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Rival Highland independents group promises 24/7 mentoring and ‘no whip’

Maxine Morley-Smith is inviting independent candidates to join her group. Photo by Sandy McCook
Maxine Morley-Smith is inviting independent candidates to join her group. Photo by Sandy McCook

Maxine Morley-Smith has written to independent election candidates inviting them to join her Highland Matters group.

Ms Morley-Smith formed the group with Pauline Munro and Pippa Hadley in 2019.

She says the group will put local issues first and provide mentoring and support to new councillors.

She also claims that the current independent group uses a whip system – something she promises to avoid.

‘Fed up with being ruled from Edinburgh’

Maxine Morley-Smith is the former leader of the SNP group at Highland Council. She quit the party in 2019.

“There were internal disagreements with councillors who wanted the limelight to become MSPs,” says Ms Morley-Smith in her letter. “We were fed up with being ruled from head office in Edinburgh, but getting little support from them when we needed it.”

Ms Morley-Smith and Ms Munro broke away from the SNP. Together with Green member Pippa Hadley, they set up a new independent group called Highland Matters.

Pauline Munro is standing for re-election as an independent candidate in Cromarty Firth.

Highland Matters group – which currently includes just Ms Morley-Smith and Ms Smith – hope to reach a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with any Green members elected.

Ms Morley-Smith claims three independent candidates have already shown an interest in joining her group.

She says she wants newly-elected independent councillors to “follow their hearts”.

“As an independent, councillors want to speak their mind, stick up for their own voters and speak passionately in chamber about their issues,” says Ms Morley-Smith. “Instead they join a group who might not share their view.”

The incumbent candidate claims several independent councillors have left the group because they wanted “freedom of speech”.

No whip, no problem

In her two-page letter to independent election candidates, Ms Morley-Smith explains the Highland political setup at length. She outlines the ‘whip’ system used by political groups.

“In the current independent group it is more relaxed,” she writes. “However members have been asked to leave on several occasions if they constantly disagree with their colleagues or speak against the group line.”

In the last political term, the independent group expelled Councillor Andrew Baxter.

However, independent candidate John Finlayson says he is “amazed and disappointed” by these claims.

Mr Finlayson has been a member of the independent group for five years and says there is no whip ethos.

“What does happen however is that compromise and discussion takes place, which is often guided by what members feel is best for their individual wards,” he said.

“That of course is what should happen instead of there being a central office agenda that is imposed on members who are part of a political party.”

Mr Finlayson says Ms Morley-Smith’s “efforts to split” the group won’t work.

“I am confident that the collaborative ethos that currently prevails will ensure any successful candidates stay as part of the official Independent group, who promote free speech, individual opinion and compromise.”

What is Highland Matters promising?

Ms Morley-Smith claims to be making an offer that the larger group can’t match.

In her letter, she offers to personally mentor any councillor joining the group.

This mentorship will include press training and writing motions for council. Ms Morley-Smith says she will be available 24/7 on WhatsApp.

Although there will be no whip, she concedes that the group will “try to win you over with sound reasoning”.

older people's champions
Voters will decide the new political makeup of the Highland Council chambers. Picture by Sandy McCook.

She asked candidates to consider if the larger group will offer this kind of support.

“They may suddenly decide to copy us, but you’d need to ask which one of them will give you the personal commitment that I am giving you,” she writes.

“I have a track record of working as a team player but also as a leader and anyone will tell you that I’m a very conscientious and hard working councillor.

“You can trust me to deliver and trust me to keep my word.”

Meanwhile, the main political parties have published their own priorities for the Highland Council election.

Polls open at 7am today.

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