Out of luck and out of her depth

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HOW do you solve a problem like Jenny? The answer for many is easy – just don’t vote for her again. But Jenny Dawe’s disastrous leadership of the council for the last four years and three months (with a further eight months to go) should not just be viewed solely through the prism of the tram scandal.

It should not be forgotten that she was declared “not credible” by a Holyrood committee over her evidence about the The Gathering debacle; that she was at the helm of the headlong rush to privatise public services provided by the council which has resulted in an ongoing bins dispute; and that she allowed members of her own group to ride roughshod over Edinburgh citizens, be they parents protesting at school closures to businessmen in Leith demanding answers about their livelihoods in the wake of tram works. Nor should we forget that she failed to manage some of her councillors. While Marilyne MacLaren and Phil Wheeler may not be easy to deal with, that is her job.

MacLaren showed so much disdain for parents and teachers that she needed reining in. Dawe failed to do it – even telling me that the row over school closures just after her group took power was just a “glitch”.

Similarly, while Wheeler failed to take any responsibility for the trams when he was transport convener – leaving Dawe swinging in the wind on a number of occasions – he was left in post. No wonder he was heckled at meetings – he was distinctly of the view that “those people” as he once referred to them to me, were never happy.

That was one of her biggest problems – her group’s apparent disdain for the citizens of Edinburgh. But rather than go on the offensive to win hearts and minds, she decided the best way to communicate was through the pages of the council’s own paper Outlook. Called Pravda by many in the city, that was never going to work.

And it felt that the reality was she and her group didn’t see any need to communicate with anyone properly. Their views were all that mattered. This was shown by their attitude to the press, to council staff, even to the electorate who wanted to make their feelings known at council meetings but were prevented from doing so.

Recently that seems to have changed and Dawe gave a very personal interview to the BBC this week about her life pre-politics. She lived in Africa, knew how to handle a knife and could kill snakes in the grass with a single deadly blow. If only she had brought such authority to the Chambers.

For she is obviously a woman of substance. She raised four children almost completely on her own in Africa – and then totally alone when she returned to Edinburgh. At the same time she studied, worked, entered politics . . . it all should add up to a city leader with huge personality, grit and determination, yet all we’ve seen is a good impression of an ostrich whenever things get a little sticky.

Of course she’s not a goodie-goodie as her somewhat schoolmarmish appearance suggests. She couldn’t be to last as long as she has in her group. But nor is she, unfortunately, a Miss Marple of modern politics. Too often she has failed to spot the banana skins on the policy road ahead.

Of course the main problem has been her coalition with the SNP, which has left her hamstrung over the trams. But then Lib Dems, as a party have proved that it will get into bed with anyone to get a fingernail on the levers of power. Well, Dawe got more than that and now her fingerprints are all over every poor decision made since 2007.

I’m not in the camp that says she should stand down now. There’s little point. Who would have faith in the person whom replaced her? And would anyone within her dwindling group of councillors who have agreed to stand at next year’s elections, want such a poisoned chalice at this stage? If last week’s City Centre election result is repeated at next year’s council elections, then the Lib Dem group will be reduced to a rump. Dawe may well still be leader of it, given that she could well be the most experienced, but I imagine she’ll have had her fill of taking the brunt of public anger about what her group did to the city.

Yet despite all of her mistakes and shortcomings as leader I like Jenny Dawe. She’s been out of her depth, was dealt a bad hand with the fall-out of the last election, and had a whole host of financial troubles not of her making. Yet, unlike some of her group, she has not succumbed to knee-jerk reactionary outbursts every time she is criticised. Overall, though, I feel sorry for Councillor Dawe. But I don’t want to feel sympathy for the leader of the city council. I want to feel pride, or if not that, then fury. I want to feel something, want to feel that whoever leads this city feels something for it, has a grand vision, knows what the people of Edinburgh want.

What I don’t want is to be left in the Daweldrums.