Thursday, 10 May 2012

Working in unison needs a broad base

Coalition formed in UNISON?
Amongst all the surprise and astonishment that has greeted the 'historic' Labour/SNP coalition in Edinburgh (although constituents in East Renfrewshire might be forgiven for questioning the novelty of this situation) it is interesting to consider a factor that might well have been a catalyst,

A factor that has not been publicly mentioned (as far as I know) is what happened in the huge furore around the LibDems' Alternative Business Model (ABM) proposals in the last administration. The proposals, which primarily involved privatising both support and front-line services in the city, caused a huge backlash, with a very successful campaign, led by the council trade unions but incorporating a much wider community base, ultimately leading to its defeat.

Of course, given the knife-edge balance of the previous party make up (29 each with the Tories always likely to back selling off services), this defeat had to involve detaching SNP support from their LibDem coalition partners and a joint vote with Labour (and the Greens) to defeat the plans.

UNISON (the largest council union) activists in the city have admitted privately that their greatest concern was the the notorious resentment between Labour and the Nationalists might scupper the final votes. In the midst of a very vocal and highly-charged campaign, the difficulty in gaining the joint support of the two key parties without pushing either into a political corner was a manoeuvre worthy of Balkan dexterity!

Working together
As is now known, it was ultimately successful and scuppered the LibDem privatisation plans in all areas. Ultimately two ABMs were defeated by joint Labour/SNP amendments and the LibDems threw the other one out themselves. The two parties also – it now appears – reaped the benefits in the elections. Jenny Dawe and her LD colleagues were left to face the full wrath of the electorate on their own.

Was this experience a straw in the wind of this week's shock coalition? A positive experience in working together can only have assisted the move towards it. Too much cannot be ascribed to this working together, or indeed should it be predicted for this coalition. The economic future for all local government in Scotland is bleak, and difficult times lie ahead. Not only will these strain the alliance, they will almost certainly mean issues with their own workforce and with the communities they serve.

Lessons that both Councillor Burns and Councillor Cardownie need to heed are that power does not simply involve the division of positions on the council, but must ensure that services are defended for their communities. And just as the workforce was instrumental in piloting joint activity over the ABM crisis, they need to continue to be part of the working together package to steer Edinburgh through the crises to come.

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