Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Labouring a point

There was a surreal moment during last week's full council meeting when the Labour Group decided to abstain on a proposal to introduce a no compulsory redundancies policy at the council.

The plan is modelled on a scheme used successfully at Sunderland Council, run by the Labour Party with a large majority as it happens. It involves, as the name suggests, no compulsory redundancies, the use of a skills pool and the opportunity for staff to retrain or move to jobs more suited to their abilities or aspirations. Trainees and apprentices are brought in where possible to provide new blood and in Sunderland, this seems to have proved popular with the work force as well as providing significant long term savings. Staff are secure in their jobs, the council saves on redundancy payments, people have the opportunity to do more fulfilling work and training is given a high priority over bringing in highly paid recruits. What is there not to like?

The problem for the Labour Group it seems, is that the unions appear not to have not been involved in discussions to date and wanted to be represented at the council meeting. Naturally, this rang alarm bells with me - particularly as I've argued in the past for representation to be allowed at council meetings, particularly on an issue as sensitive as this which will directly affect union members.

However, on closer inspection, the proposal presented on the day contained only a commitment to introduce a no compulsory redundancy policy with immediate effect. Introduction of the Sunderland scheme (or any other variation) would be presented at a future date to the council following consultation with union representatives.

As Councillor Russell Imrie pointed out when I spoke in support of the wider proposal, I know nothing about how Sunderland operates this scheme. But it does bear a striking resemblance to the system used at my former employer - a private company which, although it did not have a no compulsory redundancy policy, used forced redundancy as a last resort. The flexibility and re-training opportunities allowed me to move from IT to running training courses - replacing a consultant who charged £1,000 a day and for me a more fulfilling job.

The same council meeting decided my proposal to webcast council meetings was deemed too costly and went for a 'compromise' podcasting service. I do have to question how it can come up with a cost of £16,500 a year - the equivalent of a member of staff spending half their time on this? My rather cheeky proposal to sell the Provost's number plate to help pay for it cut no ice, so the possibility of opening up how our council is run to public scrutiny has, for the time being, been scuppered ... to the private if not public relief of a few of the elected members, I'm sure.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Making a living

At last week's Scottish Green Party conference in Glasgow I was pleased to sign the Scottish Youth Parliament's Fair Wage pledge, along with all our councillors and MSPs. I was also very pleased to be part of a unanimous decision in August for Midlothian Council to introduce a Living Wage of at least £7.20 per hour by the end of this year.

For me, a living wage is more than justice, it also makes economic sense. It should also make sense to many people, particularly on the Tory Right, who consistently oppose it.

When the Minimum Wage was introduced, they, along with many employers, said it would destroy jobs and put companies out of business. It didn't.

They argue at the same time that the welfare bill is too high. What better way to reduce it than to stop subsidising the payment of unrealistically low wages by unscrupulous employers? If we believe there is a minimum income people need to live on, and that incomes below that level should be topped up by state benefits, then the responsibility in a free market is that this should be borne by the labour market and not by the state.

This market distortion also means that employers already paying a living wage are put at an economic disadvantage. Free marketeers know that producers have to live within certain constraints - they all have to abide by Health and Safety and environmental protection laws, for example. A minimum wage is just another such constraint, and so long as all companies have to abide by it, then the free market continues to apply.

So what would happen if we increased the level of the minimum wage to the living wage? Yes, some prices would rise, but as the cost of topping up benefits drops, the demand on tax payers would reduce. The cost of administering many means tested benefits would also be saved. Companies currently paying a living wage would see a marked increase in competitiveness and a level playing field introduced. Also, putting money into the pockets of those least well off is known to be the most effective way of boosting the economy as they are most likely to spend any extra income.

Then there's the 'benefits trap'. Tories and tabloids consistently moan about people on benefits being better off than working. If so, then give people an incentive to work, not a disincentive not to. Most unemployed people want to work and would be more productive if paid at a rate where they feel valued.

Despite the recession, disposable incomes are around the highest in history; I think it's about time we made sure everyone who goes out to work has at least something left over at the end of the week.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Scratching the surface

After I made several phone calls to the Procurator Fiscal's office a couple of weeks ago, the Crown Office suddenly announced last week that information provided by the police on the payments by Midlothian Council for the Bonnyrigg Rose car park 'did not disclose a crime'.

What 'information' I don't know, but I was told only a few weeks ago that the police had only asked the PF for advice and had not submitted a detailed report. I suspect therefore that the council's internal audit report never landed on the PF's desk either, despite the police holding on to a lot of information for well over a year.

However, now that police involvement is complete, the council has agreed to release its internal audit report to the public (Item 16 part 2, from this list). The five page Executive Summary is well worth a read and the report itself raises a number of questions.

Was the work signed off by the council? If not, why not, and if so then on what basis? More importantly, if, as I believe, the football club did not benefit, then who did? And why is the club not going after those (outside the council) who are responsible? After all, it had a contract with a building firm which has clearly not been fulfilled. There are 32 items on the detailed invoice. If any of these were not fulfilled by the builder, why has the club not taken action?

Under Item 4.3 it seems the club's committee were largely unaware of transactions regarding the car park, decided apparently at a committee meeting for which no minutes were taken.  Why was the club run 'almost exclusively on a cash basis' (page 151) and the Social Club kept unaware of proposed developments on its land (page 142)? Was no-one on the committee asking these questions or talking to the Social Club?

There is a lot of talk about openness and transparency in local government and I think Midlothian Council has been commendable in investigating what went wrong at its end. I know there are people associated with the club who have not been happy with my investigations, but hopefully after reading the report they will see that it too has been a victim of this sorry mess. I would hope that, realising they have been kept in the dark about various aspects of it, they too will start asking questions. Only then can the whole truth come out and we can call closure on it all.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Power to the people!

The Scottish Greens' policy on Local and Community Government begins "The Scottish Green Party strongly favours decentralised government. Government should be carried out at the most local tier possible".

With only 32 councils for a population of over 5 million, Scots are more remote than anyone else in Europe from their own 'local' councils. Contrast this with 36,000 councils in France and you see what I mean.

We do, of course, have community councils. However, with most attracting insufficient interest to hold elections and with little influence let alone power to do anything, they are largely seen as platforms for people with particular interests, agendas or budding political careers. I know, I was one of them. And with turnout at all elections on a downward spiral, politicians need to do something fast to re-engage with people - and that engagement needs to be a two-way process.

Thankfully this has started happening. Edinburgh City Council, led by Labour council leader Andrew Burns, is endeavouring to make the city a Co-operative Council. Many councils across the UK are now webcasting their meetings, with Edinburgh currently running a pilot scheme. I have been promised cross-party support for a motion I will be presenting this month to Midlothian Council to do the same. Also the Scottish Government is consulting on its proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.

All of these measures will, it is hoped, give individuals and communities the information and tools to start influencing decisions - and more importantly, get involved in the running of some of the services which directly affect them.

We also need to change the culture inherent within the decision making process. Instead of asking what can be done, we need to ask why can something not be done. This week I managed to borrow a map of the Bonnyrigg ward showing land owned by the council. It's disturbing how little is still left in public hands - after discounting areas used by council housing, schools and public buildings there are a few parks and that's about it.

Also, with much of the ward already designated for housing (and currently being built on) and land towards the Borders Railway considered a high priority for housing, the future looks grim if simply left to the god of 'Economic Development' to make decisions for us.

With the Midlothian Local Development Plan up for renewal shortly, now is the time for communities to get organised and to say what they want before it's too late. I've already been speaking to the local Community Development Trust to see how we can work together to ensure as much land as possible is earmarked for green spaces and community use, but this needs to happen across the whole of Midlothian. If we wait until the plan is agreed, it could be 2032 before we get another chance.

I'm currently reading Andy Wightman's book The Poor Had No Lawyers, which gives a detailed history of why most of Scotland was essentially misappropriated by "legal" means. Today the same thing is happening but in a different way - land which should be available to communities as recreational space is being lost in the name of economics. When land is lost to development, the 'planning gain' always contributes towards further development - new schools and roads. That's not a bad thing in itself, but why shouldn't it also be in the form of protection from further development - park land, community woodland and the like?

Decentralised government does not mean stopping at Scotland's 32 local authorities. It means  decision making at community level with everyone having a voice and those voices being listened to.  Let's make sure this happens.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Captain's log supplemental

As I stated in my earlier post, at the council meeting held on 3 July, Labour Group Leader Derek Milligan referred to the SNP/Independent/Green coalition. I am grateful to Provost Joe Wallace, who immediately intervened to correct this.

Sitting next to Derek was Labour colleague Councillor Adam Montgomery. Why then did Adam, in a letter published in this week's Midlothian Advertiser, three times refer to the 'SNP/Independent/Green' coalition, if not to convey to the general public a position he knew well to be untrue?

In the same issue, another letter from the prolific letter writer 'Name and address withheld', also referred to 'my coalition'.

At the same council meeting, there was discussion relating to the make-up of a committee, during which Derek claimed I should not be a member as I am effectively part of the administration on the basis that I have voted consistently with the SNP. This is disingenuous. Leaving aside the votes where I was committed as part of my agreement to vote with the SNP (i.e. elections of Provost and Council Leader), there have only been two or three votes taken - as most decisions so far have not been taken to a vote. On the remaining votes, I have not been persuaded by Labour's arguments.

Provost Wallace succinctly pointed out that the previous Labour administration had never expressed a similar view of the Liberal Democrats, who had consistently voted with Labour over the previous five years. Quite. 

One of those issues, which Labour has rightly highlighted, is the move from a 4-weekly to 6-weekly cycle of council meetings. I voted for the change as a compromise. I supported Labour's opposition to reducing the size of two committees, and negotiated the removal of that change in return for supporting the change to the meeting cycle - as I was assured by the SNP that council officials were very much in favour on the basis of greater efficiency.

I now feel this may have been a mistake. However, had the Labour Group approached me before the decision and appraised me of their concerns, I may very well have supported them rather than being forced to make a decision in the middle of a meeting and without the full facts at my disposal.

If, as Derek Milligan claims, “The smart money is this group won’t last till Christmas", then what is the Labour Group's Plan B? If they have any hope of regaining power, surely I should be somewhere in that plan, rather than driving me into the arms of the opposition.

I have read a lot over the past week about the late Bob McLean. I didn't know Bob very well; we exchanged pleasantries and the occasional chat when I saw him, usually in the Co-op in Bonnyrigg. Having read more about him, I wish I had got to know him more. Clearly he was a shining light in the Midlothian Labour Party, and it's a pity he didn't become more active in 'front line' politics. Midlothian and Midlothian Labour would have been greatly enriched were he to have been a councillor. Perhaps he's the best councillor Midlothian never had.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Plus ça change ...

If the Labour Group on Midlothian Council is intent on seeking my support to get back into power, it is most certainly going the wrong way about it.

Today's full council meeting appointed the replacement Council Leader and Depute, following the resignations of Lisa Beattie and Jim Bryant from those positions respectively.

I had signalled my intention in advance to vote for the replacements nominated by the SNP Group, as my earlier agreement with them is still in force, and despite a few misgivings about how things have been handled, I see no reason to change it just now.

I cannot say I yet have total confidence in the SNP-led administration, but what I do know is that if today's performance by Labour is anything to go by, they'll need to change their game plan if they have any hope of me changing sides.

Labour Group Leader Derek Milligan started by referring to the SNP/Independent/Green coalition. Thankfully this was corrected by the Provost, but why do such a thing if not to provoke a reaction and risk alienating me still further? In a fit of what seemed entirely false indignation, and supported in turn by other Labour councillors, he then claimed the Labour Group knew nothing of the Depute Leader's resignation and demanded an hour's adjournment to consider his group's nominations.

Firstly, even a three hour adjournment wouldn't change the fact the numbers didn't stack up in their favour - except of course they probably knew Peter de Vink had to leave shortly and were maybe hoping one of the SNP councillors would somehow expire during the course of the meeting.

Secondly, why did they need an hour to discuss their nominations when they had presumably thought through their options when they first proposed them on 22nd May? Had they lost confidence in their own nominees in the meantime?

More succinctly, it was pointed out by Owen Thompson that the procedural niceties that the Labour Group were insisting must be carried out to the letter were largely ignored by their own administration when in office. Insisting that Council needed more time to consider nominations to Cabinet is one thing, but then when the Coalition responded by agreeing to defer a decision until the next Council meeting, they then complained that the Cabinet would as a result be operating in a vacuum (mainly during recess). A better example of sheer bloody-mindedness would be hard to find.

Other than where my agreement with the SNP Group is in force, I remain neutral and will vote on an issue by issue basis. Labour accuses me of continually siding with the Nats whilst never giving me a good reason to do otherwise. Two months ago I told them that if there is an issue coming up on which they want my support, they should approach me beforehand and discuss it. I'm still waiting for the first knock at the door.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Leading from the front

What makes a good political leader? This question came to mind when I heard about the impending, then confirmed, resignation this week of Midlothian Council leader Lisa Beattie.

Whether at Council or Parliamentary level, a political group wants - needs - its leader to be assertive, confident and demanding. Indeed, without such qualities, the right questions will not be asked and effective scrutiny may be lacking. However, within a political group, a completely different skillset is required, necessary to hold together and balance the differing views contained within it.

This is a difficult balancing act to maintain and has been the downfall of many a politician and there are precious few who can pull it off successfully. Lisa is an experienced, very hard working and effective councillor, but if media reports and rumours are to believed, it would appear that it was an inability to fully connect internally which is her Achilles' heel.

There is no doubt that the SNP-Independent coalition is light on experience - only 3 of the 9 councillors were in office before May 3rd. I fully expected two of them, Owen Thompson and Bob Constable, to be in the forefront of the administration. I expected Owen at the very least to be Depute Leader of the council, given his past role as SNP Group leader. When that didn't happen, the alarm bells rang for me. The Labour group on the other hand has bags of experience and without the right people in place who know where the ambushes are going to take place, the SNP were on a hiding to nothing. And at this week's Council meeting it showed.

Full credit to the Labour Group - they saw the weaknesses and exploited them. Their criticism of how the resignation announcement was (or wasn't) made was spot on, and highlighting the lack of transparency evident to date was entirely justified. I do, however, feel their indignation excessive - the coalition has admitted it could have done some things better, but there still seems no sign from Labour that it's willing to sit round a table and discuss things rather than simply voting en bloc against everything.

The coalition needs to get its act together and learn quickly from its mistakes. Whilst it has indicated a willingness to reach consensus in a number of areas, in others it has not - particularly a move to a 6-week meeting cycle without proper consultation across the whole council. Consultation will be even more important if the administration is not at ease with itself. It only takes one by-election and everything is up for grabs.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

It's Time...for Green Nats to come home

It's now almost a week since the 'Declaration of Cineworld', the start of a 29 month march to independence or somewhere else. To be honest, I can't get too excited about it all.

They say that if you can keep your head when everyone about you is losing theirs, then you don't understand the gravity of the situation. Maybe in my case that's true, but the whole independence thing never has set the heather on fire for me.

To set the record straight, I am in favour of independence. It's just that when the planet is being trashed in the way it is, diverting all your energy into how our own little patch of it is run shows you have your priorities all wrong. 

It's clearly stating the obvious to say that's not how SNP members see it. What perplexes me though is how Green Nationalists see it. I, and many fellow Greens, often come across SNP members who say they are really Green but we need an independent Scotland first, to facilitate a Green and fair society. Once we've got that, they say, we'll happily join you.

First off, I dispute this premise. Post-independence, the same people will be living in Scotland and making most of the decisions. Perhaps we will still cut subsidies to public transport and be just as obsessed with road building in an independent Scotland as we are just now. Perhaps the Donald Trumps will still get their golf courses and trash SSSIs along the way. True, we could get rid of Trident and pursue a wholly non-nuclear future, but exporting our oil instead of burning it looks more to me like sleight of hand than the hallmark of a Green economy.

Moreover, if the Green Nats are true Greens, surely now is the time to come home. Arguably, their being in the SNP has helped to build up that party to its current position of dominance, enabling it to force through a referendum. But what now? If they join the Greens at this point, they can still campaign for a Yes vote as we are doing. If independence is achieved, they say they intend to join us anyway; if the vote is for the status quo, it could be a generation before their objective is achieved. What state the planet by then?

I'll probably get round to signing the Declaration of Cineworld sometime over the next two years. I may even find the time to share a platform with the Nats to explain to people why I think Scotland should be independent. But my arguments will not focus on some hazy Green Utopia vision of the future, because a Green future for Scotland is something we can and should be fighting for right now, and should not be dependent on what's printed on the front of my passport.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

First council meeting

Today was the first meeting of the council since the elections and if this is anything to go by, it's going to be fun.

On the face of it, most of the proceedings went to plan. Nominations from the SNP-led coalition for provost, council leader and respective deputes, were all voted in as expected. A call by the Labour group for all votes to be recorded as 'roll-call' (i.e. with individual votes recorded rather than totals) was perhaps a sign that the opposition is playing hard ball, but only time will tell if this becomes a regular feature.

Something else which may become a regular feature is the time-outs; twice adjournments were called - first by the Labour group which insisted it hadn't had enough time to consider proposals presented by the coalition during the meeting, then again by the coalition which wanted to consider amendments to its own motion to accommodate objections by the Labour group.

I hope my own position became clearer to both sides too. Playing hard ball does not endear me to anyone, and I did feel Labour's call for more equal representation on external committees in the interests of more consensual politics didn't sit easily with its own record when in power. I did, however, agree with its argument; but consensual politics is a two way street, and I'll be watching closely to see a commitment to this from both sides before deciding whether the motives are genuine or cynical.

I also don't take kindly to being bounced into making decisions. Politics should be about being in full possession of the facts, listening to both sides of the argument and then making an informed decision. Worryingly, I saw failings here today too. As it's the start of term and a lot of us are new to this game, I'm prepared to cut a little slack. But be warned; put forward a proposal without warning and no matter how sensible it seems on the face of it, don't assume I'll automatically back it.

It was all very enjoyable to be in the thick of it, and I look forward to further installments. However, probably the most exciting thing I did today was to finally start getting in touch with constituents whom I had spoken to on the doorsteps during the election campaign. This is getting off the ground more slowly than I'd hoped in some cases where I need to get some preliminary information from council officials first. However, I managed to phone one person and wrote an initial letter to another with more prepared, and that for me was the main achievement of the day.

Monday, 7 May 2012

A kingmaker is born

It's certainly been an interesting week!

I naively thought that after the count on Friday, I'd be able to take a few days' rest. However, given the arithmetic following the Midlothian result (8 Labour, 8 SNP, Independent Peter de Vink and myself) I suppose I should have expected the phone calls from the SNP and Labour groups over the weekend, though being thrust into the position of 'kingmaker' was not something I had really thought much about.

Fortunately, the Greens have been in this position before at Holyrood, where frantic bargaining took place mainly over the budget, but it has concentrated the minds of everyone in the party on the pitfalls and risks associated with delicate negotiations in such circumstances. This has been of enormous benefit - many of us in the party have discussed in depth how we should approach it, and I think as a result we are relatively mature in how to deal with it.

I'm also amazed at how much trust the Green Party puts in its representatives to handle such negotiations - after all, the wrong decision could backfire spectacularly on the party as a whole, and I think that has helped those in my position to be extra cautious about how we proceed.

My decision to back an SNP-Independent coalition was not too difficult to make. I did of course consult with the Midlothian Greens before making any commitments, but I'm very happy to say the position I was minded to take was supported 100% by the membership, which was very reassuring.

During the campaign I was highly critical of how the previous Labour administration had run the council, particularly in its management of finances. To campaign for change, then to prop up what I maintained was a failed administration would be, to say the least, inconsistent. I could not do a deal with Labour. I also believe there is a history of a lack of transparency within the council, and allowing the same people to continue in control may have obstructed change.

On the other hand, I could not stay absolutely neutral. The last thing any council needs - particularly at this time, when people's jobs and livelihoods depend on decisions being made - would be to allow paralysis on the council. With Peter de Vink's decision to back the SNP group in a formal coalition meant that a decision by me to side with Labour would result in stalemate - where even the decision on who runs the council would be made with a cut of the cards.

Looking at the overall results in Midlothian, there was a clear shift away from Labour and the Liberal Democrats towards the SNP and new voices. This was hardly a resounding vote of confidence in the way the council has been run; it was a call for change, not resoundingly for the Nationalists, but change nevertheless. I had to respect that.

Going into a formal coalition with the SNP-independent group would have been risky. Although Peter de Vink and I do share some common ground (particularly in a desire to see more transparency and better financial management), our politics are quite far apart - as I believe are his from the SNP's. The coalition could prove fragile and my ability to remain flexible in changing circumstances could undoubtedly leave me with some interesting options if it all falls apart.

The overriding concern for me is for stability and an environment where the council can function. I hope to remain on good terms with both the SNP and Labour groups and will endeavour to do what's best for the people of Midlothian, and especially the Bonnyrigg ward, whilst pursuing what I entered politics for - to create a fair and sustainable society which caters for the needs of future generations as well as ourselves.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Rain or shine, turnout is just the barometer

There's a routine which plays out at every polling station in the land and which never fails to amuse me. It features a polling agent from one of the parties entering a polling station and when he or she returns, all the other polling agents from different parties cluster round. "Well, what's the figure?", one will say, while they all wait with bated breath. "Eleven point seven per cent" comes the reply. "That's low", "Yeah, eight point nine at Bogend Primary an hour ago". And so the discussion continues.

Turnout is a big issue amongst the anoraks on polling day. In 2007 it was around 53% across Scotland and is anticipated to be anywhere between 25% and 45% on Thursday, depending on whom you listen to, but with postal voters in the ascendancy the figure on the day in any one polling station may tell you little.

I have an issue with people who assert that a high turnout is good for democracy. It's not the figure which is important, but the reason why it is high or low. Turnout, after all, is just a barometer on people's willingness to participate in the democratic process. If we made voting compulsory, as some advocate, this would not in itself instil more confidence in our politicians, but would merely mask people's discontent. When the local and Holyrood elections were held on the same day, the resulting increased turnout at the local election was not a vote of confidence in local politicians - it just meant some people voted in the local elections because they were going to the polling station anyway.

When attendance at a football match is low, it's not the fans who are blamed for apathy, but the teams for offering little prospect of entertainment. When a film flops at the cinema, it's not because people can't be bothered venturing out in the rain. If you run a market stall and no-one buys anything, perhaps it's because you're what offering is not what people want, and so it is with politics.

If we want people to come back to our political market stalls, we need to offer the punters what they want, and more critically, provide an after-sales service which encourages them to come back again next time.

There are two types of non-voter; those who really are apathetic about the whole political process and those who would vote if there was someone standing they perceived as worth voting for. To distinguish between these, I would advocate an extra option on every ballot form - the often suggested 'none of the above'. If this non-candidate is elected, the seat remains vacant - and allows people to see what it's like not to have someone to represent them (maybe the difference wouldn't be noticeable in some cases). If a sufficient number of such vacancies are returned on a council, a full rerun of the election would be triggered. Only in this case would I support compulsory voting.

I believe that people get the politicians they deserve. If they vote for numpties, then don't be surprised if numpties get in. If politicians promise the earth and fail to deliver, who is to blame if they are then re-elected? People often tell me they are voting for X to keep out Y; that is not a positive choice and voting for 'none of the above' would work equally well as well as being a more transparent representation of voter intentions. It would concentrate the mind wonderfully, both of those standing for office as well as those going into the polling booths, and you never know, it may encourage more people to get involved in politics to help fill the perceived void.

So if turnout is low on Thursday, we shouldn't blame the voters who have failed to turn out, but the politicians who have failed to deliver.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Number crunching

A week to go and into the last lap. I had planned a stall in Bonnyrigg for market day, but even my enthusiasm for politics wanes a little when it's belting rain and blowing a gale. However, I did go out and deliver the last 300 cards through letterboxes and noted in passing that none of my opponents had ventured out to the market either, so a no-score draw there.

I've now finished canvassing - having covered just under half the ward in five weeks. Last night was my first "Sorry son, I've goat a postal and ah've already voted", a sure sign of diminishing returns for effort this late in the game. However, week of poll cards have now arrived and are ready to go out to targeted addresses in the last few days before polling.

The SNP have now realised that this is a STV poll and their second leaflet rectifies the problems of the first, even to suggesting a first preference split between their candidates depending on which polling station you go to. Thanks, but I'll not be taking your advice. They've also cottoned on to Labour's spurious claiming of the credit for the new Lasswade High School - the Labour leaflet incidentally using Midlothian copyrighted photos of the school without permission, to add insult to injury.

It's still difficult to say how this ward will go. Last time, Labour polled four and a half times my first preference votes, and the SNP nearly three times, so it's a big gap I need to make up. Assuming I get the 100 or so transfers I got last time from the Socialists (who aren't standing), the ratios are still 3.9 and 2.5 respectively.

However, turnout will no doubt play a big hand in the result. In 2007 the turnout in the Bonnyrigg ward was 56.38%. The most people seem to be predicting this time is 45%, as the Holyrood election is not taking place the same day. That would represent a drop of a fifth in the number of those going to the polls.

However, a drop in turnout will undoubtedly affect Labour more than the Nats, given the way the Labour administration has run the council and the disaffection their councillors here seem to have attracted.

Assuming the drop in turnout affects Labour and SNP equally, but without affecting my vote (which is much more likely to hold up), the ratios would then fall to 3.1 and 2.0 respectively, which is looking much more promising, but with a bias in lower turnout towards affecting Labour more, I would imagine a more realistic ratio of 2.5 for each. Given each will get at least one councillor elected in this three member ward, they will need at least double my vote to take that third spot.

That makes transfers all the more important, and anyone I've spoken to on the doorsteps who have said they are voting for someone else, seemed willing to give me a second or third preference. Add to the mix some of the Labour vote going to Jackie Aitchison, and the election seems wide open. My guess is I need 1,000 first preferences to win, from the 'notional' 750 last time (including Socialist transfers). With our much stronger campaign this time, and my much higher profile in the community, I'd say that is very much achievable. A week tomorrow we will know, and I'll be watching the weather forecast for Thursday very carefully.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Canvassing update

With less than three weeks to go to polling, I've now been canvassing for three weeks. Response on the doorsteps has been magnificent, though I'm still in my 'core' areas. That will change next week when I move into opposition territory. However, even in those areas I've already been doorknocking with questionnaires a year ago and the reception then was surprisingly good.

Labour are canvassing like there's no tomorrow (maybe there isn't for them) - certainly a lot more than in past years, so it looks like they recognise they are in real danger of losing a seat here. However, the impression I get from people they've canvassed is that with two councillors, it's a bit late to start talking to their constituents now. I'm also getting a lot of non too complimentary comments about Derek Milligan on the doorsteps. I do wonder if the tide is turning on him.

SNP leaflet advising people to spoil their vote
The SNP campaign is a dog's breakfast. Leaflets appeared late - and instruct people to vote for their candidates with two 'X's. Even discounting this, they haven't directed people to split their first preference votes between the two candidates, which will result in Bob Constable getting nearly all of them and Thomas Munro going out early on in the count.

Anyway, I must get on. More doors to knock on ...

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Missing the bus

On Monday, First Bus announced the closure of its Dalkeith depot, the withdrawal of nearly all of its services in Midlothian and the loss of up to 200 jobs.

There had been rumblings of service cutbacks in an earlier statement but I don't think anyone locally was expecting anything on this scale. The job losses are a particularly hard blow in the current economic climate, but I'm sure many more people face the risk of not being able to get to their work and have no alternative except perhaps to take two or more journeys via Cameron Toll or the city centre using a Lothian bus service - if indeed their community will now be served at all.

And this is why the cuts will hit so hard. Faced with unbeatable competition on routes run by publicly owned Lothian, First has retreated to cross county routes and those which connect communities not served directly by buses going to and from the city - the 141/142 being the main route, but others such as the 92A which currently provides the only direct link between Bonnyrigg and Gorebridge.

I have a certain sympathy for First's predicament - public transport has been a low on the SNP Scottish Government's priority list and bus operators like First will not run services at a loss over a prolonged period. However, First is not entirely blameless.

In 2008 I travelled to Falkirk to meet with Paul Thomas, Managing Director of First Scotland East. This followed critical comments I had made in the local press about First's apparent lack of a strategy in Midlothian. Our meeting was cordial, but I put across a number of points which although accepted at the time, were sadly not taken on board (if you forgive the pun).

Firstly, I said that passengers need to know that a service they intend to take when applying for a job will still be around in a few months' or years' time. Apart from the 141, First has continually re-routed, removed and introduced services - initially in a predatory manner designed to take passengers from Lothian routes. The ill-fated X77 ran in competition to Lothian's 31 for a while - but who wanted to take a decrepit, cold, dimly lit boneshaker when a 31 would be due along shortly? And that was another thing - running the X77 (and others) two minutes ahead of the Lothian service was, to say the least, cynical.

Another issue was frequency. At the time, the only direct link from where I live to Dalkeith or Straiton was the hourly 141. I could time my journey to leave, but if I missed the return there was an hour wait, and with First's refusal to join the Bus Tracker system, how do I know if I've missed it or it's running ten minutes late (in 2008 he said First were negotiating to join Bus Tracker).

If a bus runs every 15 minutes or less, then people will risk taking the journey. Any more and they may prefer, as I did, to travel to Dalkeith or Straiton via Cameron Toll on Lothian.

Fares are another issue. I understand that bus operations need to be financially viable. For a while, First undercut Lothian's fares on on X77 and 86A but not on those where there was no competition. Given the stark contrast in fares in places like East Lothian and Aberdeenshire, where First has a monopoly, what would have happened to those fares should Lothian have removed the 31 or 3? I'm pretty sure I know the answer to that one.

Some local communities are already organising to try to reverse the decision. Personally I think it's a waste of time. My experience of speaking with the bus companies, and I've also met Lothian's Operations Manager Bill Campbell a number of times, is to suggest viable routes and extensions to existing routes, then to publicise any new ones or changes in the community, as I have done through our community council's newsletter.

Of course it would help if the Scottish Government showed a bit of vision and put resources into stimulating demand and investment - not just giving money to bus companies, but giving local councils resources to build more bus shelters, bus lanes and install tracker systems. However, with priorities like building new bridges and motorways, it will have little money left over for preparing for the time when either oil costs so much or congestion such a problem that people will be looking for alternatives.

You could even say the Scottish Government has missed the bus on this - we certainly will in six weeks' time.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Bonnyrigg candidates announced

Nominations have now closed and for those with an ear to the ground, the ballot form for the Bonnyrigg ward will hold no surprises. Once again the Lib Dems are not standing and this time none of the socialists or anti-cuts candidates are present.

Jackie Aitchison, as expected, has resigned from the Labour Party to stand as an independent. This is no surprise, given how he has been treated, and it will be interesting to see how much his personal vote holds up. More interesting will be what he says and does during the campaign, and should he fail to be re-elected, where his lower preferences go. His resignation also means that Labour goes into the election without holding an overall majority on the council.

For the SNP, sitting councillor Bob Constable, being above his little known running mate Thomas Munro on the ballot form, I would expect Bob to be re-elected early on in the count. In 2007, Bob received 400 surplus votes and was comfortably elected on the first round of counting. That won't happen this time and Munro will naturally pick up most of Bob's eventual surplus if he can avoid an early exit.

The Conservative candidate Emma Cummings is from Gorebridge and completely unknown in the ward. I am surprised local Tory stalwarts Marnie and Bill Crawford are not standing this time, or at least finding someone a bit more local to fly the flag. However, given a complete lack of activity from the Tories here over the last five years, they must know they have two chances of success - fat and slim - and perhaps it's a case of giving future hopefuls a bit of electioneering experience. Who knows?

The Labour ticket, however, is much more interesting. Sitting councillor and council leader Derek Milligan must fancy his chances now he's above his running mate on the ballot form (I could say more, but space doesn't allow...). Louie Milliken is very much a newcomer and, surprisingly for Labour in what used to be a stronghold for the party, has had little involvement as far as I'm aware, in the community.

Labour looks likely to lose one of its two seats in Bonnyrigg this time. Derek Milligan is the marmite of Bonnyrigg politics - you either love him or hate him, and his name has certainly cropped up a few times on the doorsteps, without my prompting, I should add! The spread of first preferences between these two candidates will be interesting to say the least; however, I do expect alphabetical order to play the biggest hand and Derek will get back in.

So my guess is Bob Constable will be elected early on, followed by Derek Milligan. Without Labour backing, I can't see Jackie surviving. Which means the final place will be between myself, Thomas Munro and Louie Milliken. In local elections, visibility and community activity over a period of time count for much more and personality over party label also plays a part. Turnout will be lower, which will probably hit the Labour vote more than most, and these elections - being separated from the Holyrood vote which took place on the same day last time - will not be clouded by national issues.

On that basis, therefore, I have grounds for a good deal of optimism. However, there's all to play for and I'll be taking nothing for granted over the next few weeks.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Knock knock - diary of a canvasser

With five weeks to go, nominations close today for the local elections on 3rd May.

Canvassing is now well underway and I've knocked on around 400 doors in the Bonnyrigg ward. Although so far I've mainly been covering areas where we traditionally pick up support, the response has been amazing. Yesterday while out leafletting, someone came up to me saying he wanted to vote for me but will be going on holiday on 2nd May. I popped round with a couple of postal vote application forms and while chatting, someone else cycled past and stopped to say he and his wife will be giving me their first preference votes after I'd spoken to them on the doorstep the previous day.

I also now have a few people who have offered to display a Vote Green window poster - important as the council has now banned lamppost placards.

If elected, there'll be no time for a rest - I have a growing list of issues people have spoken to me about and I've taken their contact details and will be taking up their cases immediately.

There's a lot of hard work to do over the next five weeks. A three member ward is hard for Greens to break into and there is still a lot of what I call 'tribal' voters - those who vote Labour or SNP by habit and for no other reason. However, most of those seem happy to give me a second or third preference, which could give me a crucial boost once one of the two Labour or SNP candidates is elected and their running mate eliminated during the count. Getting enough first preferences is the priority though, to stay in the count and pick up those transfers.

Five years ago I only canvassed 40% of the ward - those areas where we are most likely to pick up support. This time I'm adding on a few areas where we need to break into the Lab/SNP vote, and yesterday I was in one such street. The result was very encouraging, including the offer of a window poster and a warm reception on most doorsteps.

People want change. The consistent message I'm getting is that the councillors they have are not worth voting for, but they only vote for one lot because they dislike the other lot even more. That makes my job of persuading people to vote for us much easier, of course, but it makes me even more determined to prove that Green councillors are different. Without the tribal vote, Greens have to work hard to get elected, and we have to work hard to get re-elected; and that can only be good for those we hope to represent.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Campaign gets underway

Only 40 days to go and for me, that marks the start of the election campaign proper. Nomination papers are in, election newsletter deliveries started and canvassing sheets printing off as I write.

Tomorrow I start canvassing in the leafy lanes of Lasswade. I was down that way a few days ago delivering newsletters and already got caught up in conversations with people I met - some of whom I already know.

It seems that every street I go down there's someone I know, and over the last few days I've already logged three people I've promised to get back in touch with if elected, to help with issues they are interested in - and doorknocking hasn't even started!

So far there seems little evidence of activity from other parties. Labour has delivered two newsletters - both claiming the credit for new infrastructure provided by the Scottish Government or NHS Lothian, so I'll be interested to see how the SNP campaign reacts to this!

I've also heard that the two Labour candidates have been knocking on doors in Polton. I hope they continue as one  of them once confided to me that he didn't like doorknocking as it tends to alienate as much support as it attracts. In his case, understandable.

In 2007, we were the main recipients of voter transfers in the Bonnyrigg ward. However, a worrying number of votes did not transfer through to the last round of counting. This could be for the legitimate reason that the voters had no preference beyond those they expressed, or it could be because people don't fully understand how the system works.

One questionnaire I had returned said the voter (who had voted Lib Dem previously) wouldn't vote for us because we're too small a party - a bit ironic as the Lib Dems have fewer MSPs than we did at our high water mark and in 2007 we came fourth in this 3-member ward and the Lib Dems didn't stand.

Hence the need for me to speak to people individually. If people want a Green councillor, then they should vote for one with their first preference, and if we're not elected, their vote simply transfers to their second preference. A simple message I will be putting to people over the next five weeks.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Taxpayers' cash and political footballs

I am more intrigued by people's reactions to what is going on at Rangers Football Club than the eyewatering revelations which emanate from Ibrox on an almost daily basis. 

My immediate and continuing reaction is simple. I pay my taxes on time and so should they. If I didn't then I would have no-one else to blame and certainly would not expect the likes of Alex Salmond to plead with HMRC on my behalf. If this means the end for them, then tough. However, there are many who do not share my view. But if Rangers, or any other club for that matter, is so precious that it shouldn't be allowed to fail, then sorry, the safeguards should have been built into the way it was run to prevent it from ever happening.

As with Rangers, so with RBS, Greece, or any other institution for that matter. Failure, default and liquidation are as much a fact of life as death and taxes, and should be just as inevitable for those who deserve it.

The same sentiments expressed towards Rangers were expressed by some members of the public towards Bonnyrigg Rose when an investigation by Midlothian Council found that it did not have 'visibility' of  £26,000 of Midlothian taxpayers' money which had been granted to the club.

When I highlighted this, instead of people being indignant that taxpayers had been diddled of their contributions, I was accused by some of attacking the club. As with Rangers, Bonnyrigg Rose refused to open their books to scrutiny to clear matters up. I was  accused of threatening the viability of the club by asking what Midlothian Council is going to do about recovering taxpayers' money. Excuse me, but if the club is too important to fail, then those who run the club should have been better monitored and mechanisms put in place to ensure it couldn't get into the kind of mess it now finds itself in.

Whether it's £100 million from HMRC or £26,000 from Midlothian Council, the disappearance of taxpayers' money is not a victimless crime. However, unlike HMRC, Midlothian Council has done nothing to recover the missing money - despite its own audit report recommending a completion date of 31 May 2011 for doing so. Perhaps Midlothian Council is not as strapped for cash as has been claimed.