LABOUR leader Johann Lamont has admitted the SNP is set to make gains in next month’s council elections – but warned it will be a further “step towards separation”.
Handing Alex Salmond control of town halls around Scotland would be like leaving ex-Rangers chief Craig Whyte – who led the club into administration – in charge of public finances, said Ms Lamont.
Labour has pledged to campaign against the cuts to local services as Scottish councils see their budgets reduced by £350 million by the SNP government at Holyrood in the year ahead. She blames First Minister Alex Salmond.
“Frankly, if I might say so, after Alex Salmond passed on 90 per cent of Tory cuts to local government, putting the SNP in charge of a local council is like putting Craig Whyte in charge of your tax return,” Ms Lamont said.
“You don’t need to be a football fan to be sick of empty promises which sound good at the time but end up making the future of your community uncertain.”
The elections next month will be the first big test for Ms Lamont since she replaced Iain Gray as Labour leader. He quit in the aftermath of the SNP’s landslide Holyrood election victory last May.
Ms Lamont set out the party’s broad strategy in a speech to supporters in Edinburgh yesterday.
“It was David Cameron who first coined the phrase that we would be living in an age of austerity – and my goodness he meant it,” she added.
“Unfortunately for our local communities, Alex Salmond didn’t reject that idea, he embraced it. That is why he took the Tory cuts and then doubled them before handing them to local councils.
“What these elections are about is how we respond to that. How we maintain the local services which people rely on when the SNP are increasing the speed and depth of Tory cuts for our councils.”
Labour insists that the flagship council tax freeze is underfunded because the £70 million distributed among councils to compensate for the loss in revenue has not gone up in line with inflation in recent years.
Glasgow Labour leader Gordon Matheson has already pledged to maintain the freeze, and Ms Lamont indicated yesterday it would “not be possible” for any council to raise it because of the financial penalties imposed by Edinburgh.
The Nationalists are fielding a record 613 candidates across Scotland in the elections on 3 May, an increase of 176, and overtaking Labour which has dropped by 24 to 497 candidates.
Under the single transferable vote (STV) system, Ms Lamont accepts the number of SNP councillors will increase as they field more than one candidate in many constituencies.
“They will get more councillors this time, because they’ve had slightly more confidence or courage to put up a bigger number of candidates – last time round they were very, very cautious. So using the last set of elections as a baseline is perhaps slightly false.”
Labour strategists are optimistic that the party can hold on to Glasgow in some form of coalition, despite it being the SNP’s top target seat, as well as possibly returning to power in Edinburgh where the ruling Lib Dem/Nationalist administration has presided over the trams fiasco in recent years.
Ms Lamont is determined that the elections should be about creating jobs at the time of chronic unemployment, along with other local issues.
“They are about maintaining, and where we can, extending the services which people rely on – better childcare, better schools, a better deal for the elderly,” she said.
“For us, these elections can be another step on the road towards social justice, to improving local lives and to making tomorrow better than today.
“For the SNP it is a step towards separation.”
Labour have seized on recent comments by the Nationalists’ group leader in Glasgow, Allison Hunter, who recently said taking the city would be another step on the road to independence. Ms Lamont insists the constitution should be a “fight for another day”.
SNP local government minister Derek Mackay said: “If Johann Lamont thought that she had a strong message to sell, she would be willing to give the voters a chance to vote for it, but Labour are actually standing fewer candidates than in 2007.
“Her weak leadership is summed up by the fact that – across the country – Labour have countless different positions on the council tax freeze.
“This is one of the most high-profile policies affecting local government, and the fact she can’t get her party to form a coherent position on it is very telling. Labour are all over the place on the council tax freeze – and given half a chance they would put the council tax up, just like they did in the past.”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott, the MSP for Shetland, hit out at Labour’s “deplorable” record in looking after the public finances.
“Whether it is bringing the UK to the brink of bankruptcy or leaving the local government budgets in Fife, Edinburgh and Aberdeen in disarray, Labour’s track record is clear for all to see,” Mr Scott said.