The emergence of Neo-Unionism and the threat to Scottish democracy


By a Newsnet reporter 
Last week Newsnet Scotland published an article questioning the motives behind the number of pacts between Labour and Tory groups at local Government level.

The local elections threw up eight coalitions or agreements between the two parties – six more than between the SNP and Conservatives.  By any measure, there are more pacts between Labour and Tory than there ought to.

Newsnet Scotland’s Martin Kelly suggested that the reason for the alliances and agreements was less to do with local needs and more to do with grabbing control of local authority umbrella group, Cosla.

The article also pointed out that a quirk in Cosla’s constitution meant there was nothing to prevent a ruling administration from blocking representation on the body of its political rivals, regardless of electoral support.

And that’s what has happened in at least one local authority where the ruling Labour faction have decided to ignore the local election results and allocate all council seats to themselves.

North Lanarkshire Labour’s decision to block the SNP from taking their two Cosla places was met by anger from the SNP group, and with good reason.  Labour had taken 41 seats in the local election whilst the SNP had won 26.

The allocation ought to have been 4-2 in Labour’s favour, but Labour decided to award themselves all six seats.

Questioned on this, Labour’s leader Jim McCabe said: “I’m using the right this council and this party has to choose who represents at Cosla and I’m sticking with the six Labour councillors.”

McCabe’s reply showed an arrogance and lack of diplomacy that was unbecoming of a man who purports to lead his council and represent local people.

Rather bizarrely, McCabe then went on to say this: “Irrespective of the make-up of the council, I say we have to leave politics at the door and work for the best of the people of North Lanarkshire.”

The SNP’s 26 out of 70 seats represent 37% of the local electorate.  What’s best for local people should of course include ensuring that their votes are taken into account when nominating councillors to represent the area on Cosla.

In fact according to Cosla’s own constitution, representation on the body must reflect a party’s electoral support.

4.3 The membership of meetings of the Convention shall comprise:
(a) representatives appointed by member councils whose number shall be in accordance with Appendix I (which assumes membership by all eligible councils) and, as far as practicable, on a basis which reflects the balance of party political strength within each member council, having regard to any advice issued from time to time by the Convention;

Thirty seven per cent of the voters in North Lanarkshire have effectively been disenfranchised by wnat amounts to blatant gerrymandering.

It also exposes the mindset of Jim McCabe as one where Labour has a right to dominate, to the total exclusion of their political rivals.  Rules are there to be exploited for his party’s advantage not to act as a guard against political corruption.

If this was simply the isolated actions of a small minded local official unused to having to share power then that would be bad enough.  But all the signs are that this marginalisation of the biggest party at local authority level is a deliberate strategy on the part of Unionists.

When placed alongside Labour/Conservative pacts aimed at reducing SNP influence throughout Scotland’s local authorities then it looks very sinister indeed.

McCabe of course needs no help from the Tories, his Labour group still command a healthy majority despite SNP gains in North Lanarkshire.  However his party do not have the electoral strength throughout Scotland and pacts with other Unionist parties are a necessity if the SNP are to be purged.

Thus, we see agreements at local level involving all three Unionist parties.  Lab/Tory – Lab/Tory/Lib Dem and Tory/Lib Dem.  Some, such as in Stirling and Aberdeenshire, see Unionist coalitions against a larger SNP group.

The Labour party are embracing things they were historically created to stand against.

In Glasgow, the Labour group leader panicked in the lead up to the council election and sought the support of the ultra-Unionist and Conservative leaning Orange Order.  Gordon Matheson’s ‘parades for votes’ U-turn has still to be picked up by the BBC – despite their preoccupation with Glasgow in the days immediately after the local elections.

At national level as well Labour’s move to the right is bringing them closer to their Tory allies.  Labour under Johann Lamont is currently ditching core Labour principles in favour of those that the Tories would be proud of. 

Lamont’s abandonment of free education, silence on ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure funding and a refusal to back calls for welfare powers to be devolved to Holyrood are indicative of a party seemingly happy for the Tory/Lib Dem coalition to call the shots.

It’s as though they have now become one party in Scotland – or one movement.

This Neo-Unionism has been around for a while – hidden only by phoney arguments in the Holyrood Chamber.  Under Dewar and McConnell, Labour were the do nothing party – the Lib Dems played the game in return for a ministerial mondeo and the possibility of a peerage.  Lord Jack McConnell, Lord Jim Wallace and Lord Nicol Stephen are examples of this Neo-Unionist patronage.

The Tories were the pantomime villains, and all were happy with their lot in the pretend wee parliament.

In 2007 their dominance of the chamber and the committees meant that the fledgling SNP Government were limited in what they could do.

Last year that changed and slowly the Neo-Unionist group has emerged into the daylight to confront the Independence movement. 

A casualty in this constitutional war has been those democratic institutions that were designed as checks and balances against dictatorial administrations – the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee is an example of Neo-Unionism abusing the democratic system as its set pieces have provided ammunition for the Scottish press and BBC to attack independence.

The attempt at purging of the SNP from Cosla is another as the local authority umbrella body’s constitution is ignored by the Neo-Unionist entity.

In 2014 Scotland faces not just a question over her constitutional future but a fundamental choice between a free and open democratic society versus one dominated by Neo-Unionists who, if successful, will weaken Scotland’s democratic institutions to the extent that the people will never again have the power to end their hegemony.

Jim McCabe’s decision to effectively steal the SNP’s seats on Cosla and hand them to his own colleagues smacks of the worst kind of political excess.  It’s also a warning of what’s in store under Unionist rule.

If the yes campaign succeeds in 2014, we need to ensure people like McCabe are never again allowed to override the wishes of the people.