With the Council Elections on 3rd May, this is the hot topic and by no means a straightforward one.
Many UK local auth0rities are governed by coalitions because in local elections local issues are in most cases the ones impacting directly on the lives of voters.
‘Local’ elections also mean that most candidates are known in a way that candidates for national or UK elections may not be. Outsiders can be parachuted in on a party ticket to offer to represent an area in wider arenas but in local government, ‘local’ means local.
These two factors, local issues and local candidates, give local government a distinctive character and give election campaigns and voting preferences a direction of travel that has its own impetus.
Political parties cast lustful eyes on local government, knowing that popularity and control at grass roots level is a powerful seed bed for votes at national and UK level.
Some see this as preferable to the rule of independents-led administrations which are usually free of political philosophy and often free of policy.
These two elements are not one and the same thing although, where there is a political philosophy, policy necessarily evolves from that.
Lack of ‘policy’ and ‘philosophy’ are also not the impediments they may seem, with political parties at national level manifestly unable to produce compelling offers in these fields.
Competence and integrity can and should be the frontline criteria.
Support and development
Local candidates standing on a party card should have the advantage of a protective and developmental party machine behind them, schooling them beforehand on the issues, means and procedures of local government.
In, practice however, this rarely, if ever, happens. Strategic advance thinking and preparation – and the organisational focus and capability to deliver it – is, somehow, not the British thing.
In theory, Independent candidates cannot be expected to have such support, while in practice, they are no more enabled or disabled by this than are their party political rivals.
Where party backing comes into play is, to a degree, in the matter of campaigning. Behind party candidates is some sort of a ‘machine’ – not, actually a realistic concept in the ad hockery of local government at all levels. But there will at least be a knowledge of what to do and how to do it.
This can be as much a disadvantage as an advantage as it will tend to perpetuate the status quo and to lack innovation; although it has great practical value in access to existing lists (the word ‘database’ would, in most cases, be stretching the point) and contacts.
Party-based candidates will generally be given – or have imposed upon them – overarching, party-driven manifesto commitments to flesh out the paragraphs in their election literature and save them the trouble of thinking too much.
Independents fly absolutely solo on the means and content of their campaigns. They have neither guidance nor instruction nor any or much campaigning infrastructure.
With independents, this situation tends to produce extremes – the crash-and-burners or the inspirational free-thinkers. Party backing will always produce a few stars but in general it presents apparent middle-of-the-roaders who, in practice may be worse or better than this but for most voters, there’s little telling in advance.
All unschooled candidates will make promises on a wish list unrelated to any sense of what is achievable. But then, experienced candidates do exactly the same, in what is still a pretty unprincipled bidding war for votes at all costs.
This is where there is a sharp difference between party political candidates and true independents.
There will be a party line providing the perspectives that lead to decision taking on how to vote – and, where necessary, there will be a party whip dictating a particular vote. Failure to observe the whip can lead to expulsion which, for mediocre candidates, voted in on the basis of their party affiliation, is political death.
Elected members representing a political party can count on facing real predicaments where their conscience and the interests of their electorate run counter to party instructions. Most resolve such personal conflicts comfortably enough and rarely to the advantage of their constituents.
Some resign from their party. Very occasionally, a party group will act in concert and on principle, as was the case when the SNP group walked out of the then ruling coalition over the school closures issue. Even here, though, it would be naive to dismiss party political advantage from the calculations leading to this action.
Independents are, theoretically, free to vote as they see it on an issue by issue basis, although those who join a group of independents are normally as constrained by group policy as are their colleagues who are political party based.
The generality, with elected members who are party or group based, is that party or group interests will always be placed before those of constituents. There are a very few occasions where, when constituency interests fit with the larger party political interests, it may appear that constituents have been put first, This will be no more than sleight of hand. At best, they will have had conveniently equal force.
In Argyll and Bute, the Alliance of Independent Councillors has become a sort of policy-free party by dint of its long years in ruling coalitions and its consequent taste for power at all costs.
In a way, this is the worst of both worlds for voters because its members stand at election solely as ‘independents’. This promises all that is good about an independent stance, yet, in actuality, these candidates are more hamstrung by the brutal – if selective – ‘discipline’ of this group than are their counterparts who are party representatives.
It is fair to say that the spirit of the voter at local authority elections is with the independent thinker who will put the issues and the needs of constituents above all.
In Argyll and Bute, this is carried to a previously unknown degree by the Argyll First group who pledge, where there may be a conflict between them, to put the interests of Argyll as a whole above constituency interests.
In a way, this is the beginning of a new politics in local government and perhaps beyond that.
Party discipline has a role to pay in the conduct of members elected to local government.
This means that, from the party’s standpoint, renegades can be brought to heel or expelled.
From the electorate’s position, there is a means of leverage on the conduct of a party-based candidate who is ignoring their interests, where they have no such immediate leverage on an independent.
Voters may approach the local party organisation if they have concerns over the conduct of an individual councillor who is on the party slate. If they do not get satisfaction there and if the issue is sufficiently aggravating, they may take their concerns to the party’s national organisation.
No party wants to see that the behaviour of their elected representatives at local level is weakening their political base in a local council and potentially undermining their national vote.
However, the other side of the coin, for both member and constituents, is that party discipline can also neuter an elected member seen politically as AWOL but electorally as a principled supporter of an issue with profound local importance.
Political careerists will always be party-based candidates, although this does not mean that all party-based candidates are careerists.
The reality is that there can be no serious political career in being an independent local councillor – although for those who join a powerful group of independents, the position of Council Leader is a realistic ambition that has a sort of further outlet for favoured candidates in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Since COSLA is a ‘political’ orgaanisation, even here it may be more helpful to be a noted local politician operating from a party base.
On very rare occasions, where a local independent has become a toweringly effective and principled representative, they may develop a sufficient personal power base to support and even to win a candidacy for a seat at national government level.
Beyond that though, however able and effective the person, as things currently stand, there is absolutely no means of further progress up the political ladder.
From the electorate’s point of view, a careerist candidate can be relied upon to put personal and party interests well before those of constituents. That’s the name of the game they’re in.
Party (and which party) or independent? What most benefits the area as a whole?
One school of thought says that it is in the interests of an area to have a party group in power or shared power locally, which is also the party of government.
The proposition here is that this will give a local administration access to the levers of power and the influence to get a local case heard, with a few favours on the side.
We’re not sure about that.
The row over the determination of the Alliance of Independent Councillors not to fund the Mid Argyll Swimming Pool when its new board was clearly blazing a trail of competence and commitment, is a case in point.
There was serious local interest at stake but there weren’t enough votes in the issue for the junior member of that administration, the SNP group, to resist the stance of the senior partner.
In party political terms, it was more important for the party to have a partnership in the administration of a local authority than it was to look after serious local interest on a modest scale – until it came to the issue of school closures where there was a serious volume of votes involved.
Politics being what it is, still savouring the usefulness of the pork barrel at all levels, there will indeed be the odd favour dropped in for advantage from time to time for an area where the party of national government has a role in a council administration.
We would all be better off if we chose to put merit above favour and insisted instead on the proper evaluation of cases and proposals as the basis for action. ‘Favours’ lead nowhere other than to the perpetuation of a diseased political status quo.
What we all need is for the strength of a case to be recognised, even where it conflicts with the policy, the philosophy or the wish of a ruling local or national party. This is the foundation of good government, worthy of respect.
Here is the weakness in a party being involved in a local authority administration that is also the party of national government.
If the local case is one that does not suit the interests or strategies of the national party, the local group will either be persuaded or, if necessary, instructed – in the greater interests of the party, not to push the case. And they will not.
If one could contrive it, the most effective local administration – where action at national government level is required – is a competent, confident administration allied to the party of effective national opposition.
In this scenario, a strong local case must be properly addressed. If it is wrongly binned it will lose local votes for the party of national government. The only political capital to be made in such a situation is in acceptance of the case – which, had it come from the government’s own party at local level, would have been sidelined.
Wastefulness – the big issue
Particularly at local government level, there is a scarcity of genuine ability to the point where it is damaging for Argyll and Bute for posts of responsibility to be filled by willing but less able appointees simply because they are members of the ruling administration of the day.
The underuse of able councillors also leads to an unhelpful degree of disengagement. They have no real challenges appropriate to their ability. The best like to be tested.
Given that in Scotland and elsewhere in local government, independents predominate – there is little logic in the necessity for clusters of random independents to have to come together to form an administration, as is currently the case.
Such groups can have no political philosophy and no party affiliation so neither of these can be said to be an issue.
What matters is competence – and the current imperative to have a majority group in or leading government at this level actually ensures that we cannot have a competent administration across the board. There will be the odd lucky strike at best and the rest will be smilers who leave it all to their unelected officers.
There is every possible case for being experimental with local government – to all our advantage and with a possible impact on national government should the case be proven.
Why don’t we elect the post holders on the basis of nominated candidates?
It is not beyond out intelligence to come up with an electoral or mathematical means of also covering ward representation at General Practitioner level.
This approach would not prevent an individual from standing on a party slate; nor would it prevent political parties from standing a slate of candidates.
It would make it imperative for any candidate to have demonstrable specific abilities, experience and proposals to bring to the position; and it would make it imperative for any party only to field candidates of very real ability in specific fields if they wanted to succeed.
At one sweep this would get rid of the ‘buggins turn’ and default selections of candidates and appointees and rule out the ambitious juveniles with no real experience or proven ability in the working world but who fancy themselves as politicians. They should do their apprenticeship in life and work and come to the vote eventually with expertise and experience behind them that voters rate.
This approach would give us the talent we need in every single council post of responsibility and in the Leader – who would work with his given cabinet much as is currently the case, with whatever he is given by the electorate. The difference wold be that they would all be capable of doing their jobs and that they would not be dependent on the Leader’s patronage.
The case of Donald Kelly
The case of Donald Kelly in South Kintyre is a uniquely interesting one.
He is one of the three founding councillors who created the Argyll First group – mentioned above.
He is standing as an avowed Scottish Conservative and Unionist – but will not be a member of that party group in the council – because he has, like his two colleagues, John McAlpine of Kintyre and the Islands and Dougie Philand of Mid Argyll, pledged to put the interests of Argyll first, as a matter of practical and philosophical principle.
His personal voting preference is undisguised but he has rejected party politics in the interests of a new take on local politics. Everyone knows exactly where he stands.
This is a powerfully interesting position and one which we feel has opened eyes in Argyll and Bute to new and better ways of doing local government.