Labour accused of ‘backroom deal with toxic Tories’

Labour will run East Renfrewshire with support from two independents, but has been accused of doing “a backroom deal with Boris Johnson’s toxic Tories” to form the minority administration.

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Newton Mearns North and Neilston councillor Owen O’Donnell is the new council leader
Newton Mearns North and Neilston councillor Owen O’Donnell is the new council leader

The SNP and Labour, along with independent Councillor Danny Devlin, have worked together for a decade in East Renfrewshire Council, however that arrangement was cast aside after Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said his party would not enter coalitions with the SNP or Conservatives.

The new administration includes seven of the 18 members on the council, with the SNP’s six councillors, now in opposition, forming the largest party. But, the five Conservative councillors backed all Labour’s nominations for key roles at the first meeting of the new term last night, leading to accusations of a behind the scenes agreement.

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Councillor Owen O’Donnell, Labour, is the new council leader, taking over from the SNP’s Councillor Tony Buchanan, with Councillor Andrew Anderson, Labour, as his deputy. Councillor Mary Montague, Labour, was elected as provost.

Labour abstained as the Tories, with support from the two independents, took the deputy provost position as well as chair of the audit and scrutiny committee and licensing committee.

Councillor Andy Morrison, Conservative, tweeted after the meeting that his group had provided support to a new administration in an “agreement which sees Conservative group members assume responsibility for several council positions”. “In doing so, we’ve locked the nationalists out of power,” he added.

The SNP accused its opponents of ‘getting the Better Together band back together’ and insisted voters won’t forgive Labour for “getting into bed” with the Tories.

Councillor Buchanan, the SNP group leader, said: “It beggars belief that, on the very day that Sue Gray’s report slammed the Tories for lockdown parties, East Renfrewshire Labour thought the best option was to do a backroom deal with Boris Johnson’s toxic Tories.”

The Labour group has the backing of the council’s two independent councillors, Councillor Danny Devlin and Councillor David Macdonald, which would have been enough to give them control without support from the Conservatives, unless the Tories had backed the SNP. However, the SNP said it does not do deals with Conservatives across Scotland. Labour has said the Tories remain in opposition.

Speaking after his election as leader, Councillor O’Donnell said it is a “privilege and honour to serve”.

“Times are hard and they are getting harder for the people of East Renfrewshire, we started this year with hope and optimism of a better life after the covid pandemic but that optimism was shattered by a cost of living crisis which both Scottish and UK Governments are struggling to solve.

“The Labour group, supported by two independents, are determined to do the best they can to support the people of East Renfrewshire through these difficult times. We want to give them hope that there is someone on their side and fighting their corner.”

He added: “A minority-led administration is new for East Renfrewshire, it will mean change in how the council is run. By definition for the administration to be successful, it will mean day-to-day consensus building on a vote by vote basis across this chamber.

“This council has a good reputation for collaboration with previous administrations by putting politics aside and putting people first. Having reviewed both opposition parties’ manifestos, it is clear that we have more in common that unites us than divides us.

“There is no reason to believe that grown up politics cannot survive. I urge all parties of this chamber to work with us to help deliver the services and support that our community deserves.”

All five convener positions went to Labour and independent councillors. Councillor Anderson, Labour, will cover education and equalities, the council leader will take the environment role and Councillor Katie Pragnell, also Labour, is the new community services and community safety convener.

Councillor Devlin, independent, will resume the housing and maintenance services position and Councillor Macdonald, independent, will take on the social work and health role. Councillor Betty Cunningham, Labour, will chair the planning applications committee and Councillor Morrison, Conservative, will lead the audit and scrutiny committee.

Councillor Buchanan objected to Councillor Morrison’s position on the scrutiny committee, claiming there could be an “issue in terms of transparency” as the Conservatives supported Labour’s nominations. He believed a member of the largest opposition party, the SNP in this case, should chair the committee, but he lost out by seven votes to six.

After the meeting, Councillor Buchanan said: “The Better Together band is back together, with Labour relying on Tory votes to run the council and sitting on their hands to give the Tories deputy provost.

“Anas Sarwar and Jackie Baillie said no to any deals or pacts, yet Labour are perfectly happy to be propped up by Tory votes in East Renfrewshire, and across Scotland.

“We will provide rigorous scrutiny in opposition, but voters will not forgive or forget Labour bashing the Tories during the campaign then getting into bed with them straight afterwards.”

New provost, Councillor Mary Montague, who will be supported by her deputy, Councillor Kate Campbell, Conservative, said she was “very privileged” to take the role at “the start of a new chapter in our council’s history”.

“I will do my best for you in the chamber to facilitate discussion and also to represent the council in civic life in every corner of East Renfrewshire,” she added. “I look forward to working with each and every one of you in doing that.”