THE SNP-Labour coalition which runs Edinburgh has been in a precarious position from the start. It was one seat short of an overall majority when it was formed in the wake of the council elections in May last year and since then three councillors have left the SNP to sit as independents, widening the gap.
Now Labour activists are calling for their party to quit the coalition altogether in protest at what they say is the Nationalists’ failure to make a stand against cuts in funding from the Scottish Government.
Labour’s Local Campaign Forum (LCF), which has representatives from constituencies across the city, says austerity from both Westminster and Holyrood has already meant £240 million of cuts and 1446 job losses at the council and is dismayed at the prospect of a further £106m in cuts to services and another 1700 jobs going.
The forum argues Tory cuts to local government revenues have amounted to 1.8 per cent since 2010/11, while the SNP has inflicted a 9.6 per cent cut to Scottish councils over the same period.
It accuses the SNP group in Edinburgh of breaching the coalition agreement by failing to put enough pressure on the Scottish Government to provide more cash.
Former councillor Jimmy Burnett, a key figure in Labour administrations in the 1980s and 90s, was against going into coalition in the first place and says it is becoming increasingly difficult for Labour activists to campaign against cuts at local level when the party’s own councillors are helping to make them.
Labour group leader Cammy Day argues, on the other hand, that sharing power in coalition gives the party an influence over decisions and it is using that influence to minimise the damage of the cuts. The alternative, he says, is being in opposition and unable to achieve anything.
Councils have long struggled to maintain the level of services they want to in the face of central government funding cuts, but the situation is now getting to the point where local authorities are being driven to look at scaling back on almost everything other than their statutory obligations.
The Evening News revealed a few weeks ago how savings under consideration by the council for next year’s budget include closing all but two of the city’s public toilets, cutting back on school budgets, road repairs and street cleaning, stopping emergency repairs to tenements and ending the free supply of electricity in common stairs.
When she announced she was stepping down at last year’s election, long-serving Labour councillor Lesley Hinds said she thought local government was probably at its weakest point in the 30-plus years since she was first elected, saying: “I feel that now what we’re doing is carrying out cuts on behalf of the Scottish Government.”
Labour activists may be right to think the SNP leadership in Edinburgh should be arguing more strongly for more money for the council, though they will say they are constantly lobbying ministers – and who knows how successful even more forceful pressure would be.
But despite the activists’ call, it looks unlikely that Labour will walk out of the coalition. A partnership between the SNP and Labour is the only real option for the administration of the city.
No party has enough councillors to govern on their own and no one will join with the Tories, even though they are the largest party. So it looks like no change for now.