Edinburgh Council's Corstorphine-Murrayfield by-election: Women's rights campaigner Elaine Miller is the right choice for the independent-minded – Susan Dalgety
There is nothing more important than local democracy. Love it, or hate it, Edinburgh City Council is responsible for most of our public services – from schools to social care.
So while MSPs grandstand in Holyrood, your local councillor is deciding whether the city can afford to provide your granny with a carer, or which pothole to ignore in the streets around your home.
I spent seven years in the 1990s in Edinburgh City Chambers, reaching the dizzy heights of deputy leader of the administration, and while I enjoyed some perks – having coffee with Queen Elizabeth II was a particular highlight – it was mostly hard work with very little reward. Even today councillors only receive a salary of £19,600 while a backbench MSP enjoys £66,600 a year.
Almost every councillor stands on a political party platform. So while Josephine Bloggs may be your local representative and promise to speak up for you and your family, she is also beholden to Scottish Labour or the Lib Dems. If her party bosses tell her she has to vote for cuts that will affect the community she represents, then she has to do as she is told, or be punished.
This loyalty to a party means there are very few independent voices in politics, even at a local level. Don’t get me wrong, I am a supporter of party politics. I stood on a party ticket and I get very frustrated when councillors, such as Labour’s Ross McKenzie, regularly ignore their party’s manifesto and vote as they like. When I vote for a Labour councillor, I want one who sticks to the party’s policies. I am sure Conservative or Green Party supporters feel the same.
But I have come round to the view that we need more independent voices in our councils and in Holyrood. Margo MacDonald was one of the most effective and admired MSPs in the Scottish Parliament’s early years. She was first elected on an SNP ticket in 1999, but after falling out with her party’s leadership she decided to stand as an independent, and was elected three more times before her premature death from Parkinson’s in 2014.
Elaine Miller will tell you she is no Margo MacDonald. Margo spent much of her adult life immersed in politics. She first hit the headlines in 1973 when she won the Glasgow Govan by-election in 1973 against the odds. Elaine is a physiotherapist who specialises in women’s health with a sideline in comedy, and who had no interest in organised politics until very recently.
Gender reform and the clash with women’s rights is what first got her thinking seriously about how decisions are made, so when a council by-election was announced in her local area, Corstorphine/Murrayfield, she decided to stand as an independent candidate.
“I believe councillors should always put the needs of the people they serve before any political party,” she says in her campaign statement, echoing the views of Margo MacDonald, who was a fierce champion for everyone in the Lothians, regardless of which party they supported.
It’s almost impossible for an independent candidate to win. They don’t have the resources of a major political party behind them for a start. But who knows, the voters of Corstorphine/Murrayfield might just prove to be independent-minded.