Local Government and the May 2016 Holyrood Election

By Professor James Mitchell


This briefing assesses the likely role of local government in the May elections for the Scottish Parliament.

There are few areas of public policy under Holyrood’s remit that do not have local government implications, but the nature of national party political contests means that local issues can be drowned out.

While there are examples of local authorities being listened to during the referendum, the briefing argues that local government will struggle to be heard in the forthcoming election.

Education is likely to be more important than in the most recent two Holyrood elections. But any promises made in education and other prominent service areas may undermine local autonomy.

Public finance is likely to be a key issue, perhaps the dominant issue. So the election offers the chance to rebalance funding and spending responsibilities between local and national government, so that difficult spending decisions aren’t just devolved to local government. But parties with the most prospect of power are likely to trade warily on local tax reform, so this could result just in changes at the margin.

A blame game is likely to be played on the impact of cuts. And protecting any departmental spending — such as health— will have an impact on local government. The briefing concludes that one cannot feel optimistic about the prospects for local democracy being enhanced by the Holyrood Election.

Briefing in full

‘All politics is local’ was the mantra of Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives. But in the UK, it would be more accurate to say that electoral politics are rarely local. Even local elections tend to be dominated by national concerns and have long been seen as ‘second order’. Turnout is lower than in national elections; the electorate tends to use local elections to reward or punish central government regardless of the performance of local government; and local issues are subsumed under national concerns.

In national elections, the tendency is for the electorate to vote according to the performance of the governing party set against the likely performance of alternatives. Campaigns are fought at different levels but it is the national level that dominates. Local concerns are viewed through the prism of national commitments. Candidates for an unpopular party cannot distance themselves from the party in the way that regularly occurs in American elections. Party members who dare to offer a different view from the leadership or manifesto are unlikely to be selected or if they choose to be independent-minded after selection will lose national campaign resources and find themselves at the epicentre of unwanted attention as the party is accused of being split.

Elections are not the time for reflection or free-thinking but a time when candidates are expected to toe the party line. This makes it more difficult for a candidate to diverge from the party line once elected. As Kevin Pringle, former special adviser to First Minister Salmond, recently noted, the convention of collective cabinet responsibility has now become an unhealthy doctrine that Ministers, Parliamentarians, candidates and ordinary party members should unite on all policy matters (Sunday Times 10 January 2015). One consequence is that this drowns out localism and contributes to the nationalization of politics. There are occasional instances when a local concern breaks through and has a decisive impact on the result as in Strathkelvin and Bearsden in 2003 when an independent candidate took the seat from Labour on a health platform.

Important issues

In previous devolved elections, none of the parties were rated highly on specific policy areas but the SNP scored very well on how it was perceived to have governed Scotland, especially compared with expectations of the alternatives. The issues that were rated as important were not restricted to devolved matters (see Table below). Indeed, the constitution is formally a reserved matter but was unsurprisingly high up the list of the electorate’s important issues in 2007 and 2011.

As expected, issues stand out when one of the main parties gives high priority to a distinct policy. In 2007, the SNP’s proposal to freeze the council tax was rated relatively high in importance but as both Labour and Tories also supported this policy in 2011 the issue receded in significance. The likelihood is that the election will mark the end of the council tax freeze with all parties signing up to this change. This will signal a potentially major change for local government but may prove less important in the election unless there is some policy distinction between the parties.

The economic and fiscal crisis that occurred early in the 2007-11 Parliament ensured that the economy rose to prominence in 2011. Though most economic levers are retained by Westminster, the economy’s impact across public policy is immense, most notably affecting public finances.   It seems likely that this will be a major issue again.

The extent to which the European Union referendum plays a part in the election will partly depend on the date of the referendum. So far, the issue has not come close to capturing the public imagination in the way of the Scottish independence referendum. Concern has been expressed that the EU might overshadow the Scottish elections or vice versa. The EU referendum will be far more significant in May than was the referendum on the Alternative Vote, held on the same day as 2011 Holyrood elections.

‘What was the single most important issue for you when deciding how to vote in the Scottish Parliament election?’ (open ended), 2007 and 2011

2007 2011 Change 2007-11
Constitutional question 26 15 -11
Council tax 9 3 -6
Health 7 2 -5
Crime 7 2 -5
Education 6 4 -2
Economy 6 33 +27
Defence/military 5 1 -4
Environment/energy 3 0 -3
Others 31 39 +8
Other specific issues 7
Parties – general 13
Government record 5
Scottish interests 10
Leaders 3
Local candidate 2
N 916 1134

Source: Carman, Johns, Mitchell (2013), More Scottish Than British: The 2011 Scottish Parliament Election, Palgrave, p.87.

At the moment, the signs are that education will prove more important in 2016 than it did in the last two Holyrood elections. Education is, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon noted in a lecture a year ago, a ‘shared endeavour’. It is an example of an issue that has significant local government implications. The different ‘levels’ of government rarely have complete autonomy in any public policy area. But complex systems of government and complex issues are crudely simplified in electoral contests in which blame and credit are debated in binary adversarial contests. There are few areas of public policy under Holyrood’s remit that do not have local government implications, not least due to the stated significance of community planning partnerships. While successful policy has to take account of local conditions, such nuance rarely finds voice in binary electoral politics.

The First Minister has staked her reputation on closing the attainment in education. In a recent speech she identified four key educational priorities: raising attainment; closing the attainment gap; improving health and wellbeing; and improving employability. She insisted that education would be central to the SNP if elected for a third term. While the First Minister has already announced initiatives, the SNP is likely to be keen to underscore this commitment in its manifesto and in the forthcoming campaign. Other parties will be obliged to follow this lead and give prominence to education in debates over the coming months.

The likelihood is that the parties will seek to impress the electorate with the importance they attach to education by making promises that may undermine local autonomy. Politicians at the centre – whether in opposition or government – feel an unstoppable urge to be seen to be doing something and that normally involves taking a highly interventionist centrist stance as well as setting standards that are almost invariably uniform standards. The result is less autonomy for more important policy areas.

Putting an issue on the agenda in the context of a national election can adversely affect decentralisation. The shared endeavour across central and local government required for success in many policy areas is always in danger of imbalance with parties in Holyrood setting goals and standards, and local authorities reduced to delivering on these. Local government may not itself have played a prominent part in previous elections but local government is at the heart of many issues that have been important.

Whether there is a single local government voice or interest is doubtful on many, if any, issues. By definition, local issues do not lend themselves to common solutions – a national position on local issues might seem like an oxymoron but there are issues that are core to local government as a whole. It is difficult to agree a common view transcending local and party political differences and interests. The enduring difficulties faced by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) to find a common voice on a range of matters contributes to the ‘nationalisation’ of Holyrood elections.

Successful insinuation of local matters into the campaign

Scotland’s three island local authorities proved adept in insinuating themselves into the Scottish referendum. Our Islands, Our Future was a model of how to insinuate a local campaign into a high profile national battleground. The three island authorities – Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles – avoided taking sides in the referendum but forced both UK and Scottish Governments to listen and respond to their demands for greater autonomy. They managed to find common cause on a range of matters crucially underpinned by a demand for greater autonomy and steered a careful path through the highly adversarial debate on Scotland’s constitutional future. While there was disappointment with the UK Government’s response, the islands won concessions from both Governments.

After the referendum, the Scottish Government appointed a Minister with specific responsibility for the islands and reconvened the Islands Area Ministerial Working group to consider further measures. Aconsultation on the islands closed just before Christmas with the probability that proposals for further measures giving greater autonomy to the islands will likely appear in the SNP manifesto.

This will almost inevitably mean that all main parties will include some further provisions for Scotland’s islands in their manifestos. The islands have once more shown leadership in asserting their interests without making any recommendation as to how to vote and encouraging the main parties to compete in what they will offer the islands. This is likely to be the most successful example of local authorities forcing the parties to dance to their tune.


Budgets are tight and set to become tighter over the coming years. This is likely to be a key issue, perhaps the dominant issue, in the coming elections. Few politicians enjoy making cuts. Cuts cannot be avoided but decision-makers at all levels will try to avoid responsibility for cuts. A blame-game will feature heavily in these elections. Each level of government and each party will find reason to blame some other or, more likely, others for past and prospective cuts.

The blame game is relatively straightforward in a simple two party system with two levels of government but Scotland’s complex multi-party system and multi-level system of government means that this game becomes complex. But the game remains essentially the same: it is always someone else’s fault. The three main parties are in or share office at some level so will be unable to avoid criticism, deserved or otherwise.

The system of government encourages the devolution of penury. Unpopular or difficult choices are pushed down or out forcing others’ to do what amounts to the dirty work. This happens all the time – UK Government cuts the Scottish grant, Scottish Government cuts local authority grants and local government cuts third sector grants. The choices become ever more difficult the closer decisions are made to communities and the public. There is no agreement on the terms of debate. It is always possible to highlight some measure within the constellation of public spending that illustrates either cuts or protection of public spending.

The only way that responsibility could be injected into the system would be if different levels of government shared responsibility for raising revenue as well as spending. This would be a fruitful subject for discussion in the election. The establishment of the Commission on Local Tax Reform was an opportunity to place this issue at the heart of the election. The real test of the success of the Commission will be what happens at the election.

Parties are understandably wary of reforming local finance no matter the weaknesses in existing structures. There may be some winners but there are always losers and reform is never straightforward. The dangers inherent in reform are considerable. Parties with any real prospect of power will tread very warily leaving those with least prospect of having to implement anything to propose the boldest changes. The failure of the Commission to reach agreement on an alternative and thus share the pain of reform with other parties means that changes are more likely at the margins.

Indeed, the separate Independent Commission for Competitive and Fair Taxation in Scotland established by the Scottish Conservatives has proposed a reformed Council Tax (PDF document).

Local government finance cannot be divorced from other areas of spending. With decreasing total expenditure and little prospect of raising additional money, any decision made by the parties in the election to maintain current levels of spending, far less increase spending, in any area will have implications elsewhere. This means local government, though no party will be explicit about this. The chances are that the parties will seek to protect health spending but this can only be done by cutting spending elsewhere. This is just another version of pushing difficult decisions elsewhere.

Even if, as seems likely, commitments are made to protect aspects of spending that affect local government – notably areas of educational expenditure – this will undermine local government. Setting national standards including setting class sizes uniformly across Scotland means that a sizeable element of local spending is determined by central government rather than the local authorities. All in all, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Holyrood elections are not good for the health of local democracy.

Unless and until local government can find a common voice then it will struggle to insinuate itself into May’s elections. There are, however, broadly three ways in which local government concerns will be important over the coming months. There will be important examples of particular local matters forcing their way onto the platforms of all major parties. The aforementioned intergovernmental nature of much public policy means that many policy pronouncements will have a direct impact on local government. And running throughout this will be the vexed question of public finance.


James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Devolution in the UK (Manchester University Press 2009) and The Scottish Question (Oxford University Press 2014). He tweets @ProfJMitchell.

This entry was posted in Local Government, Public finances, Public Policy, Scottish Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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