The substance of The Reform Group’s proposals on re-engineering management and budgets at Argyll & Bute Council is invigorating and challenging, if often impractical either operationally or, sadly, by being a universe away from the rub of the green in local politics whose death-dealing self interest and corrupting external party interferences is likely to see it kicked into touch.
The source of the proposals is also well worth review – since that same self interest and that same external agenda is unlikely, variously, to be absent from the personal and collective strategies of its members. Let’s start there.
The Reform Group
The Reform Group at Argyll & Bute Council comprises three elected councillors:
- Michael Breslin for Dunoon;
- Vivien Dance for Helensburgh Central
- Bruce Marshall for Cowal.
The driver of the group and its intellectual powerhouse is Councillor Breslin, former head of Argyll College.
None of the three profess any political group alignment, with Dance and Marshall declared as and elected as ‘Independent’; and Breslin, elected as an SNP Councillor, now simply describing his affiliation as ‘None’.
Councillor Breslin was suspended from SNP membership during the infamous period of 2012-13 when the SNP-led coalition administration at Argyll & Bute Council was destroyed by its own party hierarchy through three successive leaderships.
Each of these carried on as best it could in defiance of party instructions to walk out of power; and each attempted, in so doing, to be faithful to the needs of the Argyll electorate which, by voting them into power, had put its trust in them.
The party’s greater concern was with protecting the vote for independence, then yet to come, against well meaning decisions taken by a rookie group keen to do the right thing – which is not always the popular thing.
Councillor Breslin was not suspended for defying the party’s will. On the contrary, in his robust pursuit of its instructions to get the SNP administration in this part of the world out of power at all costs, he fell into the trap of threatening to resign from the SNP group – only to find that bluff called by then Leader, Councillot Roddy McCuish.
He remains close to the party hierarchy, is – with reason – valued by them and, equally reasonably, is despairing of the ability of the rump formal SNP group of councillors, which suffered departures other than Councillor Breslin’s – and for a range of reasons, fully tragic, fully comical and occasionally dishonourable.
Prior to the formation of The Reform Group, Councillor Dance, a famous opportunist, had very publicly become a member of the SNP. She is said not to wish to be an SNP councillor while her former Group leader, Councillor Dick Walsh, remains in power as Council Leader.
The political logic of this position defies us; and is likely to be rooted in personal animus at her eventual sidelining by the Leader whose favour she had previously assiduously sought. This included betraying the Park school for very special needs which is sited in her area, by openly supporting the Walsh-led administration’s attempt to close it – along with 25 others – in the infamous ‘School Wars’ of 2010-11.
Councillor Marshall is an unlikely radical but is clearly having the time of his life under the wing of Councillor Breslin and as part of a group concerned with genuine thought and strategic planning. It is always good to see people reborn, as it were and enlivened by the breeze of possible change.
So where is The Reform Group going?
While we would not quite describe the group as a Trojan Horse, it would be remiss not to consider where it will be and what it will do in and after the 2017 Scottish Local Authority Elections.
The SNP is clearly going to want to try to recover the reputational damage it suffered in its pantomimic betrayal of the Argyll electorate last time out.
It will want to do well enough to lead alone as a majority administration; and the likelihood of the temperature of the times, although the heat appears reduced, has to be that they will achieve this result.
Their concern will already be to ensure that, in this anticipated outcome, they will have the capacity to govern within their elected cohort.
The party has little faith in the ability of the current formal SNP group – not necessarily in some individuals but in the collective. Proof of the foundation for the party’s despair at the inability of this group comes from the very issue of the moment – the council budget for 2016-17. Last night, 9th February, the group sent out a press release trumpeting their own budget proposals for consideration – but were unable to sat a thing about these proposals – because they weren’t finished.
The daftness of trying to sell a pig in a poke apart, the Council administration published its own controversial ‘Service Choices ‘ cuts paper months ago and it has been out to consultation for a considerable time – and 36 hours before the council meeting this lot still don’t know what they’re saying. Moreover, the press release gave no indication – whatever this proposal turns out to be tomorrow, that it has been costed.
While the SNP may see new some faces elected to the party group next year, local politics carries strong personal affinities to local councillors who are seen to be hard working, engaged and to fight for their area’s interests. There are many who will be hard to dislodge.
This means that the SNP cannot afford not to include The Reform Group; and not to see Councillor Breslin as its Leader of an SNP majority administration here.
When one examines the specific proposals from The Reform Group, to be considered at tomorrow’s council meetings, it is immediately obvious where the interest of Councillor Dance will be focused; and possibly – although with less certain success, also that of Councillor Marshall.
We do not see Councillor Breslin as driven particularly by self interest in this; but by the need to put his abilities, experience and energy to good use in the interests of the party whose ambitions he certainly supports; and by the buzz of challenge.
Note: The companion to this article – our analysis of The Reform Group’s specific proposals on management and budgets, which we have enjoyed,will be published as soon as can complete it – we hope by early evening today, 10th February.