Steve Cardownie: Coalition faces hard lesson over schools

SNP Group leader Adam McVey and his Labour counterpart, Cammy Day, sign the city council coalition deal. Picture: PA
SNP Group leader Adam McVey and his Labour counterpart, Cammy Day, sign the city council coalition deal. Picture: PA
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As the City of Edinburgh’s Capital Coalition enters the New Year it will be bolstered by the knowledge that as long as the opposition groups are divided, its future should be secure.

The prospect of the other groups coalescing to deliver a significant bloody nose to the administration seems as far off as ever. The coalition, led by the SNP obviously will look to the Greens (a fellow independence-supporting party) for assistance in getting its programme implemented but this will come at a cost.

The Greens will obviously set a price for their support and will seek to exert their influence whenever they can. This is the luxury that is afforded the party that holds the balance of power but they will have to be careful not to push their luck because if they make demands that cannot be met and the coalition is rendered untenable, the ensuing disarray will be on their shoulders.

In such circumstances they may seek to persuade the public that they acted out of principle and that they had little choice, but this might not be as easy as they would wish.

The fact that the above scenario is not likely to be welcomed by the Greens should be sufficient to keep them in check. However, the coalition will have to address any brinkmanship it may encounter in the coming year. The budget due to be set in February should be safe enough as it is far too dangerous for any local authority to fail to set a legal budget, the consequences of which would be frowned upon to say the least by the Scottish Government and the electorate. All that should be needed is a few concessions to the Greens and it will command the majority it needs to get through.

The decision on the tram extension to Leith is to be made in October and given the various pronouncements made by coalition councillors (who should know better) it will be a major surprise if the decision is anything but support for the project. It will take a very weak business case or a tram inquiry revelation to deflect the proponents of the extension from pressing ahead and although there are councillors in the coalition who will not favour such a course of action, their opposition will be drowned out by the supporters of the plan.

The Greens are more wedded to the idea of the extension than most, so even any breaking of the whip (where councillors vote against their group’s policy) is extremely unlikely to attract sufficient numbers to outweigh the number of votes that the Greens will bring to the table. The tram issue, then, is unlikely to trigger the breakdown of the coalition.

What might prove more problematic is the question of school rationalisation, as there is almost no other subject more emotive than that of children’s education and the potential impact of school closures on local communities. The proposal that is currently the subject of ‘informal’ consultation, which is to merge/close schools in the south west of the city, will exert enormous pressure on local councillors who wish to adhere to the demands of their electorate if it contravenes the policy of their group. It is never an easy decision, and although group discipline should prevail it can never be relied upon under such circumstances.

Policy currently being formulated can always be worked on and finessed to ensure that it can muster the required votes to get it through but it is often the unforeseen issues that test leadership - when there is no time to carry out extensive consultation, when immediate decisions have to be made, when such decisions may prove to be unpopular in some quarters and where you have to trust your own judgment.

Get that wrong and that could be your undoing!