John McLellan: Council coalition will survive on self-interest

Deal or no deal? As I write this, events in Westminster are moving too fast and the uncertainties too great not just to second guess what might happen with Brexit but even to know with any confidence the best way forward.

Thursday, 15th November 2018, 5:00 am
The SNP's Adam McVey and Labour's Cammy Day shake on the coalition deal last year. Picture: Greg Macvean
The SNP's Adam McVey and Labour's Cammy Day shake on the coalition deal last year. Picture: Greg Macvean

But if nothing is certain in life other than death and taxes, there are plenty things which can be guaranteed not to happen, like the new Sick Kids Hospital opening by the end of the year, the old Royal High School becoming a casino or Hibs boss Neil Lennon joining the Orange Order.

To that list can be added Edinburgh’s own version of Deal or No Deal, the council coalition agreement between the SNP and Labour which, despite Labour grassroots members instructing its councillors to consider walking away, won’t be ending any time soon.

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Labour activists call for party to quit Edinburgh council coalition

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Led by the Edinburgh Eastern branch, the party’s Local Campaign Forum has just approved a motion which demands that its councillors should “withdraw from the coalition agreement unless the SNP Group can commit to a public campaign against further job losses and cuts to local government budgets by Holyrood or Westminster.”

On the improbable list is the SNP group mounting even a vague public challenge to the National leadership or admitting the depth of cuts imposed on local services by the SNP far outweighs any reduction in the Scottish Government’s block grant from Westminster. There is no love lost between Labour activists and the Conservative Party, yet they can still point out the 1.8 per cent cut in Holyrood’s grant since 2010 is dwarfed by the 9.6 per cent knocked off council budgets by the SNP.

Beyond political activists, most people don’t care too much who runs the city; they just want services to be better: bins emptied on time, roads and pavements maintained, schools fully resourced. But at the heart of the coalition is a pledge to bring services in-house and reject compulsory redundancies, both of which lock the administration into inefficiency. It’s a deal which is more about protecting the interests of the unions than delivering better services and in practice means staff are kept on the council payroll even when their jobs no longer exist, limits options and potentially encourages empire-building.

It also puts the administration into the position of defending poor performance instead of holding service providers to account, so in the case of the ongoing bins debacle, the public is expected to accept pitiful apologies when they demand to know their representatives are on their side.

Even just the possibility of outsourcing services like the bins actually empowers senior officers and councillors because they then have more leverage to demand improved performance, but that’s precisely what the unions don’t want. By going along with it, the SNP and Labour groups are putting their own interests before those of the city.

It was not always thus. The Labour administration of 12 years ago put forward the alternative business model which would have saved the city thousands and improved delivery. It also promoted the transfer of the housing stock to an independent housing association as Glasgow had done.

Neither succeeded, so in the case of housing the council wrestles with a never-ending battle between the Edinburgh Tenants Federation and the housing department to improve conditions in which administration councillors dutifully support the officers rather than being able to go into battle publicly for their constituents.

We even have Labour councillors openly voting for things which they publicly admit they oppose on the basis that nothing can rock the coalition’s leaky dinghy. In the Conservative group, we know Labour and the SNP won’t work with us; we see it at every meeting when administration councillors do all they can to avoid accepting even the most innocuous Conservative motions. Well that’s fine and they can do their explaining at the next election.