Members of Edinburgh’s Labour group have insisted they are taking ‘Tory votes’ but not ‘Tory policies’ as they sought to justify a deal that has seen them seize control of the city council.
On Thursday morning, councillors decided who will take control of Edinburgh Council for the next five years, having had a choice between two very different minority administrations.
The only plan for a formal coalition was submitted by the SNP and Greens, who together have 29 seats – three short of a majority.
The agreement – backed by 97% of Edinburgh Green Party members on Tuesday night and published earlier today – combines both groups’ manifestos and includes commitments to regulate short-term lets, introduce a workplace parking levy, congestion charge and tourist tax, create more segregated and contiguous cycle routes and establish an Accessibility Commission.
But despite the SNP claiming the largest number of seats on the council, the two parties’ shared vision was defeated by Labour plans to form a minority administration.
Labour have 13 councillors, and have won the support of the Liberal Democrats (12 seats) and the Conservatives (9 seats) – in return for some committee positions, which sources have said has caused “nervousness” among some in the group.
Labour will offer the Tories the new role of Licensing Board vice convener for Jason Rust and Licensing Sub Committee convener for Jo Mowat.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems could take up three convener positions as part of the deal: Licensing Board for Louise Young, Regulatory Committee for Neil Ross and the Development Management Sub-Committee for Hal Osler.
Labours proposals also include a plan to scrap vice conveners on executive committees such as planning, transport and education – with some suggesting it’s because they don’t have enough councillors to fill all the roles.
A Labour source admitted the deal is “not perfect by any means”, adding the jobs offered to Conservative councillors “don’t give them any political influence”.
They added: “We’ve been trying to take the city forward and we’re taking Tory votes to do that but we’re not taking Tory policies.
“What we’re doing with the Tories, if we’re taking about committee convenerships and more substantial roles then I think we’d be in a different place but we’ve went nowhere near giving them a say on the politics of how the city’s run. It’s not ideal though.”
However, an SNP insider insisted the Labour-Tory-Lib Dem deal was a coalition.
They said: “All of our positions in Edinburgh have a policy remit. Other councils maybe operate differently where they can give quasi-judicials to other people and it doesn’t affect the policy; Edinburgh is not in that case. Every role has a policy function within the administration. So any role that goes to a Tory or Liberal Democrat is immediately putting them in a coalition.”
The source described an administration with 13 councillors and no official agreement in place as “paralysis” for the local authority.
“It’s absolute stagnation of anything, nothing will move,” they said. “If Labour thinks it can do a deal with the Liberal Democrats and Tories to keep them in office but do deals with the SNP and Greens to keep them in power delivering their agenda they will come up against reality very very quickly. And the reality is they will find themselves going increasingly to their paymasters who are the Conservative Party.”
A Green Party source added the three-way informal agreement is a “potential recipe for chaos”.
“The officers don’t know who’s leading, there’s no set-out vision, there’s no set-out commitments, there’s nothing to adhere to,” they said.
“As far as I can see it’s just about taking the posts, taking the levers but not having a clear vision of where the city is going. We’re going to work positively with whoever.
“Clearly, Labour, the SNP and Greens have much more in common, it’s a progressive agenda looking at poverty, fairness, climate change and if you compare that there’s definitely two political blocs – and the crying shame is that Labour have been ruled out of joining what is the biggest party left of centre bloc and I think the danger for them is that the people who voted for them see them now going into something with the Tories and Lib Dems and they’re going to wonder.”
SNP group leader Adam McVey accused Labour of presenting “no clear policy platform and no clear means of implementing it” and “undoing the principles of democracy by ignoring the election result”.
Councillor McVey, who served as council leader over the last five years, made a final plea to its ex-coalition partner, saying “it is not too late” – a call echoed by Scottish Greens co-leader Lorna Slater.
She said: “Even at this late stage, I am urging Edinburgh’s Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors to work with us, rather than the Tories.
“We must grasp this crucial opportunity to build the fairer, greener city that our communities voted for.”
The Liberal Democrats have confirmed their unanimous support for a minority Labour administration, but said they will remain a “constructive opposition party”.
A Lib Dem source said: “I think it will require the Labour party to reach out, build bridges, to find areas of consensus – I think that’ll be a good thing for the council.
“On the basis of the two options that are going to be available, the Labour minority option offers the best chance for the kind of change we want to see.
“But equally we have been clear that where we agree with the administration we’ll vote with them, where we don’t think they’re doing the right thing we’ll say so and vote accordingly.”
Lib Dem members were warned of the consequences of abstaining from Thursday’s vote during a meeting of the group earlier this week – which was intended to be held in private but was briefly broadcast over a virtual training session for all councillors after a microphone was accidentally left on.
In a recording shared with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, councillor Kevin Lang is heard saying: “Let’s be frank, if we sit on our hands it’s going to be the SNP that’s going to be in.”
Asked if the group’s decision came from a desire to block the SNP from power rather than support for Labour’s manifesto, councillor Lang replied: “If you simply look at the numbers then it’s pretty clear that if Liberal Democrats abstain tomorrow, you would have an SNP-led administration.
“So we as a group need to make a judgement on what the right thing to do is. We’re not giving the Labour party a blank check, we’re giving them a chance to prove themselves but we retain our right to vote with them or vote against them.”