You couldn’t make it up. Our report today reveals that, according to You Gov, the Scottish Labour Party could be reduced to only one council after May 3rd: North Lanarkshire. Fitting that the local authority which has become a by-word for the deadhead, crony culture of the local state should be the last bastion of Labourism. After the whirlwind of STV has swept the council map of Scotland, only Lanarkshire Man is left standing.
Now, as it happens, North Lanarkshire isn’t such a bad council these days. There are certainly many worse ones around. But rightly or wrongly, Lanarkshire has been associated with factionalism, sectarianism, bureaucracy, jobs for the boys, votes for trips – the kind of politics that has thrived in the one party states which have dominated local Scotland for the last century. And which, in six months, will become history.
The coming of proportional representation to local government elections hasn’t had a lot of attention recently, with all the excitement generated by the SNP’s prospects for Holyrood. But STV will spark what can only be called a revolution in Scottish political culture. It’s like the collapse of Communism on a local scale.
Labour stands to lose twelve of its thirteen councils including the crown jewels of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Suddenly, areas of Scotland which have seen Labour control for as long as anyone can remember – Midlothian, Clackmannanshire, West Lothian – will suddenly become multiparty democracies where Labour will either have to share power or languish in opposition.
Councils are the seed beds of national politics. Labour’s grip on the local state has stunted the growth of other political organisations in Scotland. Non Labourites have not only been locked out of the council chambers, but out of the public sector bureaucracies. In most of Scotland, if you aren’t Labour you aren’t in the running for a lot of public sector jobs.
How Jack McConnell managed to get this legislation through the Scottish Parliament in the teeth of opposition from his own Labour councillors – hundreds of whom could lose their jobs – is one of the great untold stories of the devolution years. Of course, he had the backing of the opposition parties in the Scottish parliament. But it took a degree of personal bravery nevertheless.
Labour has a way of dealing with leaders who take a stand against the cronyocracy. They often end up discredited by anonymous briefings to the press disclosing personal peccadilloes and worse. McConnell experienced this in 2002/3 when members of his own local constituency party started talking to tabloid newspapers about alleged irregularities in the accounts of the FM’s Motherwell and Wishaw constituency party. McConnell must have known that by declaring war on local Labour he was risking his political career.
But it had to happen. The old order, when it wasn’t actually corrupt, was sclerotic, inefficient and reactionary. Democracy existed in name only in councils such as Glasgow, where Labour has 90% of the seats last time on the strength of 48% . In Midlothian, Labour has 83% of the seats on the basis of only 43% of the vote.
If the 2003 elections had been run on the STV system which will be introduced in May 2007, Labour would have only had around 50% of the seats in Glasgow and Midlothian. But as the You Gov poll today shows, Labour’s loss of support since 2003 ensures that these councils, along with all but one of the others, will fall to the opposition parties.
Now, critics of proportional representation have argued that this would just be out of the frying pan into the smoke filled room. That Labour domination would be replaced by endless back room deals to cobble together shifting coalitions of various parties. No party would have the mandate to get anything done. All would be compromise and chaos.
But what they ignored was the fact that, in most cases, Labour local administrations were themselves shifting coalitions of political factions and religious affiliations. The energies of local councillors were too often devoted to fixing and reconciling those internal groupings within the broad Labour coalition. At least now, there will be a degree of openness and transparency.
Democracy can only thrive when there is a fair distribution of seats in any legislature. The virtual absence of non-Labour members in councils like Glasgow and Midlothian meant there was no adequate scrutiny of what went on, and no plurality of ideas. The opposition were so weak they couldn’t develop an alternative vision or coherent strategy. What was the point? They were never going to be in a position of power.
This bottom up transformation of the Scottish political culture can only be for the good. Many Labour councillors now accept that things had to change. The debate now will move to whether or not city mayors, which are under discussion in England, would further improve the governance of the big Scottish conurbations.
My own view is that the diffusion of power that results from STV does build the case for having a recognisable personality in charge of cities – subject of course to democratic control. However, this is for the future. In the meantime, let’s just praise Lanarkshire and pass the ballot paper.