By Martin Kelly
It’s been a strange week. Images from the May 3rd local election results gave the impression that Labour had won. Smiling, cheering, hugs and high fives from the SECC in Glasgow seemed to accompany every article published and broadcast by the media.
Glasgow became Scotland for a week as the rest of the nation was all but ignored. Non Glaswegians could only look on in wonderment.
Labour spun it brilliantly, said the Scottish media oblivious to their part in promoting the lie. Paid to tell us the unvarnished truth, BBC Scotland hid behind the ‘both claiming victory’ line and went along with the charade.
Like Henry Cooper flooring Cassius Clay with that famous left hook, replays of Labour’s victory in Glasgow were played over and over by the Beeb until the ‘victory’ became embedded. That both Labour and Cooper ended up on the receiving end of a defeat seems of little consequence now.
But was there more to this repackaging of the election result than simply puffing up Labour’s Glasgow win? The answer is almost certainly yes – for another electoral contest is currently taking place right now, the battle for control of Cosla.
Cosla is the local authority umbrella group that allows Scotland’s local authorities to speak as one – or to give the impression they are speaking as one. The group has 133 members, all councillors nominated by their ruling administration – for example Glasgow provides eight members, North Lanarkshire six and Edinburgh six.
Crucially, these members decide on the presidency of the body through a vote, the president then becoming the official spokesperson for the group.
Throughout the last eleven years this role has been carried out by Labour councillor Pat Watters. This time the around the SNP were hopeful that their election performance, in gaining most councillors nationwide, would see the party provide the new Cosla Presidency.
But something is happening that few foresaw. Labour appear to have abandoned their left of centre principles and are busy forming pacts with former arch-rivals the Tories.
The result has been the freezing out of local authority power, those SNP groups with whom Labour enjoy considerable left of centre common ground. In contrast, and despite their support falling, the Conservatives are gaining greater influence across Scotland’s local authorities and with it, influence in Cosla. The deals seem to be based more on constitutional common ground than political, Unionism is repacing localism.
The first signals of moves to block the SNP from delivering the presidency of Cosla came the day after the local elections, when Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “Cosla has been a robust and reasonably independent voice for local government in recent years, so if it were to become simply another mouthpiece for the SNP that was slavishly loyal to Alex Salmond, it would be a detrimental step for local democracy.”
With only six councils returning outright majorities after the election this meant negotiations would be required throughout Scotland’s remaining 26 local authorities.
Cosla members are allocated by the council’s ruling administration and there is nothing in the rules that says a party must be proportionally represented, even if that party ended up the biggest in terms of councillors in that local authority.
It started out with a neat distraction in the shape of an announcement of a coalition between the Labour group and the SNP group in Edinburgh. Mature politics breaking out we all thought as SNP leader Steve Cardownie emerged smiling with Labour’s Andrew Burns.
However it served only to camouflage what some now believe to be Unionist manoeuvres aimed at seizing control of Cosla. Strange bedfellows are appearing in a manner that suggests motives, other than the good of local constituents, are at play.
The evidence is the number of seemingly suicidal alliances involving Labour and Tory groups around Scotland. Edinburgh now seems an aberration as council after council falls under the control of these once unthinkable Tory/Labour alliances.
Labour is forming pacts with the Tories in Aberdeen City, East Lothian, East Dunbartonshire, Falkirk, Inverclyde, South Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and Stirling.
The ‘workers’ party seems to have developed a crush on the party of the rich, with Labour pacts or expectations of pacts with the Tories currently running at four to one when compared with alliances with the SNP. There are now suspicions that Labour groups are acting under a directive from the national party.
In contrast, the SNP has managed to avoid any dalliances with the Tories at all and have even endeavoured to keep them out of power in the Borders.
But why would Labour opt to agree partnerships with the party that has all but destroyed the Lib Dems in Scotland. Is Cosla worth the risk that the electorate will turn against Labour?
To answer that we have to look at what Cosla offers in terms of setting the political narrative. Control of Cosla guarantees a media platform, this in turn ensures that public statements will be headlined and broadcast to the Scottish electorate.
Control Cosla and you are guaranteed broadcast headlines on BBC Scotland, STV and Scotland’s newspapers. And this will allow Unionists another stick with which to beat the SNP in the lead up to the 2014 independence referendum.
One need only note how the attacks from the Unionist dominated Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster, headed by the Labour MP Ian Davidson, are headlined to see how effective these official bodies are in getting a message out there.
The other reason Cosla is so important is that Glasgow Council has now lost its potency as a battering ram against the SNP Government.
Prior to Steven Purcell’s dramatic fall from grace, Scotland’s largest local authority was regularly used by Labour in order to launch assaults on the SNP Government. However, notwithstanding Labour’s excellent local election result, Glasgow Labour are not the force they once were.
Glasgow Labour leader Gordon Matheson is also far too lightweight to head any real campaign and his five year council tax freeze pledge has effectively neutered the one area that could have been used against the Scottish Government.
Add to this the revelations of his promises to the Orange Order in the days leading up to the local elections and it’s clear that Glasgow’s effectiveness as Labour’s attack dog have weakened.
Unionists need an effective counter to the SNP’s competent national governance; they need a Scottish equivalent of the ‘bogey man’ of UK Coalition cuts that Salmond is highlighting to good effect. With the UK entering a double dip recession and Scotland’s economic indicators better than the rest of the UK, the Unionists are losing the national argument.
With the Holyrood leadership of Ruth Davidson, Willie Rennie and Johann Lamont struggling to make any impact, control of Cosla allows Unionists to take the fight out of Holyrood and down to local level.
The emerging Tory pacts are a risky strategy by Labour and the party will be hoping that the local electorate will turn a blind eye to them when cuts start to hit public services.
The Chair of Cosla will be announced in June and, if Unionist machinations succeed, then expect another Labour councillor to land that job. However the price will have been increased Tory influence – and with it exposure to the toxicity the Conservative brand still carries; just ask the Lib Dems.
Every cloud has a silver lining though and for the SNP it might offer some unexpected political capital in the run up to the independence referendum. The slogan ‘Vote Labour - Get Tory’ could well find itself becoming ‘Vote No – Get Tory’ by Autumn 2014.