Thursday, April 11, 2013

Is there not more to unite, than divide us?

Its the Council's main Corporate Policy and Strategy Committee meeting next Tuesday, the 16th April ... all the papers are now out and available here ... you'll see that there are several reports on Welfare Reform.

As regular blog readers will know, the main Welfare Reform changes (especially the Bedroom Tax) have featured heavily in recent debates in-and-around the City Chambers ... I'll provide just a few, relevant links:

  • Council help and general information is here
  • I referred to much of this myself last week - here
  • the Edinburgh Labour site ran an update on our joint Labour/SNP position, on the Bedroom Tax, which can be seen here
  • there was some coverage yesterday, in the Evening News, on next week's Committee Reports - you can see that here
  • on the back of this formal Council News Release - here
  • I was subsequently asked to do a piece for The Scotsman contrasting our local Labour/SNP solution with the Holyrood stalemate ... the newspaper has run that article this morning, and I'll simply re-produce it below - and, as ever, would welcome any constructive feedback:

Is there not more to unite, than divide us?

Take just one topical subject – the Bedroom Tax.

Here in the Edinburgh Council Chambers, the local Labour Party and Scottish National Party have managed to forge a joint-position which will mean a ‘No Eviction’ policy for the Council tenants affected, as long as they are constructively engaging with the local authority. Many other Councils, with a variety of local coalitions, have managed to arrive at more or less the same position.

Specifically, we are ensuring that those tenants who are subject to the under occupancy charge and build up arrears because their housing benefit no longer covers their rent, are not going to be evicted. They will have to show that they have done all that could reasonably be expected of them to avoid falling into arrears and we will pursue the collection of arrears ... but will not evict in those circumstances. Frankly, the last thing we want is to make people homeless and then have to pick up the even more costly pieces of destroyed lives. 

Yet, glance at Holyrood and you’d be forgiven for thinking that such a joint SNP/Labour agreement on the Bedroom Tax was a simple, human impossibility. This attack on the poor and vulnerable should certainly enable us to unite at both a local and a national level. But, the level of tribal antagonism … and it does come across as near-hatred … between our respective parties’ activists, particularly on social-media, is pernicious. It’s enough to switch the most interested individual off politics altogether.

Most political commentators, and certainly many researchers, would acknowledge that trust has broken down badly between the electorate and politicians at all levels of government and I believe that  this kind of unnecessary tribalism certainly does not help. For me, we’ll never successfully re-invigorate our democracy if we can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge that there’s a problem to solve and to change the way we do things politically. Business as usual just cannot, sensibly be an option.

It was doing things differently that enabled historically bitter enemies to create a Labour / Scottish National Party coalition in Edinburgh’s City Chambers after last May’s council elections. Most thought that Steve Cardownie and I were not natural bedfellows and they were right. And on the face of it neither are Alex Salmond and Johan Lamont. But, learning to put one’s ego aside and take a pragmatic approach to make a much bigger impact together, than you would apart, is surely a prize worth striving for. 

Out of Scotland’s 32 Local Councils, Edinburgh was the only one to form such a two-party Labour/SNP Coalition. And, I think it’s fair to say that the arrangement came as a bit of a surprise to many who did not believe the two parties could ever work together – at any level. Coalition politics by its nature means acknowledging differences as well as developing relationships built on trust and mutual respect and I’m not claiming this was without its difficulties.

It just doesn’t stop at forming a coalition though. In a few weeks’ time, Edinburgh’s Capital Coalition will have been running Scotland’s capital city for a full year. Our joint programme to radically transform the way that services are planned, managed and delivered, and move Edinburgh towards being a truly co-operative council will ultimately be what matters. We want council services to be transformed by shifting power; so that the council is working much more ‘in partnership’ with the local people it is ultimately here to serve.

And we have embarked on a new approach to what we do. This has included some very radical actions including establishing the first Council Petitions Committee in Edinburgh to enable local residents to have an additional channel to raise issues of concern, with their elected representatives, and directly with the Council.

We have completely revised our budgetary processes, to be much more open and interactive across the political divide, as well as with the public, by publishing an early draft budget thus allowing months of debate and discussion before any final decisions were made. 

And yes, our electorate and city stakeholders can only interact positively with us if they know what we stand for and have the ability to judge us on delivering it.  That  is why our Capital Coalition published a new ‘Contract with the Capital’ which set out over fifty clear service and policy commitments in some detail and the ‘monitoring against delivery’ of those promises is live and very visible via the front-page of the main Council website:

I’d be so bold as to contest that even our local, political opponents – whilst not agreeing with everything we’ve done – would acknowledge that we’re certainly doing politics differently.  If we’re to stand any chance of rejuvenating our political culture at a Scottish level, and regaining the trust and respect of the electorate, we surely must not allow party interests to get in the way of good policies and a refreshed approach to doing business, yet I see little evidence of this.

Here locally, we have managed to agree on every significant issue facing the capital city of Scotland for nearly a year now and whilst it would be silly to deny that we have not had our moments of tension – as I watch our respective Holyrood colleagues, Johann Lamont and Alex Salmond, slog it out every Thursday at FMQs, I can’t help but think we’re not doing too badly. 

Okay, the raging constitutional debate in Scotland may not affect us Councillors as directly as MSPs – but are you really telling me that there are simply no issues on which our MSPs can cooperate for the next 18-months as we await the referendum?

All that said, I completely understand the importance of the decision we’ll all have to make on Thursday 18th September 2014. I understand the reality that the constitutional debate, in the run-up to that decision, is going to dominate Scottish politics for the next 18-months.

But do we really need to suspend all political cooperation, on all issues, during that period?

Frankly, especially against the backdrop of current UK-politics, I happen to think Labour and the SNP fundamentally agree on a huge swathe of domestic issues. Issues that really have nothing to do with the constitutional debate, on which I acknowledge we are obviously divided.

Here in the City Chambers of Edinburgh, we’re not going to suspend all cooperation on local political issues because of that constitutional divide.

Councillor Andrew Burns
Leader of the City of Edinburgh Council


Richard Thomson said...

Well said, Andrew. It is entirely possible for reasonable people to disagree fundamentally on some issues in politics, yet still work together in the areas where they do agree.

Scotland would be a far better place if only more people in all parties would allow themselves to recognise that.



Andrew said...

Many thanks for the feedback Richard - much appreicated, Andrew.