By John Knox
Why the rush to form coalitions across Scotland’s councils? Who ever voted for them? What purpose do they serve?
And when will they be seen as the conspiracy against the electorate which they are?
It seems to be the received opinion that if no party has an overall majority, then there has to be a joint administration to run our councils.
I cannot understand why this has to be the case. Alex Salmond ran a very successful minority administration in the Scottish Parliament for four years. He had to assemble a majority for each of his policies separately. As he put it: “No party has a monopoly of wisdom.”
Parliament was the proper place for open discussion and, if necessary, compromise – not a hastily arranged, highly charged and secret series of meetings the weekend after an election. And the same goes for local councils. If parties get together after an election and write a new manifesto, what was the point of the voters going to the polls and choosing which party to support?
And how can two or more teams who have just been slogging it out in an election suddenly become one team in administration? They may share one or two policies but – hopefully – they have very different philosophies. And on a personal level, surely it is better to have a team in administration who know each other well, and who have prepared for office together.
The scramble for coalition looks to me like a desperate attempt by parties who lose elections to try to get their people into office. And for those parties who win elections – but not convincingly – it looks like they are pushing through their pet policies against the will of the majority of voters. There is no better example than the Tories and their little helpers at Westminster.
The political experts tell us that minority administrations are unstable. Well of course they are unstable if they try to do something silly which the other parties do not agree with. This is the system of checks and balances which any administration should be subject to. But otherwise, minority administrations are no more unstable than coalitions. Indeed they should be more stable because they do not contain so many political differences.
It was an absolute nonsense in Edinburgh, for instance, to have the SNP sharing power with the Liberal Democrats when the SNP did not agree with the council’s most important project, the trams. The result was confusion and disaster.
The experts also say that minority administrations are open to blackmail by independent councillors or small parties. And it is true that Margo MacDonald did squeeze money out of the SNP government for Edinburgh and the Greens occasionally won concessions like committee chairmanships or a larger home insulation programme. But such deals also go on inside coalitions, only they are done in secret.
The experts say minority administrations are not a clear form of government. Not so. Nothing could be clearer. The largest party forms the administration. It runs the day-to-day affairs of the council, chairs the committees, supervises and directs the council officials. But on policy matters and on crucial decisions it has to win over a majority of councillors in the open forum of the council chamber.
It seems to me that single-party minority administrations are the way forward in a political world which is becoming more issue-orientated. People are no longer as willing to join parties as they once were. The political tribes are breaking down. Floating voters want to make up their own minds on each issue separately: on public sector cuts, on welfare reform, on nursery education, on free care for the elderly, on tuition fees, on nuclear power, on public versus private transport. And they want to see a proper open debate on these issues, not an announcement after some horse-trading in the back rooms of the City Chambers or in St Andrew’s House or in Downing Street.
So let’s have less talk of “rainbow coalitions” or Unionist pacts or Keep-someone-out deals. Instead, let’s have open councils and honest administrations held properly to account.