Luke Stronach: We can’t allow a coalition with the Tories

Luke Stronach, the Aberdeen Labour activist who started the petition to block a council coalition with the Tories, sets out how we got here and why we can't allow this coalition to go ahead:

Since the 17th of May 2017 - in the midst of a general election - Aberdeen City Council has been without a single Scottish Labour Party councillor due to the administrative suspension of the nine councillors elected under the Labour banner only days earlier per Appendix 6, Rules for Local Government Labour Groups, Clause X in the Scottish Labour handbook.

More than a year later, the Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) recommended to the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) that the Aberdeen nine have their membership reviewed. The resulting referral has led to a regrettable split in Aberdeen, between those who support the nine and those who support the decision of the SEC.

In order to understand why this suspension took effect-and why many local members are in favour of the SEC, ruling-one needs to look at the local history of Aberdeen City Council and the results of the local election of 2017.

After the 2012 elections, in which Scottish Labour leapfrogged an ebbing and increasingly unpopular SNP administration, an administration of 17 Scottish Labour councillors, three Tories and two Independents was formed.

It may, therefore, be reasonable to ask, why were the councillors not punished for this previous deal? But, it must be remembered that this deal was not made in defiance of an SEC ruling, it did not involve being junior partners to a Tory council and, most tellingly, that we were subsequently punished for it by the electorate anyway.

Looking back at the SNP 2017 campaign, you would only need to take a cursory glance at their campaign literature to see that this was being exploited even before we entered into a formal coalition as junior partners. Leaflets entitled “Can Aberdeen afford 5 more years of Labour and Tory rule?”, littered references to the “Labour/Tory administration” in the local manifesto and more than a few instances where former Labour voters told me and other activists on the doorstep they “couldn’t stand to let the Tories in” confirmed that our previous loose alliance with the Tories had cost us dearly.

And cost us it did, despite a hasty rebranding during the short campaign towards “Aberdeen Labour”. During the 2017 election, Labour in Aberdeen was reduced to 9 councillors from our previous 18, with a swing against us of 12.8%. In the most notable result of the night, the Labour Finance Convener lost his seat despite being the sole Labour candidate in his ward during an STV election.

We believe that it is no stretch of the imagination to claim that this result was in large part due to the unpopularity of the preceding Scottish Labour/Tory coalition, which attracted widespread criticism for attempting to criminalise begging and pushing through the development of a third shopping centre in Aberdeen (despite the decay of our historic and beloved ‘Granite Mile’ of Union Street) against the wishes of residents groups, who formed a human chain around the planned site.

By forming another alliance with the Tories-this time as junior partners- the SNP have been handed a gift few could want more from. A brief look at the Aberdeen SNP website will reveal that they feel vindicated in continuing the ‘Red Tory’ smear which has pervaded Scottish politics since 2014. On the page entitled ‘Aberdeen City Council’, the SNP have put up their stall already, entitled “Red and Blue TORIES team up”. And how can Labour activists be expected /to argue against this point on the doorstep, when Aberdeen councillors have now chosen to go into coalition with the Tories not once, but twice?

Scottish Labour cannot win constituencies such as Aberdeen North and South at the next general election by fuelling the SNP with the idea that we are “virtually indistinguishable from the "blue" variety (of Tories)”.

It is true that coalitions under STV are inevitable. But it is also true that coalitions with the Tories and breaking established party rules are not only electorally damaging but morally regrettable. We have not only seen that the Lib Dems have been reduced to a remnant of their former selves, correctly tainted by their association with the cruel coalition government of 2010-15, but also that we have suffered for our own association during Better Together with the Tories, losing all but one of our seats in 2015, a result we are still recovering from.

The SEC has correctly deduced that we should learn from the mistakes of the past and push for a progressive Scottish Labour movement free of the shackles of the ‘unionism vs nationalism’ narrative that the SNP so crave. For this reason, I began a petition to the NCC supporting the SEC decision, and I sincerely hope that the SEC decision is not derailed by a minority of members who will unwittingly repeat the mistakes of the past.

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