A chance to serve
John Ruddy says Labour contests elections in order to make lives better, and in local government winning the power to do that means forging coalition deals with other parties.
The purpose of the Labour party is to win power in order to deliver the change that makes the lives of working people better. It should be obvious, but sadly it seems that we need to restate it. It’s right there in Clause 1 of our constitution, and is as true in the council chamber as it is at Holyrood or Westminster.
In the recent local government campaign, local Labour parties across Scotland drew up their manifestos, reflecting our common Labour values but with policies and priorities that meet local needs. Some would have built on the work of an outgoing Labour-led council, while others would have sought to address the legacy of our opponents. And going into this election, everyone would have known there was very little chance of any party, in any council, getting the opportunity to run a majority in order to implement their policies unmodified. It was true under the old First Past the Post system, and its even more the case with the Single Transferable Vote system delivering results that better reflect the choices of the public.
So once the votes have been cast, and the verdicts given, it is up to Labour councillors up and down the country to find a way to implement as much as possible of their local manifesto pledges. In some councils this wont be possible, as there may not be enough Labour councillors to have influence. But in others we may be in a position to dictate to other parties. Everywhere will be different, and local circumstances, and local personalities will all play a part.
And here is whether another part of our constitution comes into play: Clause 4 says we achieve more together than we do alone. With so many councils lacking a single party majority, we can only achieve Labour policies by working together with others. We can only implement the good things, and just as importantly prevent others implementing the bad things, by being in power.
The best people to strike that balance, to decide which things are more important than others and what compromises need to be made, are the local people on the ground – the councillors and activists who worked to deliver the votes that got the party into its position of influence.
For many years Scottish Labour has been accused of being a “branch office” of London, working at the beck and call of the party in England. Recent rule changes placed power over policy, selections and much more squarely in Scottish Labour’s hands. So just as the party in Scotland is best placed to make decisions about Scotland, so the party in Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Dumfries is best placed to make the decisions about their communities, and how best to represent them.
That’s why each local party writes its own manifesto and runs its own campaign. The alternative is to have Labour’s ruling Scottish Executive Committee write the manifesto for each and every council in the country, manage the local negotiations and only form an administration if it is implemented in full.
The choice is ours. One option is to always be sat on the sidelines, carping at those with power but never taking on responsibility, never actually standing up for those we represent, and ultimately letting down the people who need Labour values and Labour policies the most. The other option is to seek power through compromise. For without power, we cannot serve. And a chance to serve, that is all we ask.