Tom Gordon: Party brawls are a sign the coming elections matter

There is no respite from democracy, I’m afraid. As the year of the Holyrood election slips out of view, so the year of the council elections comes into focus.

I admit I have a soft spot for the local elections. When I started out as a reporter, I covered Glasgow City Council and spent far too many weekends with my nose in piles of committee agendas and officer reports, truffling for hidden treasure.

But a love of town hall intrigue and planning applications is a minority taste.

The council elections are the municipal minnows of Scotland’s political realm, rated far below the Holyrood and Westminster votes in terms of excitement and import, and barely a speck when set next to the razzmatazz of a referendum.

Reminding people that councils account for around a quarter of the Holyrood budget and half the country’s public sector workforce seems to make little difference.

Or that they deliver education, social work and care services. Or housing, parks, refuse collection, fostering, street lighting and road repairs. Or that councillors are consistently rated the most trusted class of politicians. Electors know all this, yet the elections themselves never quite ignite.

Turnout at the last Scottish council elections in 2017 increased sharply, but was still a dispiriting 46 per cent, compared to 66% at the snap general election that followed just a month later, 68% at the 2019 general election and 63.5% at last year’s Holyrood election.

Fingers crossed, this year will be different, and punters will stampede to the polls like wildebeest. Well, perhaps.

Turnout has only topped 50% in four of the 12 Scottish local elections of the past half century, according to the House of Commons library. It slumped below a pitiful 40% as recently as 2013. But don’t write them off yet.

There are signs the parties are taking this year’s elections very seriously. They’re being fractious and vicious, for one thing.

HeraldScotland: SNP MSP Karen Adam and Alba general secretary Chris McElenySNP MSP Karen Adam and Alba general secretary Chris McEleny

Take this week’s ugly spat between Alba general secretary Chris McEleny and SNP MSP Karen Adam. The former accused the latter of trying to “humanise paedophiles” after she tweeted – perfectly reasonably – that sexual predators live in communities and families where they hide their true nature, rather than advertise it.

“Paedophiles and predators are people. Not bogey men under the bed,” she wrote.

READ MORE: Police investigate ‘death threats’ against SNP MSP Karen Adam in paedophile row with Alba party

After Mr McEleny called her an “ideological zealot” trying to “humanise the most vile behaviour in society”, the Banffshire MSP, who is herself a survivor of child sexual assault, received death threats, including being told she would be “put through a woodchipper”.

It was impossible to believe, on any fair reading, that Ms Adam was ever trying to excuse or normalise child rapists. That is deranged.

Mr McEleny is not deranged. But having tanked at the Holyrood election, and facing an existential fight in May, Alba is desperate to throw all sorts of mud at the SNP, effectively its main rival for votes.

Alex Salmond’s party has for months been trying to portray the SNP as not just weak on independence, but woke to the point of weird on sex and gender matters.

Mr McEleny’s attack was an extreme extension of that. It rightly backfired, but there will be others as Alba keeps trying to peel Yes voters away from Ms Sturgeon.

READ MORE: Alba Party sets sights on SNP in council elections

The low politics risks feeding an impression of Yes movement disunity and faction fighting. The need for the Scottish Greens to underscore their differences with the SNP at the election, to avoid being portrayed as their patsies in government, may well reinforce it.

The local elections have also stirred up debate over the future of the Scottish Tories. Former chair Peter Duncan wrote at the weekend that the “continuing chaos in Downing Street” was hurting the party.

Tory councillors feel like the “fall guys” for the “incompetence” of Number 10, he said, before touting his universal solution to Scottish Tory troubles – quit the CCHQ mothership and have a separate party north of the border doing its own thing.

It’s an idea he’s been hawking for years, but Boris Johnson’s scandal-packed administration has given him a fresh chance to run it past unhappy activists.

“The omnishambles of recent months confirms that there is, indeed, nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come,” he said.

That Mr Duncan seized the moment isn’t surprising. More interesting is the vehemence with which others have tried to shoot it down. Aberdeenshire Tory MP Andrew Bowie said voters would see any new vehicle as the Scottish Tories by another name, so what’s the point?

While Ruth Davidson, after voicing her despair of Mr Johnson and desire for a replacement, begged colleagues to hold their nerve amid the “mid-term jitters”.

Trying to get a new party ready by May could prove “electoral suicide”, she added.

READ MORE: Ruth Davidson – Replace Boris Johnson to restore ‘moral authority’

She’s right. Alba ably demonstrated the folly of a pop-up party just last year.

But I don’t think that’s Mr Duncan’s plan. He knows the Tories are the party most likely to go down in May, as they had the most dramatic rise in support in 2017.

The SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Greens barely moved four years ago, while Labour lost a third of its councillors. The Tories increasing their numbers by 140%, from 115 to 276, overtaking Labour to become the second largest party at a local level.

Even minus Mr Johnson, the Tories will struggle to maintain their councillor tally. With him, it seems like a given. I think Mr Duncan and his fellow separatists expect a disappointing night and are teeing up an ‘I told you so’ moment so they can double down on their idea, which Mr Bowie and Ms Davidson fear will help Labour and the SNP. So more disunity there, then.

For others, it’s about momentum. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both have newish leaders, and both want to show the recent good news in polls and byelections for their parent parties south of the border doesn’t run out at Carlisle.

Ms Sturgeon meanwhile has Indyref2 to consider. To hit her timetable of a vote by late 2023, she has to get cracking with the legislation and other mechanics this year.

If she makes Indyref2 an issue in May, a good result would help her claim momentum and a reinforced mandate, even if Mr Johnson isn’t persuaded by either of them to concede a vote.

But putting Indyref2 up front also offers a big target for Unionist parties to aim for, especially the Tories who might otherwise be on the back foot with the PM.

Then again, downplaying the issue scuppers a fresh mandate argument, offers Alba a target to attack from the Yes side, and lets Unionists say she’s given up because the public are against her.

If the SNP do poorly in May – perhaps lose control of Glasgow – her case for Indyref2 also takes a hit, as it suggests it’s losing momentum. Choices, choices…

Survival, revival, the Prime Minister, the First Minister, the constitution and some bare-knuckle street-fighting.

My old council chums will groan at the extraneous factors tainting what ought to be a straight vote on local services, but it was ever thus. And if they help May’s elections ignite, so much the better.

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