Most people following the council meeting on Thursday will have found it confusing, frustrating, and at times absurd as councillors voted for a Labour administration propped up by the Lib Dems and Tories. The latter parties were given appointments, and in some cases even had positions created for them. But – we were repeatedly told – this arrangement wasn’t a coalition, and didn’t even represent a formal deal.
By contrast, the Green councillors in Edinburgh had publicly and transparently joined with the SNP to propose a coalition agreement, released in advance, which laid out our plan for Edinburgh over the next five years. Yesterday councillors – all of whom supposedly care about tackling climate change and making lives better for people in Edinburgh when it came to their election leaflets – chose to reject this deal. What they chose instead was… well, we don’t really know. Because beyond the headline appointments to committees, there has been no clear indication from these three parties of how they intend to lead Edinburgh Council, and what agreements have been made away from the prying eyes of their constituents.
During the debate a Conservative councillor proclaimed that our deal – detailed, costed and discussed with council officers over the past fortnight – was virtue signalling, and reminiscent of student politics. We would like to know whether it was the increased funding for violence against women services, the commitment to make our city more accessible, realistic plans for retrofitting buildings, commitment to reduce road deaths, or our pledge to uphold workers’ rights that they found so objectionable. With no programme of administration of their own to compare it to, we can only guess.
As a new councillor, I found the whole process deeply disheartening. Behind the pomp of the council chamber, with its jarring contrast of congratulatory speeches and derisive laughter, my first real experience of council democracy was not one of collaborative working, but of backroom deals and machinations. Public statements being contradicted in coded conversations, trading of salaries for votes and, ultimately, a worse result for the people of Edinburgh.
But let’s look to the positives. The election results – regardless of the party makeup – represent a council we can get excited about. Half of Edinburgh’s councillors are newly elected, hopefully bringing a fresh perspective and some much-needed idealism to debate. Within the Green party’s new intake, I am the oldest at the ripe old age of thirty three. Edinburgh has our first woman of colour elected to the chamber, several proud migrants, and only the second permanent wheelchair-using councillor to be elected in the city.
The majority of councillors in Edinburgh were elected on manifestos of progressive policies. We know from months of door knocking, public meetings and chatting with voters that people want a council which understands the challenges they are facing. A council which can keep the streets clean and the bins empty, but also a council which takes climate change seriously, supports residents to cope with the cost of living crisis, and which has a long-term, positive vision for our capital city.
I have to hope that, despite a depressing day for democracy in Edinburgh, the decision taken on Thursday won’t set the tone for the next five years of the Council. The people of Edinburgh deserve far, far better.