The shape of things to come
THE COUNCIL elections will receive little attention compared with the struggle to become First Minister, but upheaval at local level has implications for education.
Changes are inevitable because the reform of the voting system means that no single party will run the vast majority of the 32 councils. The days of almost unchallenged Labour domination, which has been gradually eroded in any case, are at an end. Coalition politics are in prospect almost everywhere.
At present, Labour runs only 13 councils outright. The Indepen-dents run six, while the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Conserva-tives have one each. Ten councils are run by an individual party but with no overall control, or by coalitions of varying political hues.
Many prominent councillors, mainly Labour, have announced that they will not stand again. They will receive up to pound;20,000 for past services, a pay-off criticised by the media. Wily campaigners such as North Lanarkshire's Charles Gray, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, will be missed in the parrying with central government that determines where and how decisions affecting schools and teachers are taken.
At best, Labour will retain overall control of North Lanarkshire and (probably) Glasgow. In other parts of west central Scotland, they may remain the largest party but dependent on one or more smaller parties to form a stable administration. Combinations of parties and independents already run many rural and island councils.
The new voting system will reward the Scottish National Party, which has been under-represented at local level in most parts of the country and, in some places, the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats will gain ground in their weaker areas and lose where local strength has over-rewarded them.
The big losers are Labour.
As coalitions become the norm, they will have to develop strategies for good government. Otherwise, there will be a handing over of effective power to the officials. The eight years of the Scottish Executive offer the most fruitful way ahead: parties would negotiate an agreement based on their manifestos, and their councillors would pledge to support the programme for the four-year term.
Education policy is not likely to prove a stumbling block. There are differences of emphasis among the parties but nothing fundamental. If the Conservatives find themselves in coalition talks, the hope among some in the party of removing education from council control would have to be abandoned. Budget realities more than partisan differences will dictate the shape and pace of policy making.
But the changes in May will mean more than new councillors on the platform at school prize-givings. Since the first round of local government reform in 1975, Labour has dominated the relationship of councils with central power - by running the Conven-tion of Scottish Local Authorities as well as individual councils. In future, local government will not speak with the same single voice.
Diversity may encourage the range of initiatives that the executive professes to want - for example through Schools of Ambition and in realising A Curriculum for Excellence. But any efforts by the executive to tighten the reins on local government by reducing funds or imposing across-the-board policies will be less successfully countered if local government speaks with too many weak voices.
The balance of power in Scottish government, as well as within the 32 councils, could change after May 3.
For the voters, the new system to be used in council elections will be as easy as one, two, three. But the single transferrable vote (STV) - introduced at the Liberal Democrats' insistence and to Labour scepticism - means that the 32 councils will more accurately reflect the intentions of the electorate.
In the three and four-member wards, the share of votes each party receives will be rewarded in terms of seats. Under the old system of first-past-the-post, one party has often racked up victory in seat after seat, with the other parties receiving no return for the percentage received of the total vote.
The experience of Ireland, where the STV is used in parliamentary elections, shows that parties can still concen-trate their efforts and "use" the system.
Where a party puts up two candidates, it will seek to ensure that its supporters spread their preferences to best effect. In one part of a ward, supporters will be asked to give one candidate first preference and the party's other candidate second preference, with the order being reversed elsewhere.
A candidate wins when he or she attains a quota of the votes, and is eliminated if too few are won on first preference. The "surplus" votes of those already winners and those eliminated are redistributed to other candidates; so voters' second and even third preferences may be significant.
In a three-member ward, candidates will need a quarter of the votes to ensure election; in a four-member ward, the target is a fifth. So the scope for a wide range of party representation is considerable.
Will the large wards and sophisticated tactics by the parties mean the demise of Independent councillors? Not necessarily. Independents in scattered rural areas are concerned that the new wards are too large for them to campaign effectively. But they only need to score well in their own area to secure a winning quarter or fifth.
And an Independent well known in one community could make an arrangement with a fellow indepen-dent from the other side of the ward to ask for each to receive first preference in their own heartland and second preference in the other area.