(Updated below 17th May 2011) The pulse of Argyll and Bute currently beats in anticipation of the 2012 Scottish Local Authority elections.
The will is to pass its judgment formally on the performance of its discredited council and very particularly on of the council administration’s conduct of a series of unable rural school closure proposals spanning the territory.
The story told in the Scottish Election 2011
Argyll and Bute has already held one local councillor responsible for a serious error of judgment on 25th November 2010, in allowing school closure proposals she openly admitted were flawed, to proceed to statutory consultation anyway.
Councillor Alison Hay, a former Leader of Argyll and Bute Council and the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Argyll and Bute seat in the 2011 Scottish Election, was her party’s hope to take this, its top target seat, from the SNP.
On a catastrophic night for her party across Scotland, left with only 5 MSPs, she saw her chief opponent, the SNPs Michael Russell, returned with the 8th highest majority in Scotland, 8,390. She herself came 4th with 3,220, well behind both the Conservative (2nd) and Labour (3rd) candidates.
Her performance brought home her party’s highest percentage loss of vote share in Scotland – 19.6%.
The average loss of vote share for the Liberal Democrats in the constituency votes on 5th May was 8.2%.
8.2% of Councillor Hay’s loss can therefore be attributed to the party’s overall unpopularity in the country over its ruling coalition with the Tories at Westminster. Councillor Hay collected the additional loss of 11.4% on the issue of an equally toxic local coalition of the LibDems (with the ragbag Alliance of Independents); and on her personal conduct in supporting the coalition’s forcing of the school closure programme regardless of its legal or evidential security.
There is more.
The vote in the wards where schools are threatened with closure showed particularly high turnouts and particularly low votes for Councillor Hay and her party.
Moreover, the Liberal Democrats in Argyll and across the Highlands did not even poll enough to get a single candidate elected on the Highlands and Islands regional vote, where the SNP got 3 MSPs and Labour and the Conservatives got 2 apiece.
It could not be clearer that the Argyll electorate has every intention of making sure that those guilty of inflicting such continuing stress upon so many rural communities feel the collective judgment passed upon them.
The shape of the 2012 local authority elections in Argyll and Bute
The Argyll and Bute electorate took the first opportunity available to it to pass that judgment on Councillor Hay and there is plenty of evidence for its impatience for the arrival of the 2012 elections.
The administration councillors may well be praying for the legal challenge issued by Alasdair Stirling of Toward School to be settled out of court or to succeed in court, either way putting an end to the whole process.
As things stand, on their own declared schedule the administration councillors will go into those elections with the first tranche of schools recently closed, passions running high and another set of closure proposals already or just about to be announced.
The coalition partners will each also go into those elections in poor shape.
The Alliance of Independents, currently the largest group in the council, will enter it as the villain of the piece. Devoid of a political philosophy and without the backing of a major party, it will be every man for themselves and carnage is inevitable.
Two Alliance councillors are currently assuring anyone who will listen to them in Oban and Mull that they have not been LibDems since 2007. The boobies don’t realise that nobody cares whether or not they’ve been LibDems before or after 2007. What matters is what they have done, as members of the Alliance-led ruling coalition, on the school closures issue. And on that, one of them has no defence and the other now very little.
The Liberal Democrats, the second largest group in the ruling coalition, will go into the 2012 election with the awful warning of the tatters of Councillor Hay’s ambitions before them in evidence of the electorate’s intent.
They will also go into it as a demoralised and directionless party, almost obliterated in the 2011 national poll, with an unknown party leader and no Holyrood Liberal Democrat representation within reach of Argyll. And they will go into it with the cards of several of their members well and truly marked by the electorate and with cases to answer.
There are only two Conservative councillors. Their party too did badly at the Scottish polls – not as disastrously as the Liberal Democrats but they saw steady decline in vote share and they too lost their leader in the aftermath of the SNP sweep. Their support for the school closure programme cost their party’s candidate in the Scottish parliamentary election, dearly. The well-liked Jamie McGrigor, ironically a supporter of rural schools, saw his personal vote drop marginally, where he might have expected to gain.
At the moment, it looks as if the SNP will go into the election with clean hands and the gratitude of the electorate for walking out of power in order to fight against flawed school closure proposals they had done their best to get the Alliance of Independents to drop.
They are also currently buoyed by the unprecedentedly large vote of confidence for competent government that they were given by the electorate in the Scottish elections.
It is hard not to see them seriously increasing their representation but they will need to make it highly competent. Their party is in government nationally on those grounds and Argyll is not about to settle for less.
We expect the Argyll First group to emerge stronger from the 2012 local authority elections. They have, by merit of probity and steady good judgment, become widely respected.
We expect these elections to feature a stronger Labour challenge and we hope to see it an overt one, with left-leaning independents declaring themselves.
We expect the 2012 elections to feature pro-schools candidates and these are likely to be people of far higher ability than the average local councillor currently operating in Argyll and Bute.
We do not know whether they will run under that banner or as candidates for existing parties but foregrounding their pro-school position. Either way, the Argyll Rural Schools Network will be a force to be reckoned with where it needs to be.
This may be the hope for Argyll, the route to raising the calibre of the local government it does not enjoy, the start of the introduction of people who have the capability and the vision to grow Argyll out of decline.
What is certain is that any party that stands the traditional placemen as candidates will be out of touch with the mood of the electorate.
Today’s Argyll knows what it is potentially worth and it wants to realise that potential before it is too late. It is looking for competence, probity and a culture of openness in its council and it is determined to get them.
Update 17th May 2011: This article should, as Councillor George Freeman notes in a comment below, have included reference to the Argyll and Bute Independent Councillors Group which he leads and which was formed early in January 2011.
Currently this includes himself and Councillor Gordon Chalmers, both of whom have been stalwart and consistent supporters of the value of local schools, with Councillor Freeman one of the earliest amongst his peers to point to flaws in the first set of closure proposals.
These were the ones both of these councillors voted against allowing to proceed to statutory public consultation on 25th November 2010. they did so on evidential grounds and from a belief in the contribution of rural schools to the sustainability of their communities.
Councillor Freeman, in particular, paid a high personal and political price for acting on his principles in bizarre circumstances only possible in the madhouse of Argyl and Bute council.
For his stance and the price he paid for it, he has become someting of a political hero across Argyll and Bute and both he and Gordon Chalmers are much respected.
Politically, our concern is with the proliferation of small groups of councillors.
There is strength in numbers and although alliances of the like-minded can be usefully formed, belonging to the same group gives additional weight.
We are also concerned that the universal contempt for the notion of ‘independent councillors’ brought upon it by the actions of the discredited Alliance of Independent Councillors may wrongly redound to the disadvantage of these two councillors in the 2012 elections.
There would be real advantage in the two councillors in this group amalgamating with the Argyll First group. Their actions speak for an ‘Argyll First’ philosophy.
While, in the madhouse, splintering has been the traditional pattern, an Argyll First group composed of the current three plus these two councillors, could lead the way to more grown up politics of teamwork to the advantage of Argyll.
No doubt this suggestion will infuriate everyone but it has a great deal of political sense, nevertheless.