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Radical Bulletin 332 – April 2009
27 March 2009 (12:45:17)


The internal row in Aberdeenshire took a turn for the worse in late February and promptly spread to England, when the Scottish Liberal Democrat executive lined up solidly behind the council group, and moved to expel four long-serving councillors.

This saga began in November 2007 (see RB in Liberator 326 and 331, and the article in Liberator 328), when the council considered a planning application from American billionaire Donald Trump to build a golf resort partly on a site of special scientific interest.

At the relevant committee meeting, the project was rejected on the casting vote of Lib Dem chair Martin Ford, which should have been the end of the matter.

Instead, the majority of the Lib Dem group backed Trump and sought to overturn the committee’s decision.

Most Lib Dem councillors then sat on their hands while the opposition voted to remove Ford from his chairmanship. A few months later, Lib Dem Paul Johnston criticised the planning gain negotiated by the council and found himself referred by members of his own group to Scotland’s Standards Commission, which eventually exonerated him.

Faced with opposition attacks on Johnston, another Lib Dem councillor, Debra Storr, moved in line with group policy that a council meeting should take no action against Johnston as the Commission was at that point still considering his case. She was expelled from the Lib Dem group for her pains.

On 28 February, the Scottish executive voted to suspend Storr, Johnston and another councillor, Sam Coull, Ford having left the party the previous month, and to initiate expulsion proceedings against them. Storr then also left the party.

Ford and Storr are both well known among activists in England, having been members for more than 20 years, and their plight was publicised at the Harrogate conference. (To declare an interest, Ford’s wife Gina is a former Liberator Collective member).

At the Harrogate conference, a leaflet headed ‘I Support the Aberdeenshire 3’ was circulated by the ‘Campaign for Liberal Democracy in Aberdeenshire’, which stated: “A number of Liberal Democrats from Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom are appalled at the illiberal and undemocratic treatment of these committed Liberal Democrats by the leadership of the Aberdeenshire group.”

In an effort to halt the damage, party president Ros Scott sent Hertfordshire councillor Chris White to mediate.

He reported back to Scottish leader Tavish Scott that there should be some changes to the Aberdeenshire group’s standing orders and some external support for it “in the hope that those who had left it would feel able to return in a spirit of reconciliation”.

White’s recommendations were accepted by the group, but as Liberator went to press it remained unclear whether Ford, Storr, Coull and Johnston, now constituted as the Democratic Independent Group, considered these moves sufficient or, in the cases of at least the first two, had had any official communication of them.

It says much about the Scottish party’s mishandling of this affair that White was able to turn up from Hertfordshire and accomplish more towards a solution in three weeks than anyone else had in the preceding 16 months.

The whole thing began over an honest difference of opinion – whether the prospect of Trump’s financial investment in the locality outweighed planning considerations.

This would have caused inflamed feelings anyway, but these would probably have healed had the group not failed to support Ford as committee chair, and then persecuted Johnston and Storr.

Things should never have been allowed to reach this point. Groups elsewhere are able to have strong disagreements without these leading to people losing positions, facing standards investigations or being suspended, never mind expelled.

Ford has published the letter he sent to Scott setting out his resignation from the party.

In extracts, he states: “There is no single reason why I have decided to leave. Rather, it is the cumulative effect of the poor behaviour of some prominent Liberal Democrats, the failure of the party to address this and the disparity between the party’s proclaimed policies and the decisions of its elected councillors and parliamentary representatives.

“I voted against a planning application – a quasi-judicial matter. There was no question of any incompetence or wrong doing on my part. Yet, because the majority of the group wanted the planning application granted, it was made clear to me I should have voted differently.

“In effect, though I did not know it at the time, I did not have the free vote all councillors are supposed to have on planning applications.”

Ford complains that group leader Anne Robertson later removed him from other positions without his knowledge, and that Storr was expelled from the group on a show of hands.

“This catalogue of illiberal and undemocratic actions has led to some deeply unpleasant group meetings where… I have been shouted at and prevented from speaking,” Ford wrote.

He also said that the group‘s stance on the Trump application was so at variance with the party’s claimed concerns for the environment as to bring its credibility into question.

This row should have been mediated long ago. Whether or not White’s intervention leads to a resolution, both the Aberdeenshire leadership and the Scottish party have some serious questions to answer, about the conduct of the former, and the failure of the latter to get a grip earlier.

Also in Radical Bulletin 332:


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