28 May 2012

The Division of Spoils

The appointment of chairs and vice chairs of current committees, now public, shows what a poor deal the SNP have secured in return for propping up Labour. 

I am not going to give you any of this "sold their souls" stuff as I am a believer in PR and coalition politics but if you are going to do a deal with your bitterest enemy then it has to work for both parties and it has to be worth it in terms of both policy and influence. 

Convenor-ships are highly important as dozens of decisions are taken daily which are not of the magnitude to require council or committee approval but which are still of great importance. Convenors also shape the agendas of their portfolios.

The SNP have moved from having 12 councillors  and surging forward to 18 seats and if six votes in one ward had gone to them and not Labour they would have been on equal numbers. 

All they have managed to get in addition to where they were four weeks ago is the chair of Finance. They have lost any influence on Housing and Social Care. All of the big political committees with big budgets are chaired by Labour. The divvying up of the spoils does give the impression of the Nationalists being in office but not in power. 

How long their new backbenchers will tolerate that state of affairs is going to be a fundamental question over the next few years.

26 May 2012

Labour Sacks Respected Audit Chair

This has been an oddly disjointed week. In 18 years as a councillor I have  never been without an office or a telephone for more than a few hours. This last week I have spent without a functioning office, PC or land-line. This has been an unsettling experience but I have been assured that it will all be sorted on Monday. If you are a constituent, or anyone else, who has struggled to get hold of me I do apologise. Hopefully normal service will be resumed shortly!

Thursday saw the second council meeting of this term. There is always an element of phoney war about this part of the political cycle. The first couple of council meetings are about appointments to various committees and posts etc.

The new Labour /SNP administration in almost their first act on Thursday took the singularly unfortunate decision to sack the highly regarded chair of the Audit Committee, a role traditionally taken up by an opposition councillor, and installed one of their own in this key role. 

It is not good practice to have an administration inspecting itself and it set the scene for a further power grab in the shape of a review of the governance structures. This was kick started with a view to introducing, effectively, the old executive system re-badged. The executive system locked the bulk of councillors out of decision-making and centralised it in the hands of a  few Labour councillors. It side lined opposition moving us from policy making by debate, a two way process, to politics conducted by endless briefings, a one way process and much less democratic. 

With the Administration enjoying such a large majority I would have thought neutering the opposition was not necessary but they simply can't help themselves. It does suggest a certain lack of confidence on their part.

21 May 2012

Hats off to Police and Fans

The frustration of losing the Cup final to your closest rivals, and to lose in such a fashion, did not result in mass riots on the streets of Glasgow I am pleased to report. 

With more than 50000 fans from the east descending on Hampden that there were only 22 arrests speaks volumes for the nature of the occasion. The Edinburgh Derby is not the sweltering lump of gelignite that is any Old Firm match but there are still tribal tensions.

Saturday was a high stakes game but both the police in Lothian and Borders and in Strathclyde are to be congratulated as are the fans who appear to have behaved in an exemplary fashion making policing much easier and the occasion great whatever the result.

20 May 2012

After Dinner Mince

Well the "salt 'n' sauce" Cup final turned into an annihilation. Hibs are now on a Nelson - the cricketing expression for 111 - having been hammered 5-1 by Hearts.  

I will get the difficult bit over first. Congratulations Hearts you were the better team on the day and, in spite of all of your problems this season off the pitch, you were the better side all season. 

So far so magnanimous. Hibs....oh dear. It was a great day out until 3pm. The old adage of being better to travel in hope than arrive was never truer than yesterday.

If football is the working man's ballet then Hibs better sign Darcy Bussell quickly. She would have done  a better job. Hibs just didn't play for 85 minutes.

At 2-1 the teams came out for the second half. They were playing "living on a prayer" at that point. Within seconds the match was over as a contest. The Hearts penalty awarded then was dodgy and the associated sending off killed off any hope for us but in retrospect after the first half hour or so I couldn't see any other winners. Hibs were mince.

18 May 2012

High Stakes Day Out at Hampden

Tomorrow sees a significant fraction of Edinburgh descend on Hampden park for the first all Edinburgh cup final since 1896.

By some miracle I find myself with a ticket for a game which will be an emotional roller-coaster for all involved. The stakes are so high both teams having had mediocre seasons and neither will want to lose to their bitter local rivals.  

For the Hibs players if they manage to pull off the first cup win in 110 years then they will become legends in Leith. 

The image of the oldest trophy in world football being hoisted aloft to the sound of 25,000 voices singing Sunshine of Leith would be incentive enough for any sportsman. Add to that the fact that their names will be repeated above baptismal fonts and on birth certificates, as the new born offspring of the fanatical are named after goal scorers, captains, goalies etc.   

Many great players never get the chance to play in a cup final in their entire professional careers. Many great Hibs players have been to finals but never managed that elusive win. Tomorrow a team who have disappointed in the league all season have the chance to wipe the slate clean, to put behind them some dire results and performances, to win the only derby match of the season anyone is going to remember. They have the chance to give their followers the one thing that all Hibs fans crave and have done for more than a century. That cup!

Go get 'em boys!

17 May 2012

New Roles at City Chambers

Today was the first meeting of the City council since the elections. Traditionally the first duty  is to appoint a Lord Provost and Deputy convenor. 

Gorgie/Dalry councillor Donald Wilson was  unanimously elected to succeed George Grubb.  Donald was a popular choice on all sides of the Chamber. 

Hailing from Selkirk where his late father, a baker, made the famous Selkirk bannocks in his bakery.  

Coming from Selkirk has meant that Donald has a very powerful sense of history this being a town which was decimated with all but one of it's male population falling at Flodden.  Borders generally get the civic side of local government more than the rest of us and Donald certainly does. he will be an excellent Lord provost and I am pleased for him. He has always conducted himself like a perfect gentleman even in tense times in opposition. 

The Deputy Lord Provost was also unanimously agreed. My good friend Deirdre Brock of the SNP was elected. Deirdre hails from Perth Western Australia and was an actress in her previous life. I can't wait for her first "actress said to the bishop!" moment  which will come in due course. Deirdre will be a great successor to Rob Munn who was a victim of the SNP success the other week. 


Tuesday saw a change in my role in the council also. I was unanimously elected as leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on the Council. There is a big job to do rebuilding the party in the city and holding a large and emboldened council administration to account. A big job indeed but I am up for the challenge!

10 May 2012

Gambits and Endgames

The post election chess game concluded on Monday night with a surprising outcome. With East Lothian having just announced the formation of an anti SNP coalition with Labour and the Tories forming an administration  the prospect of that happening here looked  strong if the much muted all party coalition fell through. 

And fell through it did with the Evening News stating that it took 5 minutes in stead of the 2 they had predicted. 

We sat round a table and the SNP rejected the all party deal and then the Greens did the same. By the time they came to us there was no all party deal to be apart of.   

I will correct one myth doing the rounds in the twitter-sphere. At no point was the prospect of  a Lib Dem/Labour/Green, a so called  "traffic light" coalition, ever raised with us by either of those two parties. As such at no point did that fall through because the Lib Dem Group  rejected it. This is a factual point not one of criticism of anyone from either of these parties for not raising and pursuing that option.

Such a deal would have been practically difficult as the magic number to form an administration is 30 and we would have only had 29. More important than that was that we as a group would have had great difficulty entering into any administration having so decisively been shown the door by the electorate.

An all party, administration of the talents, would have been a different kettle of fish. To reject that out of hand and with it the prospect of changing the tribal culture of Edinburgh local politics would have been churlish but ultimately it was not on.

Enter stage left  Edinburgh foremost practitioner of Realpolitik Steve Cardownie. He has been the leader of the SNP group since he defected  from Labour in 2005 and as a politician is more nimble on his feet that Fred Astaire, Nureyev and Darcy Bussell combined.

He is also the most spectacular survivor in Scottish politics. In a career spanning 24 years he has been out of power for only 2, those immediately following his defection to the SNP. He makes Pat Lally, former Lord Provost of Glasgow and the Scottish Body politics other great survivor, look positively pedestrian. 

Steve was quoted at the end of his most recent and extraordinary power grab as saying that "If it isn't about power then what is it about!"

A deal was offered to Labour and the SNP group with its expanded numbers will continue to be in power this time propping up a Labour administration. 

Steve now has an air of the ageing rock star who has just managed to get the band back together for a reunion tour. The last time that the SNP were in administration with Labour they were annihilated at the polls next election. Time will tell if this will be a farewell tour or not.

6 May 2012

After the Deluge

Friday was truly awful. In the local elections the Lib Dems suffered serious reverses across the UK. This was played out most spectacularly here in Edinburgh where we narrowly avoided  wipe out losing all but three of our seats. 

I was one of the three and live to fight another day. I am joined by old stager Robert (Dobbie) Aldridge and new  face Alistair Sheils, all West Edinburgh Councillors.

A lot of good councillors fell on Friday among them Jim Lowrie, Marjorie Thomas, Gary Peacock, Tim McKay, Gordon MacKenzie and our leader Jenny Dawe.

It was a bitter blown losing all of these capable individuals. Much as we can blame disenchantment about the Westminster Coalition  I think trams  hurt us even more so.  

When you have Princes St and Shandwick Place dug up for months on end, when you have to take  a detour of 200 yards just to cross a 20 yard road, when you have to do that four times to get to the end of Princes St and when your home backs on to never ending tram works then people are going to punish you. Much of this may not be our fault and to lay the blame at our door may be unfair when you look at all of the facts but the perception was that it was and in elections perception is everything.

Our administration achieved many great things; crime and homelessness slashed,  new librarys opened when Labour run councils were shutting them, school attainment  at record levels, the list goes on and on. 
But the big issue hanging over us was the trams and we were punished for that. An inquiry may be kinder to us than the electorate have been but that will be years off and by then the aggro of the building works will have ceased and the line will be working. Perceptions will be different.

The council has no overall control. There are 20 Labour councillors 18 SNP, 11 Tories, 6 Greens and 3 of us.

We are in negotioations with an all party administration being touted. We need to know more about this and how it would work but if in Ulster the Democratic Unionists can manage to make a power sharing executive work with Sinn Fein then we might just be able to so the same. It will mean people putting tribalism aside, a move that I would welcome as an eternal advocate of a less tribal style of politics. 

I will do my best to keep my readers posted.

1 May 2012

Eve of Poll

Tomorrow sees the eve of poll and marks the last day of the life of this current council administration.

The last five years has been a roller-coaster. The local political agenda has been dominated by trams and by a lack of cash. 

I have spent the last five years as the Chair of the Health Social Care and Housing Committee and also of the Edinburgh Community Safety Partnership.

In that time we have seen  major improvements in a a number of key areas. 

In Social Care we have had massive demographic pressures and yet we have still managed to radically reform our care services and ensure that everyone who needs it gets the care they deserve when they need it.

I am particularly proud of introducing re-ablement.  Our manifesto is committed to ensuring we up our game even by ensuring minimum standards of services provided by us or by partners where we buy that care in. We are also committed to personalised services. Again as a liberal I believe we must treat people as individuals.

On Housing we have cut homelessness presentations by 16%, massively improved the quality of housing stock so that 75%  of our council homes now meet the Scottish Housing Quality Standard (it was only 17% when we took power) and we have built the first council housing in a generation.

On community Safety we have introduced the first Hate Crime Strategy in Scotland and reported crime is down by a massive 24% over the last 5 years. Critically our neighbourhood surveys also show that fear of crime is falling and people are feeling safer in their neighbourhoods. 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the thousands of Council and Police staff as well as  our care workers in the voluntary and private sectors for helping to make our vulnerable residents better cared for and for ensuring that we have fewer homeless people and that those who are homeless get better help and also for making our streets and our city safer for all of us.

It has been a great privilege and a great experience. I likened my job to having won the lottery without having to buy the ticket. I stand by that though I would say it was the Euro-millions!