Thirteen years ago this month, I went into my Higher Maths exam determined to get 100%. Most of my classmates went in hoping to maybe get an A or a B, but such was my prowess in maths that the idea that I would get anything less than an A never even entered my head. I left the exam in a fit of rage, annoyed with myself for not being able to answer some stupid vectors question, thus ruining my chances of getting 100%. I got an A, but thanks to my unrealistically high expectations, it didn’t feel like the achievement it should have been.
This month, the SNP went into the local elections trying to do what would have been deemed impossible a year ago – taking Glasgow City Council from Labour. They may not have said so in as many words in public, but it was quite clear from the tone of the speeches at Spring conference what the objective was (almost a David Steel-esque “go back to your Glasgow constituencies and prepare for City Chambers!” message). In 2007, the SNP got their best ever result with 363 councillors around the country on 27.9% first preference votes (0.2% less than Labour). This time around, they have smashed the 400 barrier for councillors, gaining councillors almost everywhere in the process (suffering minor losses in just three West of Scotland councils), gained overall control of two councils, and look likely to have gotten the highest total first preference votes as well. In terms of my opening metaphor, they have gotten a resounding A grade, and they have done so against a backdrop of a smear campaign against the First Minister (led by Labour and ably assisted by the media), and the simple fact that an incumbent government in its second term should not still be winning local elections, never mind winning them better than the last time. But that unrealistic expectation of taking Glasgow has diluted the result somewhat (not helped by the media comparing Labour’s result with the number of councillors they had just before the election – after pissing off a fifth of their councillors by deselecting them, leading to en masse defections – rather than the more recognised practice of comparing like with like, i.e. the 2007 election). So although these have been successful local elections for the SNP, there is still room to learn from mistakes, and it’s better to do that now rather than later.
Being an Aberdonian, my focus has obviously been on the Granite City, which also happens to be the best city in Scotland. This is a city where the SNP got 6 councillors in 2003, 12 in 2007, and 15 this time around. Clearly, they are still making progress in the area. But this is tempered by the fact they started this election with 15 councillors, having won three by-elections, and by the massive gains made by Labour, who increased their 10 councillors in 2007 to 17. My own ward changed from two Lib Dems and a Tory to one each from the Lib Dems, SNP and Labour. This wasn’t just an anti-coalition result – the incumbent Tory councillor didn’t stand this time around, and one of those Lib Dems was jailed for embezzlement during the previous term (being replaced by one of those by-election winners from the SNP, who took the seat again this time around). The other Lib Dem kept his seat because he’s a good councillor, and with just 6 candidates (including an independent that I still can’t find any information on, and the car-hating, anti-oil Greens are never going to be popular in Aberdeen), it was always going to be unlikely that he would lose his seat. But the fact is the SNP and Labour both picked up seats in Aberdeen, except for some reason Labour did so more effectively.
Aberdeen was a Labour stronghold until 2003, when the Tories and Lib Dems formed a coalition, with the Tories being replaced by the SNP in 2007. Labour went into the election claiming to have “learned the lessons” and being ready to serve Aberdeen again after 9 years out of power. This, coupled with their stance against the City Garden project (CGP), and just a general malaise in Aberdeen with the recently-departed council administration, meant they were in a great position to pick up some seats, and this is exactly what they did.
But this doesn’t mean the SNP couldn’t have helped themselves here. The past five years have been marred by the council having to balance the books after years of abuse by the previous Labour council. This sounds all too similar to the excuses given by Tories who still blame Labour’s incompetence for the mess they’re now creating in the UK, but Labour really did leave city’s finances in a dreadful state. So there have been cuts to services which have not exactly been vote winners, with the result being that the city’s finances have been left in a much better state than the SNP found them in. The problem is that this argument goes completely against the notion of borrowing millions of pounds to fund the destruction of Union Terrace Gardens and replace them with the Ian Wood Memorial Concrete Carbuncle. It’s a project that no one in Aberdeen was asking for, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with UTG, and so it has been a needless own goal for the SNP.
For those that don’t know, local oil tycoon Mr Wood decided to wave £50million in the face of the council, but only if it was used as he wanted, which was to fill UTG in with concrete and turn it into a “civic square” – putting the council in the position of committing to spending over £150million in order to get just £50million, a bit like telling someone you’ll pay for their kitchen if they buy a whole brand new house. The public was generally outraged at the idea, but a long period of normalisation (including some utterly disgusting propaganda from the ever-reliable-for-rich-men Press & Journal and Evening Express, including a complete failure to scrutinise the ludicrous “6,400 jobs” figure pro-CGP campaigners were throwing around) helped soothe public opinion to the extent that it has truly split the city in half. In March, the council (at the behest of the SNP government) asked the city to vote in a referendum to decide if they wanted the City Garden project (notice the change from “civic square” to “city garden” – that was part of the normalisation process) to go ahead. A slim majority voted in favour, so that was that, barring protests from pro-UTG campaigners who cried foul and decided to invoke the ghost of the 1979 Scottish Assembly referendum by claiming the 50% or so that didn’t vote meant only 25% had truly voted for the project (despite being against CGP, I departed company with such people at this point). Except that the Labour party, sensing an easy opportunity to exploit, decided to turn it into a partisan issue and said that, if elected, they would cancel the project. It was a quite disgraceful move – they are effectively saying they will ignore public opinion – but it’s what they went with. The question now is whether they will actually go ahead with this promise, or if they’ll find some way of wriggling out of it. Of course, the project itself still has to go through various stages of the planning process, where it may still have failed regardless of who was in charge, so Labour may end up looking like they’ve cancelled it without having done anything of the sort.
So what should the SNP learn from this? Well, while I’m sure outgoing councillors will say they were putting the city ahead of party interest (it’s telling that a significant number of those from both the SNP and Lib Dems who were at the forefront of the CGP campaign didn’t stand this time around, for various reasons) the fact is they turned a significant number of residents against the SNP, and this needn’t have happened. Aberdeen has its problems, and CGP will solve none of them. Union Street – once the main shopping thoroughfare of Aberdeen – is awash with To Let signs (someone apparently stole the “I” from them – he must have “To Let” syndrome), and nobody can work out how to get them filled with shops again. The idea is that CGP will reinvigorate the city centre, but it does nothing to solve any of the root causes for the empty shops – lack of parking, poor public transport, and the fact that the recently opened Union Square shopping mall has taken much of the business away, helped by the vastly reduced business rates, a move that was done to avoid Union Square itself from opening up with only half the spaces actually being occupied. It also doesn’t help that more and more Tesco Express and Sainsbury Locals keep popping up on Union Street and Holburn Street. I recently read a letter from a local resident in the paper pointing out that the west end of Union Street was originally meant to be residential, and concentrating the shops into one area of Union Street would certainly help rid it of empty shops. For too long various Aberdeen councils have been happy to just let more and more pubs and bars open up all over the place in Union Street, putting off potential shop owners from opening up new premises nearby and showing a complete lack of forward planning, and the SNP did nothing to stop this (as shown by the afore-mentioned opening up of numerous Tesco Expresses and Sainsbury Locals).
So not only did the SNP facilitate the destruction of a much-loved iconic green space that will put the city back into more debt, but they failed to take the bull by the horns and change the way the council administration operates. I’ve heard that the Lib Dems created a nice little clique for themselves amongst council officials and members, but the SNP did nothing to stop this when they became the biggest group (although in fairness, they only had a year to do so). This is one of the perils of coalition, especially when your partner is an incumbent, where you get dragged into their bad practices. I can’t help feeling that if the SNP in Aberdeen had adopted the stance of the anti-trams SNP in Edinburgh and spoken up for the people of Aberdeen, by opposing the Ian Wood Memorial Concrete Carbuncle rather than meekly going along with it, and concentrated on nuanced solutions to Aberdeen’s problems instead of a big ticket “it’s not a panacea to Aberdeen’s problems, even though we quite clearly think it is” project, then they may have been able to prevent Labour from making the gains which they have, and not gotten progressives in Aberdeen speaking out against them. It might also have helped if they’d been a bit more open about the long-term plan for regenerating the city centre – I only know such a thing exists because I emailed a councillor asking why he was in favour of CGP.
Oh, and putting up a single candidate (council leader Calum McCaig) in a strong SNP area capable of electing two SNP councillors, just to ensure the group leader wasn’t pushed out, was also a bit stupid. I knew that was a mistake as soon as I saw the candidates list. Aberdeen SNP could learn a lot from the SNP in Glasgow, Edinburgh and particularly Dundee as well, who all have a very good presence online. How are you meant to get your message across to people when you don’t even bother utilising social networking sites to encourage non-participatory local members (like me) and would-be members to get involved?
So my message to the SNP is this: yes, these local elections were successful overall, but don’t take your eye off the ball and pay attention to the areas where things didn’t go according to plan.