Ian Swanson: Big decision will have little effect on council

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CHANGING sides is never easy and Alex Lunn took fellow councillors by surprise when he announced yesterday he was defecting from Labour to the SNP.

In one sense, what must have been a difficult decision for him will make no difference. Labour and the Nationalists have been running the Capital in coalition since the last council elections 18 months ago, so Councillor Lunn will be backing the same policy programme he has supported all along,

But swapping one party for another is a big step and it provokes strong reactions. Mild-mannered Labour council leader Andrew Burns said he was “bitterly disappointed” and went on to question Cllr Lunn’s “apparent” support for independence.

It’s not the first defection within a coalition. In 2011, former Buckingham Palace press officer Elaine Morris quit the Liberal Democrats and moved over to its then partner the SNP.

She said she was unhappy with the Lib Dem-Tory coalition at Westminster and felt the Edinburgh Lib Dems had not been “good guardians” of the tram project.

Cllr Lunn insists his switch has not been not prompted by any tension or dispute at local level, but is purely down to his support for independence.

And he has made it clear he did not feel it was a tenable position to stay in the Labour Party and campaign for a Yes vote. “There’s nothing written down, but it is made clear that if you are an elected Labour representative at any level it is not acceptable to campaign for independence,” he said.

Political parties tend to be very tribal. There was surprise when Labour and the SNP in Edinburgh decided to get into bed together after the 2012 local elections. The alternative of trying to put together a Labour-Conservative-Green coalition looked unlikely from the start. But despite the closeness of many of their policies, there has long been a hostility between Labour and the Nationalists.

Their partnership in Edinburgh has so far avoided the embarrassing policy splits which affected the previous Lib Dem-SNP regime over school closures and privatisation of services. But there are always latent tensions in any 
coalition. Cllr Lunn’s defection does not dramatically affect the balance between the parties – the SNP will now have 18 councillors and Labour 20, back to the position before the death of SNP councillor Tom Buchanan and Labour’s win in the subsequent by-election.

But there is plenty of potential for relations to get more fraught as next September’s referendum looms closer.

And the fact that councillors’ day-to-day work has more to do with potholes and planning applications rather than the currency and defence makes no difference. For many voters, independence is an issue to be debated but for the parties there is little room for dissent – on either side.

Deputy council leader Steve Cardownie made his own switch from Labour to the SNP eight years ago so knows something of what Cllr Lunn must be feeling.

But having negotiated the coalition deal with Labour in the wake of the 2012 council elections, he has no wish to see the partnership falter as a result of this defection, however sensitive the timing and reason might be.

He said: “I don’t see why it should jeopardise our relationship with the Labour Party locally.

“We have differences nationally – we understand that, we knew that when we formed the coalition – but locally we are working to further the interests of Edinburgh and Alex will still help in that role.”