Theresa May herself set out to portray the Scottish Council Elections as a test of opinion on a second Independence referendum, and followed that up by an attack on the very principle of devolution and a stark re-assertion of the power of Westminster control. She did so in the – not unreasonable – expectation that the Tories will make gains in Scottish councils from an extremely low base. If the Tories get anything over 22% of votes cast the media will tell us that is a stunning rejection of Independence.
Local councils are important in themselves, but this year’s Council elections will have a much wider significance in giving the SNP momentum to go into the Independence referendum. The SNP will make much greater gains which will at least give the BBC some headache in preparing their “Unionist Triumph” narrative. The Tories will look to advance in Edinburgh. Sadly Ruth Davidson is my constituency MSP, but fortunately my councillor is Alasdair Rankin, Edinburgh City Council’s Finance Convener. This year is the fortieth anniversary of my meeting Alasdair who very quickly became and remains one of my, and my family’s, closest friends. So it will be an unusual pleasure for me to get out and knock on some doors for him.
Scottish elections are conducted under the excellent STV system, which I advocate for all elections. I want to make an extremely important point to all Independence supporters. Unlike the De Hondt system used for Holyrood, under STV it is impossible to damage the chances of the SNP – or your other Independence supporting party of choice – by using all your lower preference numbers for other Independence supporting candidates, and it is essential that you do. James Kelly explains it here.
The Holyrood De Hondt system is so terrible that it is perfectly possible for intelligent people of goodwill to disagree severely over whether voting just for one party or for two will help the Independence cause, and the answer is far from plain even after the vote. I respectfully differ from James Kelly and Stuart Campbell on the question. But none of these problems arise with STV. This is so important I am going to say it again, in super-shouty
IN THE SCOTTISH COUNCIL ELECTIONS IT IS MATHEMATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO HURT YOUR FIRST CHOICE PARTY BY USING ALL YOUR LOWER PREFERENCES FOR OTHER PRO-INDY CANDIDATES.
So if you have three SNP candidates on your list make them preferences 1, 2, 3, but then be certain to carry on 4, 5, 6 each for other pro-Indy candidates. Or the same principle with your other preferred pro-indy party first.
I have now meandered to the point of this post. In council by-elections every week, we are seeing the unionist party voters transfer their lower preferences to each other. Tory voters are perfectly happy to transfer and support Labour, and Labour voters are perfectly happy to transfer to Tory. This is the most important fact in modern Scottish politics. It is not just the Blairite leadership, it is the dwindling rump of Labour voters who are Red Tories – or probably more accurately Orange Lodgers. Peeling off the remaining decent left wing Labour voters from their Neanderthal colleagues is probably the simpler of the SNP’s electoral challenges.
There is another factor which I do not expect to come into play in time for the Council elections. The Tory triumphalism masks a deep split. Scottish Conservatives have a Fox/Forsyth/Fallon hardline nutter tendency. But they also have a core of traditionalist supporters who are urbane, liberal and strongly pro-EU. May is still in her honeymoon period – if you remember even Gordon Brown had one of those for quite a while – but quite a few of the Tory inhabitants of the leafier parts of Edinburgh feel disquiet at her harsh Brexiteer nationalism and dismissal of devolution.
We only have to check the Tory bandwagon slightly to encourage dissent among those pulling it.
But the key test for Scottish politics will come after the votes have been cast, when the new councillors start meeting in the backrooms of council chambers up and down the country. In effect, the SNP is likely to be the largest group very widely indeed. If SNP supporters have used their lower preferences well, it is very possible that they will be able in many places to form local coalitions with the Greens and other pro-Indy groups and individuals.
But it is also very likely that we will see on a much wider and larger scale, something which has been already seen from time to time in places like Dundee and Stirling. Labour and the Tories will form coalitions together to keep the SNP out.
The truth is that Scotland already has a two party system – the SNP and the Unionists. In Holyrood, in Council Chambers and in council by-election vote transfers, the Unionists act as one party. The backroom deals of Scottish councils after the May elections will define Scottish politics. For a classic example of a failure to stop digging when you are in a massive hole, and a brazen declaration of pro-Tory sentiment, I give you Scottish Labour’s Doug Hothersall on their Labour Hame website:
Labour is not a unionist party. But in stark constitutional times, our commitment to solidarity and wealth redistribution means we are right to be firmly a pro-UK party. We should be proud of that stance and those principles. We should not indulge in back-slapping and posturing about never working alongside others who are firmly pro the UK.
If there is a second independence referendum, I will share a platform with any mainstream party which is prepared to work together to fight against nationalism. Our party should grow up and make the same pledge.
In Hothersall’s case, it is not a failure to realise that he is supporting a deeply unpleasant British nationalism. it is that he knowingly supports that British nationalism. That makes him a typical example of the rump Scottish Labour supporter. The evidence from local election transfers if that the remaining Labour voters mostly agree with him. But they are thankfully a small and shrinking group of dull bigots. Also do not forget the corruption, graft and jobs network that Scottish Labour has been. Prising them out of council chambers will be a death blow to that already shrivelled demon of Labour patronage.
I know I should tell you that local elections are important because of schools, pavements and all that important everyday stuff. That is a truism. But I am not into politics because of a deep interest in having sewerage systems and traffic lights properly managed. I want to see a free Scotland that can no longer be forced against its will to participate in illegal wars. I am hugely looking forward to campaigning in the impending Independence Referendum, but do not overlook the importance of the council elections. They are a vital step along the way.