‘All politics is local’ ran the maxim of legendary American politico Tip O’Neill, a deal-making Democrat of the old school.
O’Neill worked his way up from the back room of the party machine to become Speaker of the House of Representatives and the wily nemesis of Ronald Reagan.
In the middle of the 1982 recession, and with an eye to the upcoming elections, O’Neill introduced a $1billion jobs bill in Congress. The House Republican leader Robert H Michel instinctively went on the attack, linking the bill to Reagan’s ideological quest against big-spender Democrats.
Gotcha. O’Neill stood up and began to read the names of every bridge in Michel’s district found to be unsafe and that was set to be repaired under the shovel-ready scheme. TV cameras hummed to life at the sight of this political theatre and beamed O’Neill’s bravura performance into homes across the nation, including in Peoria where Michel’s constituents sat puzzled by their man’s apparent indifference to crumbling flyovers.
The Republican scrambled back home to make good with the locals and save his seat in November. He had learned the hard way that all politics is local.
Voters in Scotland might be about to challenge that epigram. They head to the polls soon for the first time since last year’s Holyrood election and the twin shockwaves of Brexit and the SNP’s renewed push for independence. On May 4, electors will choose who runs the 32 councils across Scotland, five years after the last local contest delivered a modest victory for the SNP, with Labour coming a close second.
The Tories, meanwhile, took a minor lug-skelping and the poor Lib Dems were royally blootered. (In Edinburgh’s Pentland Hills ward, a man dressed as a penguin and answering to the name Professor Pongoo attracted more first preference votes than the Lib Dem candidate.)
All this was before the independence referendum and the constitutionalisation of Scottish politics, which has completed a gradual shift away from the traditional left-vs-right divide to a split along national lines. Since almost everything in Scottish public life now seems to be viewed through the prism of the constitutional question, is it even possible to have a genuinely local election? Or will Nationalist and Unionist voters simply fall in line behind the two main parties — Independence Now or Independence Never; the SNP or the Conservatives?
The starting point is that these elections are the SNP’s to lose. The Nationalists dominate Holyrood and the Scottish contingency at Westminster and polling shows no indication that voters are tiring of the party, even as they grow more critical of its actions (or inaction) in government. Plus, it is difficult for the majority of the country that opposes the SNP’s only policy to use the electoral system to its advantage. Under the Single Transferable Vote, used in council polls to deliver a more proportional result, voters number the candidates in order of preference instead of choosing just one. This makes tactical voting more problematic than in a First Past the Post race, such as Westminster or the constituency ballot in Holyrood elections.
Council elections tend to be plagued by apathy and low turnout but as the campaign gets noisier in the coming weeks, expect to hear as much if not more talk about the constitution as potholes and bin collections. The SNP will be hoping for a bit of both, their diehard support coming out to back them the way ultra-loyal football fans trudge along to trivial friendlies just to cheer on their team. But they will also want local issues to be at the forefront because outside the Church of Yes there is little appetite for further constitutional brouhaha. The SNP has to persuade these voters that it cares at least as much about improving their communities as it does about sticking Saltires on the few public buildings in Scotland don’t now fly them.
Ruth Davidson will be shouting at the top of her lungs to remind the electorate what the Nats really care about. She wants voters to focus on the political paralysis the SNP has kept the country in and to give the Nationalists a bloody nose as a comeuppance. If they do, it wouldn’t be hard enough to slug them off the top spot in overall number of councillors but there will be voters, even some of them sympathetic to independence, weary of the unceasing constitutional wrangling. They might want to send Nicola Sturgeon a reminder that they’re paying her to run Scotland, not the campaign for a second referendum.
The country, we are told, sorely wants Miss Sturgeon to ‘get back to the day job’. The country hasn’t thought this through. In making Indyref2 her day job, the First Minister has striven to establish the case for a distinct Brexit deal for Scotland, build a majority for separation, and demonise Theresa May as Maggie Thatcher in slinkier heels. Net result: A majority of Scots want the same EU exit agreement as England, backing for a breakaway has actually gone down, and Theresa May is now more popular than, um, Nicola Sturgeon. At the rate Miss Sturgeon’s going, Glasgow and Dundee are going to ask for their 2014 votes back.
In this regard, the First Minister has done herself no favours with her royal visit to the United States this week. (She was introduced to an audience in New York on Thursday night as the “Queen of Scots”.) The SNP boss is ostensibly there to meet other leaders and sign a climate deal with the Governor of California. Perhaps it would be churlish to point out that the Scotland Act empowers the First Minister to sign nothing more binding than a birthday card. After all, the last Labour First Minister — and he probably will be the last — Jack McConnell fancied himself as something of a statesman too.
But the sight of Miss Sturgeon addressing the United Nations, glad-handing foreign dignitaries, rubbing shoulders with America’s power elite as if she really were head of state — the whole Indira McGandhi routine — will not sit well with some back home. Not because, as the nationalists predictably charge, critics resent Miss Sturgeon’s role as a powerful woman or are so self-loathing they don’t wish to see Scotland being recognised on the world stage. (Nor does anyone begrudge the First Minister a jolly; she is recognised across Holyrood as a hard worker who puts in punishing hours.)
The rub is that she isn’t the Queen of Scots — she’s the First Minister, she’s got a job to do in Scotland, and she is failing badly at it. Miss Sturgeon has delivered lofty speeches Stateside, spruiking the wonders of independence when education and the health service in Scotland stumble from one crisis to another. It would be nice if cancer patients could be seen on time and independence was stuck on a waiting list for once.
Of course, the SNP is all but guaranteed to retain the most councillors across Scotland after the election. The contest is in truth one for second place. In this, the Tories have the obvious advantage. They are the official opposition at Holyrood and their leader is popular to an extent that infuriates political opponents and confounds the wizened seers of Scotland’s academy and punditocracy. Can the Tories turn their starmaker and their newfound prominence into votes at council level?
They might just manage it but if they do it won’t be by following Tip O’Neill’s advice. Tory council leaflets across the country have played up the threat of a second referendum and reminded voters that it has been Miss Davidson standing up for the Union while Labour continues to tie itself in knots over independence. (Comments this week by David Martin, one of Labour’s Scottish MEPs, will do nothing for Kezia Dugdale’s efforts to win back Unionists. Mr Martin told an interviewer he wasn’t sure how he would vote in another plebiscite on separation.)
If the Conservatives are standing as the anti-Indyref2 party, Labour is barely able to stand. The party faces meltdown the length and breath of the country. In Glasgow, they are putting up a fight, and have the not insignificant advantage of being led by Frank McAveety, though few expect them to retain control of the last redoubt of socialism in Scotland. Their campaign is not so much optimistic as quixotic. For although they were written off in 2012 only to cling on against all the odds, they are now up against a formidable Glasgow SNP leader in Susan Aitken.
That she gives Labour the fear was obvious from their clunky attempts to exploit Miss Aitken’s recent comments about population decline in Glasgow and Detroit. Her argument was a reasonable one — if politically naive — and was not intended to compare Glasgow to the Michigan population centre, which grimly boasts the third-highest murder rate in the United States. But the fact that Labour sprung into action and charged her with ‘talking down Glasgow’ — a nifty appropriation of the SNP’s favourite catchphrase — shows they know they’ve met their match.
For Labour, May 4 will be a salvage operation.
And what of the smaller parties? The Liberal Democrats lost almost 100 seats last time round, punished for their UK colleagues’ decision to go into coalition with the Tories. (How we long for simpler times when that was the great outrage rocking political life.) But the party has reached a floor in support that it has been building on. Willie Rennie has positioned his party as the only pro-UK, pro-EU party, opposing a second referendum on Scottish independence while demanding a further plebiscite to keep Britain in Europe. Rennie and his colleagues will be hoping this unique stance brings them the votes of centrists alarmed by the prospect of a Brussels breakaway shaped by the Tory right and dismissive of the SNP’s costly and divisive push for independence.
The Lib Dems are famed as crafty (and dirty) local campaigners but in this election it could be national issues that initiates the party’s slow return to political relevance.
The Scottish Greens are hardly key players in council politics but they have a distinct advantage in their longstanding attachment to localism and taking more power from the centre so that decisions can be made in the communities that will be affected by them. The Scottish Government has a lengthy and ignoble track record of centralisation, the crown jewel being their now-defunct council tax freeze which was electorally popular with hard-pressed families but imposed brutal cuts on local services.
Set against this backdrop the Greens should be poised to clean up but even here, Tip O’Neill’s apophthegm could be in for a shoeing. Patrick Harvie’s decision to abandon his party’s manifesto pledge and back a second independence referendum on Nicola Sturgeon’s terms has not gone down well with people who thought they were voting for an environmentalist party rather than the SNP juniors six-a-side team. Mr Harvie built up a reputation as a serious politician during the referendum; remember it was he who was willing (at least at first) to dissent from Alex Salmond’s Acme currency union and point out the strange ticking noise coming from within.
But like the SNP, Mr Harvie has refused to accept the 2014 referendum is over and to that end has transformed his party into a constitution-first, climate-change-later outfit. Despite his politics being far to the left of the average Scot, those who wear their bleeding heart on their sleeve have been willing to lend him their vote in the past. In return, they trusted him to keep the rest of them honest. They may have voted for an independence supporter but they didn’t vote for a yes-man. Now that he has gone from green to a paler shade of yellow, will the Conscience of Kelvinside be able to hold onto their votes or might they decide the Greens’ pusillanimity at Holyrood is a bad omen for how bold they would be in local government?
Much is at stake on May 4 but local services won’t necessarily be at the top of the agenda. We will find out if what’s local is what still matters or if Scotland is the exception to Tip O’Neill’s rule and all politics here is now national.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.