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It may be power not politics, but it’s still a dangerous game

The power motive in the local government carve-up seems to be misunderstood, but the outcome is still a dangerous game for a LabourParty which has been revelling in the SNP’s own dangerous games.

One of the lingering sense I get from analysis of the local election aftermath is that most of those doing the analysing don’t seem to be particularly familiar with the world of local government. The outcome is that almost everything we have been told in the media about what happened has been seen from a Holyrood perspective. Slightly strangely, after years of analysis Scottish politics without thinking about it properly in terms of right and left, suddenly the local elections are all about left-right politics.

And therein lies the irony – because much of what has happened (and is happening) is not particularly ‘political’. What the commentators are seeing in terms of political games are in many cases in fact power games. So we hear things like ‘it’s a coordinated plot to prevent the SNP gaining a staging-post for independence’ or ‘this is the Labour Party preparing for its campaign to retake Holyrood’, or even the ‘they just hate each other so much that…’.

In all of this it is as if all these career commentators have missed the point that across local government in Scotland people are fighting for their own careers. Power brings patronage and patronage matters very much. The difference between being in power and out of power in local government can mean a factor of two in your income. In some cases you may be looking at the difference between £16,000 a year and something closer to £40k or £50k once all the various ‘special allowances’ and payments for directorships and so on are included. Where two big parties share power they are stuck in a position where they have to give something like half of the rewards to their enemies whereas alliances with smaller parties can be won with much less cost to your own people.

Failure to understand this dynamic seems to me to be missing from the analysis, and the assumption that these things are planned centrally simply shows that Scotland is written about as if by a lot of people sitting in one small room looking out through one small window. In my part of Scotland, the local authority Labour group is perfectly capable of looking after itself without some professional adviser being flown in from Edinburgh. The SNP in local government aren’t as experienced at building these kinds of mini-empires but they do it where they can.

There is much that could be said about this. One thing barely considered in terms of Scotland (but again raised in The Silent Crisis) is that we have professionalised politics at a particularly low level – few other countries pay for full-time politicians at this tier of government. I’ve seen the workload of an active local councillor close-up and I was always in favour of better remuneration for councillors but I do recognise that this has created a ‘professional class’ of local politician and it has had similar effects locally that professionalising national politics has had. As soon as you make people’s careers dependent on power, power becomes a stronger driver and politics is weakened.

But unless we get a national commission (as we’ve called for in the report) or some other major means of reforming local government, this is what we have for the foreseeable future. So what does this interplay of power and politics mean? Well, I for one am not as quick to be convinced that everyone in the Labour Party is rubbing its hands in glee at the manner in which it has retained (even extended) control over local government in Scotland. The burning desire to have victory over the enemy makes people in Scottish politics do things with a two-day time horizon. Hurray, let’s stick it to the SNP! Get the media release out, divvy up the jobs. But what about next week?

How is Labour going to sustain the next two years? In all sorts of corners of Scotland the dynamic of local government and the dynamic of the referendum campaign is going to cause the sort of split personality which never works in a spy movie – are we a bulwark against Tory cuts, are we partners in government, are we fighting the good fight as partners for the union? In theory it is possible to create firewalls in politics; in practice they almost never work (outside the couple of days after a tragedy or in subject areas where all parties offer equally banal solutions like ‘just say no to drugs). If in doubt, check the WWF’s endangered species list under ‘Liberal Democrats’ (yeah Nick, we all believe you’re a conscientious check-and-balance and not a enabling stooge).

So perhaps slightly perversely, analysing the local election outcomes in terms of left and right is probably to miss the point, but analysing the aftermath (indeed, the next few years) in those terms is crucial. Both sides must surely know that proximity to the Austerity For You, Enrichment For Us Club is poisonous, but both keep finding themselves rubbing shoulders as if by mistake, Salmond with the Murdochs etc., Lamont with the Tories themselves.

This is a dangerous game for both – electorates around Europe are not rewarding political parties for their ‘centrism’ (which now means ‘conformism with the doctrines of the financial elite’). And yet the dynamics of the political sphere mean that centrism appears to be the order of the day. My hunch is that it may be easier for the SNP to repair the damage of the Murdoch debacle (which is a metaphor for a wider series of misjudgements) than it might prove for Labour if it spends years tied to Cameron’s Tories in local government (and then again to Cameron’s Tories in the referendum campaign).

But one last thought; I wouldn’t want to give the impression that playing dangerous games is in itself bad. In fact, one of the biggest problems Scotland has faced is the failure to consider risk as a valuable part of the political arsenal. It’s just that it’s completely the wrong danger for completely the wrong reasons. If the SNP looks like it is selling out to get the support of a right-wing tabloid and Labour looks like it is getting cosy with Tories to save their own incomes, they win token prizes at cost to their credibility. To me, that seems to fall into a category other than ‘clever’.

Robin McAlpine