Cllr James Kerr is the Leader of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Group on Falkirk Council.
Falkirk, a council area in the heart of Scotland, a northern outpost of the Roman Empire and the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in Scotland. The Carron Company, established in 1759 produced the carronades which contributed to the success of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Other iron foundries in the area produced telephone and pillar boxes not only for the UK but for across the Empire and beyond – and to this day Falkirk is still producing buses that can be seen in many of the world’s major cities. One of the largest petrochemical plants in Europe is also within the council area at Grangemouth.
Perhaps not surprisingly, for decades Falkirk was just another part of Labour`s Scottish fiefdom where votes were weighed rather than counted and where complacency followed countless successes at both Parliamentary and local elections.
The first signs of bricks being knocked out of Labour`s wall pre-date the switch to the STV voting system in 2007. Increasing SNP support, and Conservatives making inroads in towns like Grangemouth, should have warned Labour that Falkirk was looking for change.
Many of its old industries had gone and tourism-based projects such as the re-opening of canals, building of the Falkirk Wheel and of the Kelpies, showed that the 21st century had brought a new Falkirk. The election of 2007 put Labour into a minority situation where to get anything passed they had to gain Conservative and Independent support. Some readers, particularly south of the border, may find it strange that Tories preferred to keep Labour in office, albeit on a tight rein but just like Falkirk, Scotland was changing.
2007 also saw something that Labour never thought could happen, the SNP for the first time, and by a single seat, became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament – and have, over the decade and a half since, proven impossible to dislodge.
The local elections in 2017 brought Falkirk Tories their best ever result, winning seven seats to Labour`s nine – the SNP gaining 12 and the Independents two. Labour went into a huff and would not work with anyone so the SNP took minority control despite them being nowhere near a majority. The result has been a weak administration, unable to pass major policies – and due to its inability to reach out has caused an opportunity for parties that can work together.
Labour`s current weakness in Scotland creates a void that can only be filled by Conservatives; we had near misses in two of Falkirk`s nine wards in 2017 and we will be working hard to win seats in both, but that is still not enough; 9 out of 30 is not where we want to be. We must be bold and in some wards put up two candidates; Labour themselves feel that five or six seats will be their maximum so to prevent the nightmare of an SNP majority risks will have to be taken.
Last autumn the resignation of a Labour councillor caused a by-election in the Falkirk South Ward, a three-member ward won by the SNP in 2017 by over 200 votes more than the Conservatives. Labour won the third seat 300 further back. In October not only did our excellent candidate, Sarah Patrick, come within 16 votes of overhauling the SNP on first preferences but increased our vote by almost seven per cent. Interestingly Labour voters favoured the Conservatives over the SNP with their 2nd preferences.
Whilst we take positives out of the result we certainly are not resting on our laurels; we unexpectedly lost out to a much improved SNP targeting of postal voters which gave them the edge. We are, of course, working to address this issue as unlike Labour we know that every vote has to be earned; our councillors have worked hard to gain the local profile over the last five years that is vital to show them as not only part of the community, but fighting for the community.
Whilst it is impossible in any Scottish election to totally avoid the constitutional angle, we fully intend to show why local voters should support our policies on local issues; we have exciting ideas and look forward to May without complacency but confident that we will again increase the number of seats we hold and yet again deny the SNP control.
Having just signed a £90m growth deal, from the UK and Scottish Government’s. Which brings approximately 2,000 new jobs. This is essential for every area of the Falkirk district.
Each of the nine wards has their challenges. Many feel the area has been left behind. Some families are choosing between keeping their homes warm or providing enough food on the table. We need to speak to, and for, them all.