JUST when we were building up to the big electoral enchilada on May 4, it now looks like the council poll will be a mere amuse bouche for the main course on June 8.
It’s impossible not to see the Scottish council vote as a dry run for the General Election, with both inextricably linked with support for, or opposition to, a second independence referendum; but before anyone starts blaming one party or another for national issues contaminating the local poll, the reality is that voters are making up their own minds about what the election is about and it’s clear from the doorsteps that national issues have been dominating local conversations for months.
Take the fellow I came across hanging out his ground floor window in Restalrig enjoying a fag in the Easter weekend sunshine. It was not the most promising of doorstep conversations when, like a triumphant poker player, the chap produced his copy of the Wings over Scotland Wee Blue Book to match my bundle of Scottish Conservative election leaflets.
“Yer wasting yer time giving me one of those,” he said, before quickly asking to know where I stood on the Rape Clause and then quizzing me about why “only” eight frigates were going to be built on the Clyde. He cheerily emphasised he had nothing against me personally, thanked me for coming round and added, somewhat surprisingly, that when independence comes “Scotland will need Conservatives”. So at least I went on my way with some sort of agreement.
What he didn’t talk about was local matters and for all I know he might well have agreed with the Edinburgh Conservatives’ position on, for example, trams or the 20mph speed limit, but that’s not what was at the front of his mind. Nationalist supporters who don’t engage with the likes of me do so because of established positions based on many factors, with council affairs unlikely to feature prominently. By the same token, non-SNP supporters are as keen to talk about what can be done to prevent a second independence referendum as how roads and pavements can be improved.
Yet there has been criticism in some quarters that the council elections are being infected by national issues, and indeed one voter from Abbeyhill, a Labour supporter who has switched to the Greens, emailed to accuse me of being a “non-person”, whatever that is, because he hadn’t heard of me and the latest leaflet wasn’t local enough for his liking. Ok, so he hadn’t seen the previous three which were all about local affairs, but he’s entitled to his opinion.
The point is that voters will make up their own minds what the election means to them and act accordingly, and the only way to ensure national politics does not influence local votes would be to ban party politics altogether, as is already the case with community councils. And look how engaged the public is with them.
It’s unrealistic to expect national concerns to play no part in local outcomes when the political apparatus is common to both; the issue now is the extent to which the public regard it only as a rehearsal for June 8 and the usual low turn-out is even lower. After all, the principle of sending a political message via the ballot box is bound to be diluted when you can send another one in four weeks’ time.
At least it gets the pollsters off the hook for a few days at least, because low turn-out or not, with elections in the south for county councils and mayors on the same day as the Scottish local government vote it will still be a bigger sampling exercise that any of them will ever have enjoyed so close to a General Election.
It will also give the parties their marching orders for what needs to be done, and for those who have been campaigning for the past four months, that means new boots.
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