In what was the worst electoral result ever for the Liberal Democrats, a day which saw leader Jenny Dawe and transport convener Gordon Mackenzie ousted, the salt in the wound was their candidate Stuart Bridges coming second last, behind Professor Pongoo, in the Pentlands ward.
His claim to fame was that Pingu the children’s tv penguin was a relative. The Lib Dems claim was that they could survive the public distaste over the tram project. In the end Pongoo was more convincing. By teatime the story of the penguin would be making headlines around the world.
“The people of one Edinburgh district would rather have a penguin represent them on the city council than Liberal Democrat,” wrote the New York Daily News.
Pongoo – real name Mike Ferrigan – carried out his entire campaign dressed in costume and even promised to go to every full council meeting in the same garb.
“I thought that if I dressed like a penguin I might have been able to show them how to walk the walk. Sadly, not this time.”
For Dawe, she perhaps did not expect to lose to a bird but had known the writing was on the wall. The voters must have known the same, for the box with her name next to it on the ballot paper remained empty.
Even her party’s national leader, Willie Rennie, braving the media room at Meadowbank while the bad results stacked up, agreed. “I went round the doors with Jenny – it was bad,” he said.
Just five years ago it had been so different. Smiles all round as the Lib Dems became the largest group for the first time – and their coalition with the SNP ending 23 years of Labour rule. A tram line, school closures and an abortive attempt to privatise council services later, and the Lib Dems were yesterday reduced to just three councillors.
It had all begun reasonably well when Almond, the first ward to declare saw Alastair Shields returned in the seat of retiring Lord Provost George Grubb. It soon became clear the newcomer would have few colleagues to turn to for advice.
Robert Aldridge, who was returned in the Drumbrae/Gyle ward, wiped his brow and said “tell me about it” when asked by colleagues if it was a relief. By the time Paul Edie got back in the Corstorphine/Murrayfield ward, they were laughing about whether Aldridge – who they like to call Dobby – would be the new group leader.
However, the atmosphere among the Lib Dems grew steadily gloomier as the fight for control of the council was obviously going to be between their coalition partners, the SNP, and a resurgent Labour. Hall 1 at Meadowbank was the scene of their disastrous day – and that of Labour and the Nationalists’ triumphs.
The count began at 9.30am as, for the first time ever, the results were tallied up a day after the votes were cast. The banks of people counting the votes by hand had disappeared. This time votes were scanned into computers electronically, so candidates and their campaigners found it nigh on impossible to see just how the numbers were stacking up.
On the positive, the spoiled papers were put up on large screens to be adjudicated. “I hate you all”, “none of the below”, “absolutely none of them” were some of the milder sentiments expressed. But most were just void as a result of too many crosses marking the spot. Turnout confounded all expectation. Overall it was 42.6 per cent, far higher than had been predicted and most of it went to Labour.
Karen Keil, elected in Drumbrae/Gyle could not wipe the smile from her face. She trumped the rest, winning on first preference votes. She was, she said, “a community activist first and foremost“ who would “speak up for the community which was suffering from the closure of its school.”
Similarly, Vicki Redpath could hardly believe she’d won in Forth – Labour’s second councillor in the ward after Cammy Day got through on first preference votes. In Liberton/Gilmerton, hatchets were buried – if shallowly – between the two Labour candidates, Norma Austin-Hart and Bill Cook. They were both re-elected, but there had been a fallout after she changed her name and so boosted her place up the alphabetical ballot paper.
In Pentland Hills, Ricky Henderson went through on first preferences, as did Gordon Munro in Leith ward, Lesley Hinds in Inverleith and Eric Milligan in Gorgie/Sighthill. By around 2.30pm, Labour statisticians were suggesting they would be the largest group, but they still weren’t betting any money on it. The SNP were saying the same, and for a while were leading by four candidates.
However, the rumours were confirmed that Jenny Dawe was gone and that perhaps Steve Cardownie could be too. He made it by the thread of a torn designer trouser leg, finally being elected on the eighth counting of the Forth ward votes. There were just eight candidates. But it didn’t all go Labour’s way. Andrew Burns, the group leader was returned but only came second in his ward of Fountainbridge/Craiglockhart, losing out to Green, Gavin Corbett.
And indeed, while the fortunes of the yellow team were diminishing, those of the Greens were growing.
First up was Nigel Bagshaw in Inverleith, then Corbett, then Melanie Main in Meadows/Morningside (where Dawe was dumped), then Maggie Chapman in Leith Walk, followed by Chas Booth in Leith and finally Steve Burgess in Southside/Newington (where Mackenzie’s council career terminated).
The Greens, though, were muted in their delight of doubling their numbers – indeed the biggest cheer of the day came when 24-year-old Nick Cook, the city’s youngest councillor, was elected for the Conservatives in Liberton/Gilmerton.
Overall the Conservatives left with as many councillors as they arrived – 11. But they could well be part of the new administration. However, so could the Greens, as could the remaining three Liberal Democrats.
It is now up to Labour to have first go at pulling together a coalition. Can red and green finally be seen? Will Steve Cardownie end up as Edinburgh’s Lord Provost?
The people of Edinburgh have spoken. The politicians said they were listening. Now they have to prove they are more than just a penguin parade in the political zoo of Edinburgh politics.