Members and local coalitions 

As we hurtle towards local elections on 5th May (in Scotland, something that only happens every five years), I’d like to pause for a moment and have a think about 6th May.

In many council areas across the country, we will elect Lib Dem councillors (Yay!) and in some of those areas the question will arise whether those councillors enter coalition to form an administration. In Scotland, thanks to the Lib Dem participation in early administrations in Holyrood, we vote by Single Transferable Vote in multi-member wards (again Yay!) and this means that single party administration in any council area will be unlikely.

In the run up to 5th May, members are the source of the “3 Ds” – deliveries, door-knocking and donations. Election time makes it very clear that we could not survive as a party without our membership base – although, I do recognise that it’s not just members who contribute to the 3 Ds.

Where do members stand on 6th May? When coalition decisions are taken, often it’s the Council Group that does this alone. Some may think that this is right and proper but surely we can do better than this? If members matter on 4th May, surely they matter on 6th May and beyond?

Involving members in the decision making is a key safety valve in our process. It ensures that we don’t become trapped within the dynamic of Town Hall politics – where often personalities and petty problems can have too big an impact. It also allows for the membership to buy into the decision. In Scotland, the SNP/Green government has already decided that the next five years are going to be tough for any Council as their main job will be to deliver Nicola’s savage cuts locally.  Any administration will have to deliver bad news. Keeping your members on board is essential to weather any storm.

There are different ways of involving members and I would resist suggesting a “one size fits all” model. However, if we liberals can’t come up with a way of ensuring grassroots involvement, what hope is there for local democracy?

And if we can manage this, maybe we could involve members too in developing the local manifestos?

Just a thought.

I’m sure there is good practice in membership involvement form around the country that I am unaware of. I looking forward to hearing more.

* Stephen lives in Edinburgh, works in the oil industry in Aberdeen and has been a party member since he was 17.

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17 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 20th Apr '22 - 7:05pm

    I noticed that Alex C-H was claiming he would be uneasy with a Liberal Democrat councillors forming coalitions with either SNP or Tories but, in practice, Liberal Democrat groups regularly join with the Tories to keep the SNP out of power (eg, Aberdeenshire, East Dunbartonshire) which makes me uneasy. Apart from the issue of independence, which should not be an issue at local level, the Liberal Democrats must be politically closer to the SNP than the Tories – if not, something is seriously amiss. I hope the Liberal Democrat council groups will be able to break free from the obsessive Unionism that seems to have taken hold and be willing to join in coalitions with the SNP to keep the Tories out of power.

  • Stephen Harte 20th Apr '22 - 7:17pm

    The SNP have run Edinburgh (my home city) really badly. I don’t see any closeness there.

  • Like Brad Barrows, I too noticed Mr Cole-Hamilton’s remarks about the local elections in Scotland. According to the BBC news, he “insisted his party were not ‘tainted’ by the 2010-15 UK government coalition with the Tories”.

    As someone who first joined the Liberal Party fifteen years before Mr Cole-Hamilton was born, and later elected five times as a Liberal/Lib Dem Councillor (never losing my seat), it is with sadness, I must tell him he is mistaken on this.

    The facts appear to contradict Mr Cole-Hamilton’s assertion. In Scotland in 2007, 166 Lib Dem Councillors were elected (net loss of 9 seats, in 2012 71 Lib Dems elected (net loss of 95), and in 2017 67 Lib Dem Councillors were elected.

    It may have served his purpose better not to have raised the matter. The Scottish electorate is pretty shrewd.

  • Brad Barrows 20th Apr '22 - 10:48pm

    @Stephen Harte
    Yes, Edinburgh has a SNP/Labour coalition administration – if Labour collapses in two weeks time and the Liberal Democrats find themselves in a balance of power situation for control in Edinburgh, would you prefer a Tory/Lib Dem coalition or a SNP/Lib Dem coalition? I don’t think that should be a difficult choice

  • Finding ways of involving the whole community in decision making is the real challenge. If this has not been thought about well in advance we cannot expect a new council group to invent ways of doing so while doing everything else.
    The reality is that a council is faced with the fact that they cannot quickly change the staff they have, the buildings they operate from and so on. In the end we are faced with an increasingly centralised nation. The cabinet decide what money is available to local government. To a large extent they also decide how it should be spent.
    The next general election is fast approaching. It is urgent to develo the policies needed to ensure we are able to campaign for a more effective involvement of people in decision making at every level.

  • Trevor Andrews 21st Apr '22 - 7:14am

    I am currently reading the chapter in Nick Clegg’s book about coalitions and it seems if we are the smaller party we should avoid it at all times. Some seem to say that the SNP- Greens non coalition agreement is good, but not sure what the evidence is or what the impact will be at the next election they have.

  • Brad, I think you are missing an important point in Scotland which undermines much of your logic.

    Quite simply in Scotland the SNP are only interested in one thing, and one thing alone – Keeping the hands of its leaders on all the levers of power by whatever means necessary.

    Hence the full weight of the Scottish parliamentary and legal systems were brought to bear on Alec Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon’s predecessor as leader of the SNP in an attempt to undermine him – charges which were dismissed with Mr Salmond being awarded £512,000 in costs in 2019 after a judge said a Scottish Government probe into two harassment complaints from civil servants was “tainted by apparent bias”.

    All in all, when you say “Apart from the issue of independence, which should not be an issue at local level, the Liberal Democrats must be politically closer to the SNP than the Tories – if not, something is seriously amiss.” However when it comes to the SNP there is a world of difference between their soft left of centre words on equality and their ultra authoritarian deeds.

    They are as big a threat to liberal democratic values in Scotland as the Tories are in England and we need to oppose them with equal vigour.

  • Mike Falchikov 21st Apr '22 - 1:26pm

    David Evans is quite right. The SNP want to get their hands on everything, believing themselves to be “the only party for Scotland”. The local elections in 2007 were a turning point in Edinburgh with a sudden surge in SNP councillors, though the LibDem group were the largest, sending a failing Labour Party into opposition. 17 LD plus 12 SNP was just enough for a ruling coalition (with the Lord Provost’s casting vote).

    We welcomed the new SNP group but it soon became clear that they had their own agenda, dictated by the SNP group in the Scottish Parliament. The coalition worked just about – some SNP councillors were more co-operative and friendly than others, but overall it was clear that this was the start of a big SNP power grab which had been worked out “higher-up”. I lived through this very closely, not as a councillor, but because my partner was leader of the Lib Dem group and thus became the first woman council leader in the city. It was a pretty heavy time for us!

  • Coalitions have become a common part of Scottish local democracy, and we need to be less queasy about them. It’s especially daft as we’re supporters of proportional representation and supposed to believe that majority governments based on minority vote share is bad. Supporters of parties not included in the coalition will whine, but you can be sure they’d be whining at us if we formed a majority on our own.

    Coalition comes with pitfalls, especially if one part of the coalition is in government, and I’d rather we could avoid any with the Tories, but as much as the SNP might appear to align with our values on a number of social and economic issues, the reality is what they say they’ll do and what they actually do are very different. They are the ones who have been cutting council budgets since they came into power, spending much of it on extra press officers, because spinning a story to look good is more important than getting it right in the first place. SNP led councils seem to think their primary duty is to promote the SNP Scottish government, which isn’t healthy.

  • Interesting about the SNP and local government though, sorry, I don’t agree with my friend David Evans. I hope to be forgiven for mentioning 2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of my first election as an idealistic (and young) Liberal Councillor in what is now Tim Farron’s constituency). I’ve seen some action in my time, David..

    I also hope to be forgiven for saying one of the first principles of elected office is to be honest about mistakes that are inevitably made, to take the consequences, and to do better next time without blaming opponents as ‘power grabbers’.

    Adopting denial mode, saying opponents are necessarily unpleasant people and by definition Lib Dems are not achieves nothing. I have sympathy for Mike Falchikov’s partner in Edinburgh….. but, fact is 17 Lib Dems in 2007 became 3 in 2012.The electorate made a judgementl. I can’t accept it was how unpleasant the SNP was.The tram fiasco and Westminster Coalition cuts also played a full part in the electorate’s perception in 2012.

    @ Fiona The SNP aren’t the only fund cutters. As a Lib Dem Councillor in Scotland, I remember the Con-Lib Dem Westminster Coalition 25% local government cuts and the consequences for services such as social care (plus the ‘welfare’ changes).

    PS. I’ve never voted SNP, but most of the ones I know are not monsters.

  • Brad Barrows 21st Apr '22 - 5:59pm

    @Fiona
    Interesting that you should say of the SNP, “they are the ones who have been cutting council budgets since they can into power” – the truth is that the SNP government increased local government budgets from the time they came into power in 2007, until 2013, by well over a quarter, only to have to cut back spending on local government as a result of cuts imposed on Scotland’s budget as a result of UK government cuts…and the UK government passing those cuts down the line was a Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition. So we can hardly complain about SNP cuts if they are the result of Liberal Democrat cuts!

  • I would not dream of commenting on anything in Scottish local government!. Even within the North of England the flavour of other parties can vary enormously. We have a controlling Labour Group that could do with a bit more politics – let alone more accountability. Labour have power heavily concentrated in the hands of the six Executive members while the rest of their group jostle for special responsibility allowances – Corbynistas and Starmer fans alike. There is an excited long queue of hopefuls wanting to replace the Chair of Scrutiny who is (like myself) standing down this time. Labour councillors occasionally go independent when denied an SRA and their colleagues have failed to create another non-job as a consolation prize.

  • David Evans 22nd Apr '22 - 2:53pm

    David, while acknowledging your long standing and honest liberal credentials, I cannot but worry about the rose coloured spectacles which you have whenever the abuses of the SNP are mentioned. Starting with Ian Blackford’s invasion of Charles Kennedy’s Consituency office which although totally unprecedented was of course totally polite according to Mr Blackford, I have never had a fondness for their philosophy of deny, discredit and cover up.

    Looking at the state of the Scottish salmon farming industry, Scottish ferries, Drug deaths, Scottish education failures (including falling standards and the now you see it, now you don’t Education Bill), Calmac, Centralising police etc. added to those matters already raised, the SNP are a typical nasty nationalist party who have taken the fostering of hatred for anyone who opposes them into a national crusade.

    They ain’t liberal and never will be, and as for competence and honesty, they run Mr Johnson a close second.

  • @ David Evans Thanks for your take on things, David.

    I can assure you I have no rosy view of the SNP, or of any other political party for that matter. Over the years I’ve seen enough of what all (and I mean all) of them can get up to not to have any illusions about any of them…… though I do want a change of Government at Westminster.

    What are your concerns about the salmon industry ? My understanding is of growing concern amongst those who care about the environment.

    Pollution caused by salmon farming rose by 10% between 2019-2020, according to data released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). SEPA’s official pollution inventory have shown that discharges of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and zinc from salmon cages rose by more than 4,000 tonnes between 2019 and 2020.

    The amount of pollution from fish feed discharged onto seabeds rose by approximately 10% in 2020 compared to 2019, briefing information sent to ENDS from SEPA says that this is in contrast to a 5.8% drop in annual production for the salmon industry in the same period.

    Is that the view of Scottish Liberal Democrats ?

  • Anyone who wants to know the reality of the SNP’s very poor record in government, Blair McDougall’s blog is excellent. Blair ran the successful NO campaign in 2014, and writes brilliantly about the facts of what the Nats are really like. (He’s Labour but you can’t have everything!) It’s free to subscribe: https://notesonnationalism.substack.com/

  • Brad Barrows 23rd Apr '22 - 7:04am

    @David Evans
    I notice your list of criticisms of the SNP – I have to say, apart from the fiasco regarding replacement ferries, those are not examples I would cite against the SNP. Yes, the SNP centralised policing into a single national force but, if you recall, this was done as a cost cutting measure in the context of cuts being imposed on Scotland’s budget by the Tory/Liberal Democrat Government at the time and was done as a better cost saving measure than cutting police numbers. Similarly, yes drug deaths in Scotland are shocking but the SNP drugs laws are a reserved matter and Scottish Government requests for this to be devolved or for the UK government to legislate to allow for safe consumption rooms have been refused. Sadly the Scottish Liberal Democrats appear more concerned about scoring points by calling on the SNP to legislate for safe consumption rooms than they are about backing calls for this power to be devolved. I agree that there is much wrong with Scottish education and the SNP has been in control for almost 15 years, but my biggest complaint is that the SNP chose to continue with ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ reforms that were initiated by the Labour/Liberal Democrat Government in the years preceding 2007. So, when we attack the SNP, let us make sure it is about issues they have fully responsibility over and the Liberal Democrats do not share responsibility for decisions that they have made while in coalition governments.

  • I notice that the Glasgow Herald of 13th April carries a report quoting Mr Cole-Hamilton to the effect that, “The Scottish Lib Dems are not ruling out going into coalition with any party including the SNP at a council level”.

    Can we assume David Evans and Tony H. are going to send their objections to Mr. Cole-Hamilton ?

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