Green councillor Steve Burgess reflects on Edinburgh’s emerging post-election arrangements.
Greens have always valued co-operation and discussion in politics. Traditional tribalism often gets in the way of finding common ground and making things happen. The how of politics matters as well as the what.
So, in the run up to this year’s council elections in Edinburgh we were entirely comfortable with the prospect of listening to and discussing with other parties what would happen after the election dust had settled.
And that is exactly what we have been doing. Over the last few days, since the election results were declared, our newly-enlarged team of 8 Green councillors has been engaged with other parties in the City Chambers on various post-election scenarios. We have been very ably supported by a wider group drawn from our branch membership and we are guided by a standing-room-only meeting of our branch on the evening of Monday 8 May.
It is a cliche of political negotiation that nothing is ruled out or in. However, our steer from the wider party has given us some clear boundaries.
Firstly, that there are significant differences between the Green and the Tory manifestos such that, while dialogue is never rejected, it is hard to see where common ground lies. Further, the Tories campaigned explicitly and almost exclusively on the issue of Scottish independence in the council elections, begging the question of how serious they are about the vital services which councils provide: schools, social care, transport, housing and all the rest. So an arrangement which involved both Greens and Tories has seemed highly unlikely.
Secondly, that Green councillors stood on a manifesto outlining transformative change for the capital: in housing, transport, social care, community ownership and planning, to take just some examples. Whether or not you agree with all our ideas, it is crucial that this longer term vision is heard within the city chambers in order to set ambitious horizons. That does not always sit comfortably with a role within formal coalition. To do so would also mean that it would be left to the Tories to set an agenda from an increasingly right-wing perspective. Edinburgh needs a radical, green and progressive voice to balance that and to help push policy further than it might otherwise go.
But, thirdly, we have also recognised that, here and now, the city does need to be governed and have a clear direction set for the next five years. That is why we have consistently been prepared to offer constructive support for a stable coalition. In our view, that could be formed by the SNP and Labour working together, as they have done for the last five years under the leadership of one of Scotland’s most consensual politicians, Andrew Burns. With combined numbers of 31, it falls just short of the 32 needed for a majority, but even a swift glance at the manifestos shows that Greens will anticipate supporting many progressive policies to improve the city. Indeed we have set out some ideas of our own: on affordable housing; social care; transport and opening up the council, as a contribution to a post-election programme.
The Tories, meanwhile, have been briefing that an SNP-Labour administration, with one short of a majority, would be “unstable”. But any perceived instability rests on imagining scenarios where the Tories, Greens and Lib Dems would all agree on alternative proposals: a highly unlikely situation, as outlined above. On the other hand, given Labour’s remarks earlier this week on wanting to be part of a set-up which was anti-austerity, valued trade unions and rejected privatisation, it looks like any deal involving Labour and the Tories would wobble before the ink was dry.
On 4 May, the residents of Edinburgh had their say and delivered the number of councillors per party that they have. Given that arithmetic, the truth is that the most firmly-based arrangement is one where SNP and Labour take the lead; where the Greens are prepared to offer constructive and forward-looking support where there is policy overlap, while still giving full voice to the kind of transformative change the capital needs; and where the Tories are properly positioned as the reactionary, constitution-obsessed party that they certainly are.
So, as other parties conclude their discussions, we are ready and willing to work constructively and in partnership with like-minded councillors for the progressive, outward-looking city which residents clearly want, while also pushing further for the fairer and greener Edinburgh which is the capital’s only future.
Steve Burgess is Green councillor for Southside-Newington