LE22: The Precarious Position of Local Government

The Shape of Scotland in 2022

Composition of Administrations

Today marks four weeks on from the 2022 local elections, and every council in Scotland now has an administration in place. With proportional representation making majorities (rightly) difficult, a certain degree of wheeling and dealing was needed to get to where we are now. I’ve not yet put together a single resource showing each council’s control, but the data does exist separately for each council on their page here on BBS.

If you were following BBS on Twitter, or just generally following Scottish politics, you’ll have seen a lot of sound and fury on Twitter about the various deals – and the claims as to whether deals did or didn’t exist. Leaving the exact partisan makeup of administrations aside for the moment, I think it’s useful to look both at the different kinds of administration that have arisen, and how this compares to previous years.

For simplicity I’ve split this into four categories – single party minorities, coalitions, single party majorities, and Independent majorities. Coalitions themselves may be majority or minority, and I think there’s a distinction to be made between coalitions of “one party with Independents” versus “multiple parties”, but there’s only so much time I have, and so much still to do collating data from this year!

The picture that has clearly emerged from this set of elections is one of complete and utter unwillingness from parties to work together. Since the advent of STV in 2007, we’ve never had so many single-party minority administrations, and thus we’ve never had fewer coalitions. More than half of our councils are now being run by those single party minorities, up from a previous high of just over a third. Coalitions are only a bit over a quarter, when previously their lowest ebb was just shy of half.

This is very clearly going to have implications on how councils are run, and it’s going to be a much rougher term than we’ve yet seen. Indeed, I’d be completely unsurprised to find that come budget time next year, some of these minorities collapse and are replaced with new administrations, just because they cannot function as they are.

Constitutional Position of Administrations

The lack of formal co-operation between parties is, like so much else in Scotland, at least in part due to the constitution. That has become an all-consuming issue, but it’s never been quite so all-consuming that we haven’t had cross-constitutional administrations. Again, let’s quickly compare this year to previous years.

No surprise that given we’ve got barely any coalitions, barely any of them are formed by parties of differing constitutional persuasions. Just two councils are in that position now – Aberdeen, where it’s the SNP and Lib Dems, and Dumfries and Galloway, where Labour ignored national instructions to maintain ties with the SNP. The lowest it had ever been previously was five councils in 2012. As I’ll get onto later, I’m… not convinced that’s good for our democracy.

It’s easy if you’re on one side or the other to feel content with the idea of refusing to work with your constitutional opponents, but these are local councils. They shouldn’t be constitutional battlegrounds! I don’t know about you, but I really don’t care what my local council’s constitutional position is, I just want them to (for example) put in place infrastructure that makes me less likely to be mown down by a driver just because I have the temerity to cycle home from the climbing centre.

Scotland's Minority Administrations

What’s remarkable this time is not just the number of minority administrations, but the scale of some of them – or rather, their lack of scale. In the past, minorities were generally formed either by the largest party, or by a very close second place party. For the latter case, think North Lanarkshire or West Lothian after 2017, when Labour were only one seat short of the SNP’s tally.

This time around, some of the minorities that have formed have done so from much, much weaker positions. For comparison, I’ve got all 18 minorities shown in the chart below, with the minority party versus the combined total for every other councillor.

Look in particular at those three Labour minorities at the top – Edinburgh, Stirling and Fife. These are all astonishingly low proportions of the overall council, with Edinburgh’s 13 out of 63 councillors coming to an eye-poppingly low 20.6% of the entire council. There has never been a more fragile minority in the history of Scotland’s democratic governance.

Stirling may be slightly healthier, but not much, and it’s remarkable for being a minority formed from third place. And Fife has a massive gulf between Labour’s 20 seats and the SNP’s 34. Even West Lothian, which is much more within the norm for overall size, saw the SNP open up a wider seat lead at 15 to Labour’s 12. There’s also the case of South Ayrshire, where an incumbent SNP-Labour-Independent administration was comfortably re-elected, but Labour’s refusal to continue it led to a Conservative minority.

Legitimate, but Dishonest

None of this is to say any of these minorities are illegitimate. Minorities are one possible and likely outcome of a proportional election. Even if they weren’t, the norm within parliamentary governance (which our councils still roughly come under) is that government is formed by whoever can command majority support – or at least doesn’t provoke majority opposition – rather than going to the largest party by default.

But they are indeed minorities, and they are reliant on the backing of other parties, particularly at budget time. No amount of pretending you don’t have to work with other parties, as Labour tried to do before the election and since, changes that. Of course they’d prefer not to have to choose between working with the SNP or the Conservatives – whatever decision they make is “wrong” for one group of voters or another, and is met with howls of outrage. But it’s the reality across the country, not just in most of the councils Labour is a minority in, but in a lot of those the SNP and Conservatives are.

For the Labour minorities especially it’s nonsensical in the extreme to imagine that Labour can be voted into these administrations on Conservative votes, and somehow pass budgets on SNP votes, as some of their more die-hard partisans have implied on Twitter. Neither of the other big parties will go for that. The Conservatives explicitly want to keep the SNP out of power, and budgets are a lot of power. Meanwhile, you can imagine the absolute derision Labour in East Lothian or Inverclyde would treat demands from the second-placed SNP to sign up to their budgets, so why would the SNP act any different where they are the largest group? Deals have to be, and are going to be, done.

Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this – but for goodness sake, voters deserve a bit of honesty. They aren’t daft, they all learn basic arithmetic in school. They know that e.g. 13 Labour councillors aren’t governing Edinburgh alone. Labour may try to pretend they don’t have to choose to work with either the SNP or Conservatives, but that’s exactly the choice facing them. Being honest about that now would likely prove far less painful than five gruelling years of all sides shouting about “backroom deals” every time a budget has to be passed.

It's Always the Constitution

And it hinges on Labour

The question that Labour groups across the country now find themselves facing is do they end up aligning on a constitutional basis, or on the basis of other policies? Certainly, their constitutional alignment is the same as the Conservatives, in supporting the Union – and those weak minorities were clearly installed along constitutional lines. But I won’t be the first political commentator, and I certainly won’t be the last, to point out that Labour and the SNP occupy roughly the same stretch of the traditional left-right spectrum, which is on the centre-left.

Both parties often dispute that notion publicly. For the SNP, Labour have long since given up their claim to the centre-left, having become barely distinguishable from the Conservatives in the New Labour years, continuing privatisation and hiking or introducing charges for public services. Meanwhile for Labour, the SNP are seen as nought more than Tartan Tories, wielding the axe of public sector and local service cuts with glee. There is, it has to be said, something comedic about the fact Scotland’s three largest parties basically stand in a circle shouting “You’re Tories!” “No, YOU’RE Tories!” “No, WE’RE Tories!” at one another…

Disputed though it may be, it’s true. What differences there are largely come down to emphasis (what specific yet still broadly centre-left issues each has chosen to focus on), history (Labour having obvious socialist roots in a way the SNP don’t, but also a longer period of dominance to react against), and the usual distinction between government (cautious and constrained) and opposition (radical and unconstrained) which we see the world over regardless of who is in power.

Those competing alignments aren’t just a Labour issue though – they cut to the very heart of Scotland’s constitutional impasse. Because if our political parties can’t co-operate across the constitutional divide, even with parties they have reasonable policy alignment with, even at the level of local government – bins, libraries, parks, potholes – how on earth are we meant to move beyond that question?

Humour has run out. This is awful...

This is a very serious and frankly poisonous issue in Scottish politics – and before one side or the other gets smug and thinks this is a criticism of their opponents, it’s not. It’s all of you. It’s the entirety of our politics. The whole thing has gotten so utterly rotten and to a point that frankly brings me to despair. I like living in Scotland a lot less now than I did even a few years ago.

If you’re howling that every act of the Pro-Union parties is a betrayal of Scottish nationhood, that they are somehow doling out punishment to Scots at the behest of colonial masters in London, you’re not going to convince any of their voters to back Independence. Likewise, if you’re tarring all supporters of Independence as narrow nationalists, people with zero care for their neighbours at best and frothing xenophobes at worst, don’t be surprised if they take that insult as reason enough to get rid of the Union.

And if you’re using those attitudes as justification for how our local councils should work? Grim. Just utterly, utterly grim. The people of Scotland deserve better than what they’ve gotten since the 2014 referendum, and none of the major parties have clean hands on this front. They’re all absolutely mockit.

... but we can do better (and humour is back)

Let’s be clear – we have a constitutional impasse because neither side has done enough to convince the country of their merits, because they’ve been too busy being angry about the other side. Independence may be in the minority at the moment, but the pro-Union side has only really made a case against Independence, rather than one for the Union. Support for Independence is no lower than it was in 2014, and it won’t be until and unless your side offers voters positive reasons to back the Union on its own merits rather than out of fear.

Similarly, Independence may be starting any future referendum campaign from a stronger position than 2011, but huge questions remain. Your side has failed to answer some of the difficult questions from 2014, failed to answer some new ones that have arisen since, and support for Independence won’t increase until and unless your side offers clarity and confidence. Of course you can’t predict the future, and you can level with voters about that, but there’s still plenty you can offer to set minds at ease.

Turning our local councils into another constitutional battleground doesn’t just damage our local democracy, it also does nothing to benefit either side of the debate. All it does is shore up support amongst existing bases. We have got to move beyond this, and get to a point where we all recognise that firstly, both constitutional positions are legitimate to hold and are being advanced in good faith, and secondly, there are issues of day-to-day governance that need dealt with regardless and that these should be addressed on a consensus basis between political majorities that agree on the principle of each policy area, without regard to their constitutional policies.

Maybe if we can do that, we can also begin to loosen up some of the constitutional logjam, because then we’ll be able to debate from a position of mutual respect, rather than one of constant, burning anger. It might also give us enough room to talk about something almost as important as Scotland’s constitutional status – the shocking state of local democracy in Scotland, regardless of who is in charge of our councils.

Local Government's Structural Weakness

Financial Feebleness

Over the past decade, councils in Scotland have experienced massive cuts to their budgets. Depending on your own personal position, you may argue either of the two national governments is to blame. On the one hand, the UK Government’s “austerity” policies passed cuts downwards, and local government in England has suffered the same problems. On the other hand, the Scottish Government has passed on over-sized cuts to councils in shoring up its central expenditure – and this week’s spending review indicates a complete freeze on local government funding for the rest of this parliamentary term.

Either way, these cuts are then exacerbated by the fact that local government in Scotland has very little financial power, a glaring structural weakness. Even if they wanted to, scope to raise their own revenues is incredibly limited. Whereas most municipal governments across Europe have a substantial degree of flexibility, the main power available to councils is Council Tax, a shockingly badly designed tax that was set up based on property values from 1991 (I was a year old then, and the day this piece publishes is my 32nd birthday), and never updated. Failure here falls on all three big parties – the Conservatives created it, Labour perpetuated it, and the SNP have failed to abolish it.

We even had a cross-party commission on the issue report back in 2015, which was pointedly titled “Just Change”, and yet we’ve had nothing but the tiniest change to the banding at the upper end of Council Tax. Something has got to give, and it’s got to give pretty quickly. This can’t be kicked into the long grass, it can’t be handed to a Citizen’s Assembly, someone needs to pluck up the courage, put on a glove, and grasp the extremely jaggy nettle and just do something about it. I’m genuinely not being dramatic when I say that local government cannot survive in the longer term without wholesale reform to how it is funded.

My, Scotland, what large Councils you have!

The complete lack of financial autonomy isn’t the only structural issue with local government in Scotland. Whilst this years’ elections have resulted in the smallest administrations in the country’s history, the areas they are in charge of are absurdly, preposterously, almost unmanageably huge. That Scotland only has 32 local council areas for a population of 5.5 million is utterly absurd. For comparison Denmark, with an equivalent population but covering half the geographic area, has 98 (within five regions) – and those are by far the largest local units in Europe by population outside of the UK and Ireland.

The situation is most obviously dire in the case of our big rural councils. Highland especially is a monstrosity, and actually, it’s long since ceased to be funny to think you can govern Fort William, Inverness, Ullapool and Wick all as part of the same unit of local government. Trying to do the same for Banff and Stonehaven (Aberdeenshire), Oban and Helensburgh (Argyll and Bute) or Stranraer and Dumfries (Dumfries and Galloway) isn’t much better. 

But it isn’t just the big rural councils. Scotland’s major towns are just as badly served by the current arrangements. As we’ve had for the past two such celebrations, this year’s Jubilee came with the utterly embarrassing spectacle of the monarch handing out the title of “city” to towns across the UK with no more practical effect than giving them a pat on the head and a sweetie. Dunfermline became Scotland’s eighth city, and thus the fourth that lacks a city council. Elsewhere in Europe that idea would be laughable – how can somewhere be a city if it doesn’t even have its own municipal government?

In Scotland, that’s the norm. Dunfermline is merely a minority component of Fife council, vying for attention with the roughly equally sized Kirkcaldy and Glenrothes, and heavens help the smaller towns like Cowdenbeath, Burntisland or St Andrews with even less heft and say over their own governance. This pattern repeats with big towns all over Scotland with the likes of Paisley, Kilmarnock, Livingston, Motherwell, Arbroath and Elgin anchoring (or dominating) sprawling council areas rather than being run by burgh councils of their own.

New Municipalism

The only way to address that issue is to reverse decades of geographic centralisation and bring back genuinely local units of governance. The 1973 Act may have went too far in creating the over-sized Strathclyde Region and still over-large districts, but the principle of two tiers makes sense. Bringing in something partway between what we had before then and what it created would be a better way forward, as I’ve envisioned in my New Municipalism Project (due to be updated later this year or in early 2023 with lessons learned and accounting for 2022 election results). 

It might seem odd to advocate for smaller units of governance, and thus greater “duplication” and less “efficiency” of service delivery, at the same time as pointing out how stretched local government finances are, but look, democracy costs money. We could seemingly save a whole lot of cash with fewer elections, for example, but I’d hope most people would recognise there’s value in accountability.

The same is true of locality. It remains a source of utter bemusement to me that we obsess about locality in our national parliaments (which should be dealing with national issues) whilst we’re totally blasé about its absence in our local councils (which should be dealing with, err, local issues). This really matters, because locality matters. People feel deep connections to the places they live or have lived in, and they feel those at a genuinely local level, not at the artificially huge areas we’ve ended up with.

I grew up in what became West Dunbartonshire (it was Dumbarton District when I was born), one of the smallest councils, and yet Clydebank never felt local to me as someone from the Vale of Leven. Even though I spent loads of time as a teenager going to the shopping centre and cinema there, I knew nothing about Clydebank as an actual, living, breathing community, and I still don’t.

That local knowledge is part of local connection, and it matters for how close government is to people. Clydebank used to have its own Burgh Council, and it should again – it should be run by and for people who know the town. And the Vale of Leven deserves, rightfully and finally, its own District Council. We shouldn’t be governing the two together.

Locality also matters in terms of who runs our councils in the first place. If people feel disconnected from their local council, they are less likely to be motived to stand for election to it. Throw in time spent travelling away from your actual local area to do formal business at the Council HQ and the very size of most of our councils acts as a particular barrier to women, and anyone with caring responsibilities. Bringing things closer to people is one part of making it easier for people to come forward for election in the first place.

Long Weekend, Short Break

This has been a longer read than I usually aim for, and it’s also taken a much more personal tone, because I have just been so scunnered with politics this year. I still absolutely love running Ballot Box Scotland, as this project brings me such joy and satisfaction, but I am an ordinary person who has to live with the outcomes of these elections as well as report on them. As much as I enjoy the latter, the former can wear me down. I felt that the time was right for something a bit more personal, and I reckon some of the just sheer exasperation with how things are will chime with many people in all parties and none.

As I noted earlier in the piece however, the day this publishes (2nd of June) is my birthday. That’s also the first day in a long weekend, which I’m using in part for a whirlwind trip down to my ancestral home in Galloway. I’m therefore taking the opportunity for a wee pause from BBS over the long weekend, both in terms of continuing my data collation from last month’s local elections, and if there were to be any polls released.

If there are any polls (one out yesterday from Ipsos MORI sadly didn’t have Holyrood VI, and so doesn’t get a full analysis piece anyway), I’ll get to them on Monday. Similarly it’ll likely be Tuesday that I get the next set of detailed data, for East Ayrshire, out on the website. As ever, I’m deeply grateful for all the support BBS has received through this year’s elections, and if you can afford to do so, a donation to support my work would really help. It’s taking me about half an hour per ward to collate detailed data, so, you can do the maths on how long it’s going to take me to complete 355 wards!

If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.
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