Our constitution, July 2012: local government

“Constitutional recognition of the role and principles of local government”

Scotland has about 5.2 million people spread across 78,782 square kilometers – and 1,222 elected councillors.

From the Jimmy Reid Foundation:

It is time we fully recognised the state of democracy in Scotland. Below the national level, Scotland is the least democratic country in the European Union; some have argued that it is the least democratic country in the developed world. We elect fewer people to make our decisions than anyone else and fewer people turn out to vote in those elections than anyone else. We have much bigger local councils that anyone else, representing many more people and vastly more land area than anyone else, even other countries with low density of population. In France one in 125 people is an elected community politicians. In Austria, one in 200. In Germany one in 400. In Finland one in 500. In Scotland it is one in 4,270 (even England manages one in 2,860). In Norway one in 81 people stand for election in their community. In Finland one in 140. In Sweden one in 145. In Scotland one in 2,071. In Norway 5.5 people contest each seat. In Sweden 4.4 people. In Finland 3.7 people. In Scotland 2.1. In every single indicator we were able to identify to show the health of local democracy, Scotland performs worst of any comparator we could find. (The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland)

Orkney has a population of 20,000 and 21 elected councillors; if you live in Orkney, one in 952 of your local population is a councillor, and one in every 435 stand for election. (Also, in Orkney, independents win elections. Nonetheless, the same pattern of stale-male-pale exists there as everywhere else in Scotland.) The Orkneys are 990 square kilometers of land: one councillor for every 47 square kilometers.

Glasgow has a population of 592,000 (in the local authority area) and and 79 elected councillors: if you live in Glasgow, one in 7493 of your local population is a councillor, and one in 2728 stand for election. In order to stand any chance of winning a seat, you must join a political party: if you live in Glasgow and seriously want to be a councillor, your best chance is to join either Labour or SNP. Glasgow is 175.5 square kilometers: one councillor for every 2.22 square kilometers.

The Highlands local authority area has a population of 221,600 and 80 elected councillors: if you live in the Highlands, one in 2770 of your local population is a councillor, and one in 1303 stands for election. (Independents and party members are about 50:50.) The Highlands is 30,659 square kilometers: one councillor for every 383 square kilometers.

One of the suggestions that came up at the People’s Gathering was for an additional layer of local government – not at regional level but genuinely local. Another thing that came up – across tables – was people’s discouragement with party rule at local government level.

Why should someone who wants to get involved locally in how their community is run have to join a party in order to get to be a local councillor? I worked to get Gordon Murdie elected (and he and his tiny and unfunded campaign team did better than any other independent standing for election that year in Edinburgh: better than all but one independent candidate in 2007) but his failure made me understand something about how the Edinburgh local elections work.

In each constituency, there are three or four seats to be won. Five main parties will each stand a candidate (or sometimes two – SNP this year). It doesn’t really matter who else stands: they will get knocked out in the early rounds. Five party candidates, three or four seats: it’s not a political campaign so much as a game of musical chairs.

Then all the parties with significant numbers of seats will spend the weekend doing deals and trading favours until they have worked out a coalition to create a majority on the council.

It can be quite literally completely irrelevant how voters voted. (Stirling Council, for example, blandly came up with a Labour-Conservative coalition.)

Of course in a year where voters are significantly pissed at the party they perceive as responsible for the trams (and in coalition with the Tories down south) the LibDems can massively fail to gain seats and the Greens can gain enough to become respectable coalition partners. But mostly, in this system: you’re unlikely to know your councillor personally, your councillor is unlikely to have any idea of what your local issues are from personal experience, and unless you are yourself a party-joiner (and it needs to be the right party) you are unikely ever to have stood for office or to win if you did stand.

Why shouldn’t the principle of local government be to devolve decisions (and budgets) to the most appropriate level?

The interesting thing about this:

Local government is devolved. If a Scottish Constitution outlines a new layer of Scottish democratic government, or mandates a better democratic representation for Scotland, this does not need to wait on independence.

The real difficuty would be convincing the five parties that largely benefit from the present system that it should change…..

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Filed under Elections, Scottish Constitution, Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics

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