Every Council seat in Scotland is up for grabs tomorrow. There are currently 152 Liberal Democrat councillors in 23 of the 32 local authorities, from the Highlands to Dumfries and Galloway. Liberal Democrats are participants in 13 coalition administrations.
Five years ago, there was some trepidation about how these coalitions would work. It was predicted that they would fall apart in months, but most have lasted the course. The naysayers were mainly from the Labour party, who had lost many of their traditional fiefdoms thanks to the introduction of STV, brought in at the insistence of the Liberal Democrats following the 2003 Holyrood elections when the party formed its second coalition with Labour.
Only a few bastions of Labour majority rule remain. The biggest is Glasgow, but the party faces heavy losses to the SNP. Its troubled administration fell apart in the first few months of this year when several councillors resigned from the ruling group and are standing against official Labour candidates. There are currently five Liberal Democrat councillors there who may well end up holding the balance of power. Group Leader Paul Coleshill has performed well in several TV debates and hustings.
Edinburgh has been run by a Lib Dem/SNP coalition for the last five years. Jenny Dawe, the Council leader, wrote on LDV around 18 months ago of the shock of discovering that Labour had plundered the reserves and left the Council on the verge of bankruptcy. Sound familiar? As well as putting the Council on a more secure financial footing, the Liberal Democrats have made huge improvements in Edinburgh including:
- reduced homelessness and building the first Council houses in a generation
- increased school attainment
- increased respite care by 13%
- built 4 new care homes
- introduced the Edinburgh Guarantee, a plan to find training, college place or job for every school leaver
Inevitably, the troubled trams project will be a factor. The trams should have been running by now, but it will be 2014 before the first one takes to the tracks. Beset by contractual problems which took far too long to resolve, the trams are well over budget. However, it’s the Liberal Democrat administration which has shown leadership and actually sorted the problems out.
In the Scottish elections last year, the loss of our seats in the Highlands was a huge blow. At Council level, the Liberal Democrat record is impressive. We had to come to the rescue when the SNP walked away from administration in 2008 when the going got tough. Despite financial challenges, the party has saved key services like libraries and swimming pools by putting them in the control of an arms length organisation and has led Scotland in working with the NHS to provide integrated care services for adults.
Scottish Liberal Democrats will almost certainly end up with fewer councillors on Friday – because we are standing fewer candidates. In many wards where we stood 2 candidates before, we’re only standing one. The SNP are standing many more. They could actually have won significantly more seats in 2007 if they’d stood more candidates and they are stronger now than they were then. However, there are signs that the shine is starting to come off. Last year they achieved 44.7% of the vote. The recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Times showed them at 35% for the Council elections, down 9.7%. Admittedly it was a very small sample, but the revelation of the extent of Alex Salmond’s involvement with Rupert Murdoch at the Leveson Enquiry last week may well be having an impact. In addition, their leader in Glasgow, Allison Hunter, said recently that “Everything the SNP does is, of course, a stepping stone towards independence.” This may not go down too well with people who care about the care their elderly parents receive, or their children’s schooling, or good transport networks.
Willie Rennie has performed extremely well in his first year of leadership – securing £40 million extra in funding for Scotland’s colleges, challenging the SNP on their plans to merge Scotland’s 8 Police forces into one and speaking out when Alex Salmond played down News International’s involvement in phone hacking. He’s regularly hailed in the press as being the most effective opposition leader.
In addition, Scots have just had a tax cut or a £5.30 a week increase in their state pension courtesy of the Liberal Democrats in the Westminster Government.
There’s no doubt that our councillors have achieved much in the last five years and have a strong record of action for their communities. We’ll know on Friday if that connection and hard work has been enough.
The votes will be counted during the day on Friday so I’ll keep you posted with the results.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings