Anas Sarwar has denied misleading the public by entering into local government partnerships despite a pre-election pledge of no coalitions.
Scottish Labour has minority council administrations in Fife, Stirling and South Lanarkshire – where agreements with Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors have granted the party control.
In Fife, the SNP has accused Labour of “trampling on democracy” after the party took control despite winning just 20 seats, compared to the SNP’s 34.
While Labour says it has not formed a coalition, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives voted for the minority administration to take power despite the SNP being the council’s largest party.
Scottish Labour leader Mr Sarwar joined the newly formed, minority-led Labour administration at South Lanarkshire Council in Hamilton on Friday.
When asked if the partnerships are coalitions in all but name, Mr Sarwar said: “What we have sought to do is form Labour minority administrations and what’s right, I think, for local democracy is individual issues.
“It’s important that individual councillors and indeed individual political parties locally will seek to find the agreement and what’s best for local communities.
“That’s a refreshing way of doing local democracy and it’s perfectly consistent with what we said before the election, and I think it demonstrates our commitment to local issues, to have local issues be the focus of people, not leaders coming into local authorities to think they’re puppets of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.”
He insisted he has remained consistent with his pre-election pledge of no coalitions and rejected the idea that he had misled the public.
He said: “I was very clear before the election – no ifs, no buts – no coalition with the SNP and the Tories.
“I made it very clear that we will seek to elect as many Labour councillors as possible
“I made it very clear that we will seek to form Labour minority administrations and that we will seek on individual issues to work with other individual councillors and indeed other individual political parties on issues of agreement over the course of the next five years.
“There is not a single coalition with the SNP or the Tories in any part of Scotland.
“That’s exactly what we said before the election and it’s consistent with what we said after the election, and I think people can see that for themselves.”
But First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Mr Sarwar’s response will seem “shifty” to voters.
She tweeted: “Anas would be better just owning it. Denying what people can see with their own eyes – ie Lab administrations that are only possible with Tory support – makes him seem shifty and gives impression he thinks voters are daft… which just compounds the strategic political error.”