24 March 2009

Showdown in the City of Discovery

Well, well, well. Following the Maryfield By-Election, which ended the Grand Unionist Coalition's majority on Dundee City Council, I predicted that Councillor Ian Borthwick would hold all the cards, whereas Grogipher - regular correspondent and friend of this blog - suggested that internal ructions in the other parties would prove telling. Give that man a coconut, is all I can say.

Lord Provost, John Letford, has quit the Labour party, and is now an independent Councillor. This now places the parties at SNP 14, Labour 8, Conservatives 3, LibDems 2 and Independents 2. Significantly, the Unionist parties now have fewer members between them than the SNP on its own. More significantly, Councillor Letford has let it be known that he will support the formation of an SNP administration on Monday.

It goes without saying that there is some scepticism regarding his decision: Stuart airs it and, sadly, I am inclined to agree: Councillor Letford claims to have wanted an all-party administration, and to have been unhappy at the SNP being shut out. Yet for six years, he was happy to be the Civic Leader of the Council whose largest political group was isolated. Given the timing of his decision to convert opinions into action, it's hard not to see Letford as a political weathervane.

Jeff, as it happens, goes further and argues Councillor Letford's move to political independence is anti-democratic. He's right: Letford was elected on a Labour platform, but the reality of our system is that with the exceptions of European elections and the List component of Holyrood elections, it's the person who gets elected rather than the party. Granted, the party is what gets them elected most of the time, but that doesn't change the fact that it's the individual candidate who gets the victory at the end. And even in the two exceptions I noted, those returned can do their own thing once they're Parliamentarians: Dorothy-Grace Elder, Margo MacDonald, Campbell Martin, Brian Monteith, Tommy Sheridan and Rosemary Byrne can all attest to that. So it's a pretty barmy system.

But we know that: while the Maryfield By-Election which triggered this whole situation was a clear SNP win, its consequence was to leave the electors of that ward with no representatives from any party other than the SNP. Given that even in the By-Election which saw the SNP vote increase, 52% of voters cast their first preference for a candidate from another party, they have the right to feel a little aggrieved when STV is meant to be a proportional system.

And even if Letford were to resign, democracy would have come late to Dundee City Council, with the most popular party excluded completely from administration by a convoluted arrangement in which even the official Labour/LD coalition had fewer Councillors than the SNP group before the By-Election and defection. In short, the situation was barking mad to begin with, and subsequent events have merely continued in that vein.

Indeed, they look set to get even stranger. Doubtless as a nod to Councillor Letford, the SNP have said that 'quasi-judicial' Convenerships such as the Licensing Board will not necessarily be in the hands of the administration-designate, which will be content to restrict its control to the policy committees. They propose letting Letford keep the LP's office, with Ian Borthwick as Depute. The latter would prefer an all-party administration but agreement appears to have been reached. And unless it's a formal Coalition with the two independents, the SNP still do not have 'control' of the Council even after the administration is formed: were the two independents to vote with the Opposition on any policy, that would make 15 Councillors to the SNP's 14: a defeat.

Labour, of course, are smarting somewhat from this: to a degree, they have resigned themselves to Opposition but intend to propose Councillor Borthwick as Lord Provost and SNP Councillor Liz Fordyce as Depute. She has told them where they can stick that idea, but they may still proceed with it. Further, the Labour Group Leader, Kevin Keenan, has suggested that the Tories join the formal Labour-LibDem Coalition. Which would still be in opposition so is a bit pointless really.

The Tories, however, are up for this idea but only if it's called a Dundee Unionist Alliance. Which is fine until you realise that the Unionist-Nationalist dimension of Scottish politics is basically meaningless at Council level. And a refusal to work with the SNP flies in the face of their professed sympathy for Councillor Borthwick's idea of an all-party administration. They also don't want to be seen supporting the SNP but have no problem about supporting Labour, who their party will be casting as the enemy at the next Westminster election.

As for the LibDems, they "will not be participating in discussions taking place in smoke-filled rooms". Well, leaving aside the fact that there aren't any smoke-filled rooms anymore - not public ones, anyway - this seems equally rich as they were quite happy to prat about in one of the most contrived political combinations in Scottish local government.

So no one seems to come out of this shining. But if the vox pops in the Evening Telegraph are anything to go by, Councillor Letford may be the villain of the piece, but locals seem content to let the administration that he will be supporting have a fair crack of the whip.

And that's where we are: in less than a week, Dundee will have a new Council Leader. Whether or not things settle down, however, is another matter entirely.


Stuart Winton said...

A fine and balanced analysis.

Not clear what the SNP have in mind for the non-political portfolios, but Cllr Letford has both the licensing board and committee convenorships at the moment, so perhaps he's to be staying there, or maybe Cllr Borthwick will be offered one of those briefs to keep him on side in addition to the LPship, but who knows?

Or since the latter was pushing for a cross-party administration maybe he's persuaded the SNP to offer some of the non-political convenorships to the other parties as the price for his support.

But whatever happens it's certainly a good study in political promiscuity!

Grogipher said...

Thanks for the coconut; although I'd honestly prefer to be wearing the cheerleaders' outfit from the other post.. hehe :P

I do think everyone's being a bit hard on John though. He is, to all extents and purposes, a Labour man through and through. His eight little friends however, aren't. He believes in his city, the Labour party don't. From my dealings with my own Dundee Labour Cllr, I can most definitely confirm that they don't give a fuck about the people, and spend their time infighting.

It would not have been an easy decision for him at all. He's like my grandad; someone that I never thought wouldn't actually leave the party. It wouldn't have mattered just how much PFI or foundation hospitals or privatisation they went for - they just couldn't bring themself to leave; but hey, I was wrong.

The bickering amongst the party is clear from the press - the Tele, in it's impartial way, has rolled out former cllrs, former MPs, sitting MPs and sitting cllrs all to have a pop at him - I do not quite know what principles the oaf Keenan has that Mr Letford does not - I would be most delighted to be updated there.

I also wouldn't believe the validity of the Vox; I think far more people in Lochee would prefer Mr Letford, whatever badge he was wearing. But hey, what're my years of speaking to the folk of Charleston, Lochee, Balgay, Menzieshill and stuff got on two mins of a reporter who doesn't care trying to find old men on Lochee High Street?

I've addressed Jeff's points on his blog. His issue is with the electoral system, not the man.

I also would not be so quick to decide upon the Tories' actions. Although you can count the Liberal's votes to be stuck to Labour, the Tories have some soul searching to be getting on with.

Stuart Winton said...


Yes, the Tele certainly went to town on Mr Letford, and the vox seemed a bit dubious, but on the other hand it's an open goal.

Surely Labour supporters are bound to be alienated by his actions, but at the same time SNP voters are unlikely to warm to him either.

His appeal to principle looks insincere; as Will says, if he thought the idea of a cross-party administration was so attractive then why did he wait six years and until he saw the writing on the wall to do something about it?

If he'd resigned the LPship and pledged his support for the SNP as a 'backbencher' then this would have looked principled, but the actuality seems just too convenient and cosy for him.

scunnert said...

Thanks for the sitrep on Dundee politics - pure byzantine.

Ted Harvey said...

The most interesting things for me about this wee stushie are other, related, matters.

I was at the big regeneration conference in Dundee a few weeks back. The proverbial chat with taxi drivers and the all-important saloon bar chat, revealed a popular sense of real apprehension about just how well or, more likely, badly, Dundee is placed to contend with the worsening recession. Local politicians would do well to heed that sense of apprehension out there in their streets.

The second matter reflects Grogipher's comments about his grandfather being of that strain of Scotsmen and women who one could never see doing anything other than voting for their party no matter what. I forecast at the time of the last Scottish general election that thereafter there was a timebomb ticking away for the old Labour establishment in Scotland. Many, many tribal Labour voters did not support 'their' party for the first time in their life - a lesser number must have actually voted against it.

After that, with literally every day that passes and no sign of the end of life as we know it in a Scotland not ruled by Labour, the old tribalism falls away.

In fact, it's the UK economic roof that fell in - and many if not most Labour stalwarts and ex-stalwarts probably share everone else's sense that Gordon Brown along with Blair, 'Lord' Mandelson and assorted rich Labour grandees have well and truly screwed it up for all of us.

There must be some fundamental sea changes happening around all of this at the level of 'ordinary voter' politics - and I'm doing some darn hard thinking to try and capture what these things are... but they are surely not that the voters-in-the-Dundee-streets are all agog and talking of little else but the wee shenanigins and doings down at the Town Hall.

Grogipher said...

Perchance was that the SURF Conference?

I hear through the grapevine that Cllr Letford may have made some interesting comments about his colleagues at the Civic Reception the night before.

Ted Harvey said...

Grogipher sorry but I've only have just picked up on your comment above. It was the SURF conference. The guid Lord Provost didn't say anything in his formal address so far as I can recall that was really just a read-off-the-script usual stuff about Dundee being brilliant. But maybe somehting said in the chit chatting in the less formal networking afterwards? In which case it's maybe fair to leave it at that (on the basis that maybe I could have been embarrased at times by what slipped out over sharing a few wee goldies:-)

Grogipher said...

As I said, it was in the less formal bits beforehand.. The civic reception the night before.

Ted Harvey said...

Grogipher, yes it was the night before session I was speaking of, he did an address as part of the proceedings - badged as a 'Beer & Sandwiches'... very 70s eh?