The Dunoon ward goes to the polls on Thursday 10th May. If it produces the same broad result as in 2007, it is likely to return 2 x Alliance and 1 x SNP. Added to the tally of seats already declared, the final result would look like this:
- 13 x SNP
- 9 x Alliance
- 4 x Liberal Democrat
- 3 x Argyll First
- 3 x Conservative
- 4 x Independent
Breakdowns in the administrative areas
Assuming this outcome in Dunoon and the final tally above this would produce, the following pictures emerge in each of the four administrative areas of Argyll and Bute:
- Mid Argyll, Kintyre and the Islands: 3 x Argyll First; 3 x SNP; 2 x Liberal Democrat; and 1 x Alliance
- Oban, Lorn and the Isles: 4 x SNP; 2 x Alliance; 2 x Independent
- Bute and Cowal (at present): 3 x Alliance; 3 x SNP. (Assumption post-Dunoon result): 5 x Alliance; 4 x SNP.
- Helensburgh and Lomond: 3 x Conservative; 2 x Liberal Democrat; 2 x SNP; 3 x Independent
The strongest power base here is the SNP’s in Oban, Lorn and the Isles. This also happens to be the base of the new Leader of the SNP Group, Roddy McCuish. Chairmanship of the Area Committee will pass from the Alliance to the SNP.
The next strongest is the Alliance’s in Bute and Cowal, the base of the Leader of the Alliance, Dick Walsh, who has also led the council for some time. The Alliance will retain Chairmanship of the Area Committee.
And the Conservatives, following the addition to their number by the election of Maurice Corry in Lomond North, are the leading group in Helensburgh and Lomond, the base of their Leader, Gary Mulvaney. The Chairmanship of the Area Committee will now pass to the Conservatives from the Alliance.
Mid Argyll sees two groups each with three seats, Argyll First and the SNP – each represented in all three wards, with one seat in each. It would be good to see Argyll First taking the Chair at the Area Committee.
The Liberal Democrat presence in Helensburgh and Lomond is now confined to the members of a single family and, with the loss of Councillor Alison Hay in Mid Argyll, it has lost its equal lead with Argyll First in that area to the SNP. Its representation is now on the periphery of Argyll and Bute – Helensburgh, South Kintyre and Islay.
The shake down
The assumption that Dunoon will broadly produce the same outcome as in 2007 leaves the SNP as the largest single group with 13; and the Alliance of Independent Councillors as the next largest group with 9.
After the 2007 vote, the Alliance was the largest group with 13 seats; and the SNP the second largest with 10. They formed a coalition which had obvious internal tensions and mutual distrust from the outset; and which finally fell apart after around two thirds of the term, on 25th November 2010, over the school closures programme.
The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives then entered a coalition administration with the Alliance, forming the pre-election administration. This seemed much more internally harmonious, with a shared determination on what should be done. That does not mean that their agreed actions were the right ones for Argyll, simply that they were comfortable together.
Were the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives to enter into a coalition agreement again now, together the three groups would have 16 seats. This is not enough to form a majority administration in a council with 36 seats.
The decision the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives face is whether to observe and respect the overall will of the electorate which has rejected the Alliance.
The Alliance’s first approach will naturally be to these two groups with whom it has recently worked and with existing channels of communication.
But because this cannot now add up to a majority, Argyll First and the four Independents are likely to become the focus for intensive lobbying to join either this group or the SNP group.
Let us assume that the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives seized the day regardless, went again into coalition with the Alliance and, with their combined total of 16 seats, set off on a hunt to recruit for a majority. How might they fare and what picture might emerge?
Argyll First, with its own gold standard of integrity, would be unlikely to consider entering such a coalition and would be keenly aware of the toxicity of the Alliance.
George Freeman, the Lomond North Independent and a former member of the Alliance who was forced out of it on a false premise because he stood against it on the school closures issue, has made it clear that he will have nothing to do with them.
That leaves the three other Independents.
Iain Macdonald who stormed the third of four seats in Oban North and Lorn, dislodging the Alliance’s Neil Mackay, has said on the record that he will support the Alliance ‘when hell freezes over’.
That leaves two: Alistair MacDougall a previous councillor who took the fourth seat in Oban South and the Isles at the expense of fellow Mulleach Independent, Gordon Chalmers, who will genuinely be missed; and Richard Graham Macintyre from Lomond North.
Even if both of these were prepared to take the risk of associating themselves with the Alliance, the sum total the Alliance could muster would be 18, which is a not a majority but a hung council.
Hung council versus a minority administration
SNP Group Leader, Roddy McCuish has issued a statement saying: ‘The SNP had its best ever result in Argyll and Bute. We have gone from the party of protest to the party of political progress. We are the only party or group to have increased our share of the vote and our number of councillors and as the the largest party by far I would hope that others will accept our right to form an administration.
I have already been approached by a number of independent councillors and the party will be having conversations with them and others over the next few days. The people of Argyll and Bute have rejected the previous administration. A new administration for Argyll and Bute, dedicated to growth and progress and which rejects damaging policies like wholesale school closures, is much needed and is within our grasp.’
Looking at the situation described above, a hung council is in the frame – and that would come at the cost of intolerable pressure on Argyll First and the four Independents.
A hung council would cripple Argyll.
It would see the repeated opposition of two equal and entrenched block votes, paralysing decision taking. It would become an incestuous in-house stand-off, losing sight of the job in hand – a job every single elected councilor of any persuasion has been entrusted by voters to do.
That job is to help Argyll to find itself and grow in confidence and economic strength.
Trench warfare at Kilmory might entertain the chatterers but would relegate the needy to limbo – and Argyll itself is the neediest of the lot.
There is a great deal to be said for a minority administration.
It is arguable that the SNP’s first Holyrood administration post 2007, a minority government, was more sensitive and skilful than their performance to date since the sweeping majority of 2011 their earlier administration earned them.
Were the SNP group at council level to choose this route on principle, they could include in their administration members of any other group with skills and experience too good to waste in the interests of Argyll. A collegiate approach, based on merit would reflect the broad sharing of pre-eminence in the Area Committees.
They could work to govern by consensus and by doing so to train Argyll to look differently at the nature of local government and to expect a great deal more from it. This could be a game changer for Argyll, a point of departure from a conflicted and diseased past – and one in which every councillor of any affiliation could play a constructive part.
It would be healthy and productive for all of us to draw a line under what has gone before and to find a better way of clearing the path for Argyll to shine.
This could be powerfully enabled by a minority administration that had no choice but to focus on the priorities for the area and to produce well evidenced, well crafted and workable proposals that any elected member could support – on merit; and that none could defensibly reject – on merit.
No sensible voter elects a politician at any level just to make a mess of the opposition – and the devil take Argyll, or Scotland or the UK. Primarily, any politician is elected to do their best to make the right things happen, in this case for Argyll.
Argyll needs to see that primary focus in action and, reverse-logic as it may seem, a minority administration, by choice, may be the best possible way to create a political environment for this to emerge.
Argyll will not forgive anyone who plays vested-interest politics in this situation. Such conduct would signal where the true interests lay of anyone who tried it.
Interestingly, although new SNP Leader, Roddy McCuish, is a committed Scottish nationalist, he is by nature open, inclusive and not tribally or socially narrow. A light-hearted and commonsensical man whose values are rock solid, he gets on with everyone. He may just be the right man in the right place at the right time.