By a Newsnet reporter
Labour’s campaign in the Dunfermline by-election has hit the rocks as contradictory comments from its candidate and misleading claims contained in a leaflet have threatened to make the result closer than expected.
With the party candidate Cara Hilton under increasing pressure over school closures proposed by her own Labour council colleagues and supported by Ms Hilton, the SNP has turned up the heat with a challenge to Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont to publicly disown a by-election leaflet distributed by the party campaign team.
The row over the leaflet grew yesterday after it emerged several claims made by Labour were open to question, with at least one claim demonstrably false.
According to the leaflet distributed by the Labour team in Dunfermline on behalf of candidate Cara Hilton, the party supports free prescriptions, the council tax freeze and no tolls on the Forth Bridge.
However following the leaflet’s publication it emerged that Labour had refused to remove tolls from the bridge when in power, claiming that it would increase congestion as well as lose about £20m in revenue ever year.
Doubts were also cast on claims in the leaflet that the party were in favour of the council tax freeze and free prescriptions with past quotes from several senior Labour MSPs, including leader Johann Lamont, claiming the policies were unaffordable. Ms Hilton herself also attacked the Scottish Government’s council tax freeze in a hustings event which was held in Dunfermline last night.
The most controversial claim related to the Bedroom Tax. Despite the SNP having committed to scrapping the controversial legislation months ahead of Labour, the leaflet asked voters living in the constituency: “Labour will bin this hated and unfair tax – Why won’t the SNP?”
In a BBC debate on Monday evening, the Labour candidate conceded that her party were in fact examining the affordability of the policies her leaflet claimed they were backing. Cara Hilton also admitted Labour had not removed tolls from the Forth Bridge but suggested the party had always supported the move.
The claim was called into question when it emerged, prior to the SNP removing the tolls, former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell had backed a plan that would have removed tolls only for cars which had at least one passenger.
Speaking in 2007 when in power, Mr McConnell said: “I am still concerned that removing tolls completely on the Forth Bridge could lead to increased traffic congestion.
“Ending the revenue stream from tolls before detailed costs and proposals are prepared for a new crossing of the Forth is simply irresponsible.”
Mr McConnell’s Labour opposition eventually gave the SNP move backing but placed as a priority, funding for the disastrous Edinburgh Trams project.
In Monday’s TV debate, the Labour candidate came under pressure after boasting that Labour run Glasgow council had frozen the council tax before the SNP introduced a nationwide freeze.
SNP candidate Shirley-Anne Somerville seized on the comment and asked why people in Fife had been forced to endure a fifty per cent increase during the same period under the Labour administration in Fife council.
The row over the leaflet has turned the by-election, which was supposed to be a mere formality for Labour, into a close run contest. The contest is being viewed as a test of Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont’s leadership and anything less than a resounding victory may lead to pressure on Ms Lamont.
The by-election campaign has seen the issue of school closures dominate with Labour run Fife council pushing through a school closure consultation programme.
The issue has proved uncomfortable for Labour’s candidate with Ms Hilton appearing to backtrack on several statements. In a radio interview on the 11th October Cara Hilton claimed to have voted in favour of the consultation programme because she had been misled by a council official.
When pressed on TV over a week later, the Labour candidate appeared to change her stance on her reasons for voting in favour of the consultation claiming her decision to support the school closure programme was in fact based on the need to make “difficult decisions”.
Ms Hilton has also come under pressure to commit to keeping other schools in the constituency open. At a Hustings held in Dunfermline last night, the Labour candidate repeated the pledge she had made in the TV debate, saying she would like to keep all schools open.
However when asked on STV in mid-campaign, Ms Hilton refused to commit to the same pledge and indicated her support for the school review programme.
Labour are still expected to win a seat vacated after disgraced former MSP Bill Walker resigned after being convicted of domestic abuse. If the party do indeed prevail, supporters will publicly herald the victory as proof of the success of the leadership of Johann Lamont.
However privately the party will have to concede that a by-election that should have led to a relatively comfortable victory against an SNP Government over six years into office, has required panic measures and pledges to be made that are in fact inconsistent with party policy.
If the SNP record an unexpected win, Johann Lamont’s leadership will come under significant pressure and she may well be compelled to step down.
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