lost its place as the biggest party on the council to the SNP in 2017, there was much concern in the local party about going back into coalition as the junior partner, particularly if it meant sharing responsibility for spending cuts on services.

Indeed nervousness about how a deal with the SNP might impact on Labour in the general election then under way led to a six-week delay in the coalition being signed.

Although the two parties have many policy directions in common, there are also major differences, not least on independence, and there are obvious reasons to keep their distance.

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Scottish Labour is now planning on the basis that the next general election could be as early as this autumn. The thinking is that Boris Johnson might opt for an election sooner rather than later in an attempt to clear the decks over Partygate and secure himself a five-year term which would see him through a possible economic recession.

Labour believes during the campaign the Tories will play on fears of Labour doing a deal with the SNP at Westminster, and it would be easier to counter such claims if they have not done any deals with the SNP at council level.

There is clearly an argument that national politics should not determine what arrangements are made at local level and it is fair to point out the voting system for council elections in Scotland make coalition or minority rule almost inevitable.

But the political reality is that although voters will almost always say they want parties to work together, it’s not always going to happen.

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