Ahead of the local elections next week, The National is launching a series of Leaders' Interviews with Scottish party chiefs.

First up is Scottish LibDem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton. He spoke about his party’s plans at council level, which political groups they might look to work with and why he thinks they will make strides despite losing support in Scotland over the last decade. 

What are the Scottish LibDems’ local priorities?  

Our manifesto recognises the context in which these elections are being forged which is the biggest squeeze on household budgets since the end of rationing in WW2. Everyone is feeling the pinch one way or another, so that’s a big focus on our agenda. We want to see the Treasury immediately reduce VAT by 2.5% which would put £600 a year in every household budget. We want to see the Scottish Government insulate every home in Scotland, reducing fuel bills and doing wonders for our carbon footprint. We also want to see local authorities do their bit too and that’s about provision of low-cost housing, about giving them the flexibility to regenerate town centres by giving them control of business rates, a real power surge basically, we’re the only party that’s really talking about that.

READ MORE: The National launches Leaders' Interviews ahead of local elections 

Do you have any target seats? 

What I’m really encouraged by is, wherever I go, we’re getting support back that we haven’t received for a long time because people know when they elect a Liberal Democrat they will get a local champion that will work for them all year round. We’re thrilled by the idea of community and we believe power works best when it’s devolved closest to the communities it affects and that’s why we’re talking about that power surge to local authorities. We’re seeing real shoots of recovery for the party. We won two by-elections wins in the north last summer where no one expected us to win. 

I think it’s overstating things to say I would favour a coalition with the Tories. I would accept that [a coalition with the Tories] if that’s what my council group in Edinburgh in discussion with local party membership and communities felt was in the best interests of the city.  

The National:

You said a couple of weeks ago you could favour an alliance with the Tories on Edinburgh Council but do you not think the Liberal Democrats’ reputation has been damaged enough by coalitions with the Tories?

We’re quite unique in Scottish politics in that we are the only party where the leader does not dictate what local groups decide to do. STV [the single transferable vote] means there is no overall control in almost any council in Scotland and anywhere you look there are various myriads of coalitions involving all manner of partners and I don’t think there’s anything to be feared by that. The important thing about coalitions is they give you a chance to lead and we don’t shy away from power. We know Liberal Democrats in administration can be the difference in your community. They can give power back to you, they can focus on transformational investment in education. We recognise the small stuff really matters whether that’s your bins or fixing your potholes but we also want to invest in public services like youth work and encourage communities to be what they really can be.  

I wouldn’t want to prop up a failing administration, I think Edinburgh City is failing, that’s why I said I would consider a coalition with partners to get the SNP administration out of Edinburgh. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have serious anxieties about the political direction of the Conservatives. The fact they are led by a serial rule-breaker, the fact they are more interested in creating tax havens for the super-rich, and the same goes for the SNP, I have anxieties about coalitions with the SNP, I don’t think they’re focused on community interests.  

We could quite easily do a deal with Labour and the Greens in Edinburgh. 

It sounds like you very much accept coalitions have to happen on councils at times but it sounds like they can be very tricky when you have opposing political views. Can it be difficult?  

Of course it can but that’s grown-up politics. There are certain red lines we would go into any coalition with; our commitment to tackling the climate emergency with ferocity but without the baggage of nationalism which now comes with the Greens, that would be one of those red lines. We focus on devolving power back to communities because we trust them, so we would have our red lines. The electorate are mature, they understand we need to form coalitions. It’s sometimes hard but it’s necessary.  

We’re going to go forward in this election and I hope by some margin. In the Scottish Parliament elections we built some of the highest majorities seen in Scottish Parliamentary history. We are seeing people come to us in record numbers, we are fielding more candidates than we have done since 2007, we’re the biggest challengers to the SNP in our nation’s capital. Everywhere I can point to green shoots of recovery.  

The National:

There was a Survation poll that was carried out for Ballot Box Scotland a few weeks ago which showed only 6% of respondents would back the Lib Dems, down 1% from 2017. You lost a seat at Holyrood last year. Why do you think the Lib Dems have gone down in people’s estimations and has the 2010 coaliton at Westminster not had a knock-on effect there?

We’re going to go forward in this election and I hope by some margin. In the Scottish Parliament elections we built some of the highest majorities seen in Scottish Parliamentary history. We are seeing people come to us in record numbers, we are fielding more candidates than we have done since 2007, we’re the biggest challengers to the SNP in our nation’s capital. Everywhere I can point to green shoots of recovery.  

You’ve also talked about getting along well with Anas Sarwar and seeing eye-to-eye with Labour on a lot of things. Does that not confuse voters that you’re willing to work with both Labour and the Tories? 

No I don’t think it does at all. I think it’s clear from what I’ve signalled in terms of my agenda that I am in the progressive wing of Scottish politics. There are many things about the Conservative party that turn me off, I don’t believe in making a country that favours the super-rich at the expense of those less well off. I believe in fair, redistributive policies and making sure whatever background you’re from you get the best start in life, best education in life, first-rate world-leading healthcare free at the point of delivery.  

Anas Sarwar and I speak the same language on a lot of things but there are many reasons why I’m not a member of the Labour party. But again, this is grown-up politics, if you are looking for change and life beyond the SNP then I think a natural, realistic alternative that reaches out beyond the clash of nationalisms, I think the ingredients of that start with Labour and the Liberal Democrats. I’m not ashamed to talk about that. 

You’ve ruled out coalitions with the SNP in Edinburgh and Glasgow but would you be willing to work with them in places like Aberdeenshire and Argyll and Bute where it could be more relevant to you in terms of having power? 

I don’t have the authority to rule anything out in my party. Decisions have to be taken by local party groups. The strong steer I am giving to Liberal Democrat groups is to not prop up failing administrations. I think Edinburgh and Glasgow are demonstrably failing and I think the electorate would have a very dim view if we came in to prop up a failing SNP administration. But it’s not for me to tell our local groups what to do. I have anxieties about working with the SNP because they’ve made it clear all eyes are on next year’s supposed independence referendum and that is the wrong priority.  I know that my council groups and their leaders share those anxieties, but it would be inappropriate for me to say they are barred from making certain decisions. 

You’ve talked about delivering a Robin Hood tax on energy companies in your manifesto. Why are you mentioning that in a local manifesto when that’s not something councils have any kind of power over? 

Well why is Nicola Sturgeon mentioning an independence referendum next year in her party’s manifesto? Elections are a great time to take the temperature of the country, to set out your stall, so people can not only see what your hard-working councillors will do for you but also it’s an opportunity to lay out where your values lie and what priorities you have for the nation. Oil and gas companies have never had it so good at a time when people are struggling to heat their homes, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to say they should pay their way with a Robin Hood tax.  

Does it not confuse people when you talk about things that councils can’t actually change?  

I don’t think so at all. Discussions on the doorstep don’t happen like that. People don’t just say what’s my council tax rate going to be and how regularly are you going to clear my garden waste, that’s not what those discussions are limited to. We need to talk about our bigger ideas at each layer of government so they can understand what makes us tick.