IT was a day which many had thought unimaginable: May 3, 1984 – Edinburgh voted Labour and a red flag was hoisted above the City Chambers.
For a city which had always voted Conservative it was a radical shift to the left at a time when Margaret Thatcher was flexing her political muscle in Westminster and the miners had just begun their 12-month strike.
Described as one of “the most dramatic of nights at the polls” Labour took 34 of the city’s 62 council seats – with the Tories on 22, the Alliance on four and the SNP just two.
And while the vote saw jubilant celebrations among Labour supporters, it also had long-term ramifications, as for the following 23 years Labour was the party of local government control in Scotland’s capital. The victory also kick-started the Westminster careers of Edinburgh North and Leith MP Mark Lazarowicz and Nigel Griffiths, who went on to be MP for Edinburgh South for two decades.
Nearly 30 years on, three Labour councillors who were voted into power on that day – under the slogan “Improving Services, Creating Jobs” – recall the victory and the changes it wrought on the city and the Labour group of councillors themselves.
The last remaining Labour councillor from that election in 1984 still serving on the local authority, Lesley Hinds currently represents Inverleith and is convener for transport and the environment.
But 30 years ago – as a new mum with a three-year-old son and six-month-old daughter – she was facing a tough battle to win the Telford ward back for Labour from the Alliance councillor Derek King.
“Telford had always been a Labour seat so to lose it in 1980 had been a surprise and it can be very difficult to unseat a Liberal so we were working very hard, especially as Derek King was a leading light in his party.
“But there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the Tories – and they had been working with the Alliance – so that helped enormously. People were ready for change in Edinburgh. They were fed up with the gap sites at Castle Terrace, the High Street, Greenside Place. It felt like nothing was happening in Edinburgh and hadn’t for years, while Glasgow seemed to be full of regeneration.
“There was also a scandal around the massive amounts of money flowing into private landlords’ pockets in terms of grants to do up their properties, while other individual owners of tenements couldn’t access the same money. And there were plans to do things like sell off West Pilton and other council housing estates to the private sector.
“The constant rises in council house rents, with a lack of investment in the housing stock – there were a lot of demonstrations at the Chambers where people would bring along their damp clothing – was also a major issue.
“ It’s true that people were turning against the Tories nationally, but in Edinburgh there was a feeling that the old councillors’ time was up.”
Hinds also thinks that Labour’s candidates – many of them young and female – encouraged the electorate to believe real change was possible. “It’s why we suddenly had Marge Bain take Prestonfield which had always been Tory,” she says.
“It was such an exciting time. That count, seeing the wards come in that we’d taken, it was really thrilling.
“It was probably the most exciting election I’ve been involve in. When Kim Smith who lived in a multi-storey in Muirhouse won Stockbridge I heard the wife of Drummond Young (the Tory councillor and holder of that seat) say ‘I just can’t believe this. How could that man win your seat? It’s your seat’.
“That’s the way they thought, that the council was theirs, and they had it all marked out who would be the next Lord Provost.
“It was the first time Labour won an outright majority in Edinburgh. There had been a minority Labour administration when George Foulkes was a councillor and Jack Kane was Lord Provost, and though we thought we’d do well I think we were looking at going into partnership with another party. We never thought we’d win as spectacularly as we did.”
Hinds admits she still has a T-shirt with the Labour council slogan “Improving Services, Creating Jobs” – and she believes that is what they did, which is why Labour had such longevity in Edinburgh.
“The council was really being run by officials rather than councillors so we changed that and as a result we had a lot of new, dynamic people who wanted to come and work at the council and put our policies into action.
“When I think about the massive changes and regeneration Edinburgh has seen – I think we did that, we started that in 1984. But there are still many challenges to meet and that’s what keeps it exciting.”
Perhaps now best known as the man who transformed Wester Hailes Education Centre as its headteacher for 13 years until retirement in 2011, Alex Wood, it was reported back in 1984, had three reasons to celebrate Labour’s win.
He doubled his majority in Pilton – a seat he first won in 1980, saw his wife Frances take Broughton ward from the Conservatives by more than 200 votes and became the city’s first Labour council leader.
He says: “Edinburgh had been a Conservative city – with one very brief exception when Labour led a minority controlled council in the early 70s – but there was already a reaction against the Thatcher government which had been in power for five years by then. And Edinburgh was changing as the old, small-c conservative Edinburgh was becoming less powerful than it had been through societal changes.
“There was always a solid Labour vote in more traditional working class areas of the city but the change was that Labour won seats like Stockbridge, Broughton and Balgreen, capturing a significant part of the white-collar vote, though really we only got about 40 per cent of the total vote.
“A red flag was raised above the Chambers but it only lasted about a day.”
Wood remembers that the election plan had three main policy planks – to improve services, create jobs and freeze council house rents.
“Edinburgh always had the lowest proportion of council house tenants of the big Scottish cities and the Thatcher government wanted to stop councils spending money on housing from its general budgets and so the only outcome would be that rents would have to rise, and ultimately make tenants want to buy their homes rather than continue to rent.
“We said we wouldn’t raise rents, so it did bring us into conflict with the government, and it was a policy which, after three years, led to divisions in the Labour group.”
He adds: “As for improving services, creating jobs, we did very briefly do these things but when the crunch came in 1987, we carried out a cuts budget rather than being taken to court by the government over our expenditure.”
It was at that point that Wood quit the council, though he’d been ousted as leader of the group the previous year after a vote of no confidence in him after splits over the rent freeze policy and was replaced by Mark Lazarowicz.
Recalling his, and three other councillors’ decisions to go, he says: “Ethically and morally we were in the right but where we got it wrong was making an erroneous judgement about our capacity to take our own party with us.
“I met with Neil Kinnock in ’86 and Donald Dewar, myself and Councillor Eleanor McLaughlin and he told us he didn’t want Thatcher to be able to send in a Commissioner to run Edinburgh. Of course Scottish legislation wouldn’t have permitted her to do that as she could in England but Kinnock didn’t even seem to know this . . . but the whole weight of the Labour Party came to bear on us and so that cuts budget was approved.
“And then soon after that a Labour council was implementing Thatcher’s poll tax and taking its own citizens to court to make them pay.”
He adds: “The kind of win we had in ’84 will never happen again because of proportional representation which is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Although he was first elected to the District Council in 1984 as councillor for Wester Hailes, Jimmy Burnett had previously been on Lothian Regional Council from 1979-82.
He recalls: “Margaret Thatcher and the Tories were becoming increasingly unpopular but I don’t think any of us thought we would gain a clear majority at the district elections.
“But at the count, as the votes began to come in and we took the crucial seats of Broughton, Prestonfield, Stockbridge and Kirkliston, and significantly increased our majorities in many of the other seats, it became clear that we were on course for a significant, historic victory.”
He laughs: “While we were surprised at the level of our achievement, the Tories were shocked, astounded, horrified and in despair.
“I remember one of the more patrician Tory councillors commenting as we enthusiastically celebrated taking the Stockbridge seat, ‘this is the sort of scum that will now be running our town’.”
He says that in the victorious aftermath there was a decision made to hoist a red flag above the Chambers – though a Tory councillor soon removed it. “But we also replaced the white Christmas star with a red one.”
According to Burnett, the reason that Labour won so emphatically was due to a well organised campaign but mostly “the undoubted unpopularity” of the Conservative Government.
And with a political change, there came big changes within the way the council was run.
“Back then Edinburgh councillors, apart from those in leading positions, were not really involved on a day-to-day basis, in running the council, so facilities for councillors were non-existent.
“Each political group had a group room and the Lord Provost had his room and some back-up staff. But for the other councillors facilities were a room on the ground floor, with 60 small lockers, and a couple of phones.”
That soon changed. Each councillor was given a desk and a phone and full-time back-up staff to improve their ability to do their jobs, the party’s manifesto was put into a “readable booklet format”, approved as council strategy for the next four years and distributed to every household in Edinburgh, and for the first time councillors became involved in the appointment process of senior and middle-management jobs.
He adds: “At our first council meeting we cancelled many contracts, which had been provisionally agreed by the Conservatives, in the main concerning the selling off of public assets, land and buildings. This included the building which is now the City Arts Centre, which had been earmarked for sale and development for offices and flats.
“We froze council house rents, which were the highest in Scotland, made vast improvements to our library stocks and significant improvements in our cleansing and litter services. We made higher staffing levels in key areas and greater levels of investment in our housing and recreation services and overall created around 1000 new jobs.”
In the spirit of getting things done, the Labour Group – of which Burnett was secretary – would meet every Friday at 4pm to discuss and debate key policy documents and committee reports. “We saw our job as implementing the policies on which we were elected, and ensuring that officials at all levels were committed to rolling these out. And we wanted the public to know what we were doing so we put up banners and billboards along Princes Street, even on the Usher Hall to promote our policies.”
But one change that Labour failed to implement was abolishing the position of Lord Provost. “Initially we appointed John McKay as convener but were advised by our lawyers that this was not legal so he had to be LP.”
During his ten years on the District Council, Burnett held the positions of chair of housing and then of finance.
He adds: “They were very exciting times which I would not have missed for the world. They were energising, rewarding, challenging and ultimately provided all of us with the chance to begin to change Edinburgh for the better, both in terms of service improvements, but also in terms of democratic accountability.”