Reflections on the fight for Edinburgh’s public services
This was written by Alyson Macdonald, who has been heavily involved with the anti-privatisation campaign in Edinburgh. The council’s decision to keep services in-house is a rare victory, but this means fighting cuts and job losses put in place by the council instead of a private company. Originally published on Bright Green.
After the heartbreaking defeats of several popular anti-cuts campaigns in the last few months, we can sometimes forget that campaigning isn’t always a futile activity. But yesterday, after a six-month-long campaign by local residents, the City of Edinburgh Council voted to reject proposals to privatise two major service areas. The proposals were part of an initiative known euphemistically as the Alternative Business Models Programme, and it was the largest set of privatisation proposals ever considered by a Scottish local authority. If it had been successful, it could have paved the way for mass privatisation across Scotland, but Edinburgh’s rejection has set a very different precedent.
Our campaign started back in July, when a small group of women in East Edinburgh discovered that the council had been quietly trying to privatise services for the past eighteen months. They were so angry about the proposals that they decided to organise a public meeting so that local residents could discuss the matter with their councillors. Over a hundred people attended the meeting, and although the councillors were left in no doubt that privatisation would be extremely unpopular, none of them would commit to voting against it, claiming that they had to take advice from council officials and their party colleagues. Of course, this just made everybody even angrier with the council, and that was how the campaign started.
At the time it seemed hopeless; the final decision was pencilled in for September’s council meeting, but there had been no public consultation, and hardly anyone outside of the council was even aware of it. But then campaign groups started springing up in other parts of the city, and suddenly the council were delaying the vote to allow time for a token consultation. We used the time to organise more public meetings, write letters, and visit councillors’ surgeries. Eventually, when the council met in November to decide on the future of Environmental Services, only the Tories and the Liberal Democrats (minus one rebel) were prepared to support privatisation. Today, when they were asked to consider Integrated Facilities Management and Corporate and Transactional Services, we saw the same result.
If it sounds like an epic David-and-Goliath battle, then I’m probably overstating things a bit. The political dynamics of the City Council are such that we only needed to persuade either the Lib Dem or SNP councillors to vote against privatisation in order to win. There’s an election coming up in May, and the SNP are expected to try to take control of the council, but their own grassroots party – a key part of the notorious SNP electoral machine – weren’t going to support the kind of policies that, in Scotland, are seen as a Thatcherite throwback. This wasn’t a fight that needed a momentous surge of public anger; a few councillors just had to be given a tactical nudge to listen to their core voters.
The fight we’ve had so far looks small compared to what is still ahead of us. Today Labour and SNP councillors argued that the cuts which would have come with privatisation can be achieved in the public sector, so we will be spending the next few years fighting against this. The last few months were only a warm-up, but it has given us a chance to learn about campaigning and start building support amongst the local community. We’ve known this for a while, and that’s why we’ve already planned a public meeting for Saturday 28thJanuary at 1pm in the Royal High Primary School to discuss our next steps.
It might feel as if this doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes we win. And when we do, it’s amazing.