Johann Lamont was in Galashiels on Monday to address her first Borders constituency meeting since being elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party in December, writes Andrew Keddie.
The Glasgow Pollock MSP, who succeeded Iain Gray at the helm, had answered the invitation of grass-roots members to discuss reductions in public services and to answer the question: “Is this a heavy price to pay for freezing the council tax in Scotland?”
Ms Lamont answered resoundingly in the affirmative and conceded that low pay was a major issue in the Borders, highlighting the need to build on Labour’s introduction of the minimum wage and minimum guaranteed holidays.
“Although it was only in the last term of a UK Labour Government that the minimum wage became law, it has already been almost forgotten that a great deal of Borders workers benefited directly due to the low pay in those traditional industries,” she said.
“Somehow our message of Labour looking after those most vulnerable in our communities did not come across during the Scottish Parliament elections.”
The Scottish Labour leader went on: “We need to fix that in order to make progress that will move to eradicate child poverty. Childcare costs, fuel poverty and unemployment among our young people are all matters that need to be addressed within each council area, as well as by those in Scottish and UK Government.
“Councils can take a positive role in helping with these issues and it is extremely important that Labour values are applied in each local authority.
“I am pleased that the local party has worked on a manifesto that will set these values for the forthcoming local government elections.”
In terms of membership, Scottish Borders Council has, for more than a decade, been a Labour-free zone. Indeed, in 2007 the party put up just two candidates – one in each Tweeddale ward – and neither was successful.
At Monday’s meeting in the Salmon Inn, constituency secretary Rab Stewart announced that six Labour hopefuls would take their chances at the local government elections on May 3.
He later told TheSouthern: “Ms Lamont believes, as I do, that the Borders will be hit hard by the ongoing cutbacks. There are concerns about the reduction in support for the 12,000 carers in the region and the taxation burden that will be placed on those who manage to retain work.
“With less people employed, the burden becomes greater on those in work and a real solution needs to be found through proper debate, without points of view being shouted down as seems to be the norm at Newtown.
“Workers need support from their employers, while SBC’s workforce and those employed in the private sector have a right to expect a decent pension when they retire.
“Labour has always led the social agenda which has benefited so many people in this region in the past and the overwhelming view of the meeting was that it was time for our party once again to have a role in ensuring that social compassion as well as financial considerations inform decision-making at SBC.”