The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland

The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland
The Jimmy Reid Foundation
April 2012


Scotland, with its many diverse communities, is a nation with a rich and diverse local tradition. However, this thriving ‘localism’ is not matched by a thriving local democracy; in fact, quite the opposite is the case.

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.

In most of Europe community politics is ‘normal’ – people you know, your friends and family or neighbours will routinely contest elections to represent your community. In Scotland we have created a system where community politics is ‘strange and distant’ – you probably don’t know many (if any) people who are involved in local politics. You probably don’t vote. You certainly end up with a council which is by far the most distant and unrepresentative of your community of any comparable country. And you wonder why confidence in local democracy is low?

This is an existential crisis for local democracy. If we do nothing to address this very clear problem we will end up with a nation in which politics is the preserve of a tiny cadre of professional politicians who are separate from the rest of society. We will continue to live in a country where professional managers make decisions for your community with little reference to your community, and they will continue to do it in ‘job lots’ – not building a school for you but building half a dozen schools for a standardised notion of what a community is. And these blanket policies applied across diverse communities will simply dilute diversity and create homogenous ‘clone towns’. Disillusionment and alienation will continue to rise and the gap between politics and the people will continue to widen.

In Scotland we have been kidding ourselves on that a few successful audits of local authority bureaucracy have shown there is no problem. But worse than that, the letters pages of many newspapers suggest that we aren’t even widely aware of our status as the least locally democratic nation in the developed world. This cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

So there are three core conclusions from this report:

•  Local democracy is important in principle and in practice
•  There is a clear democratic deficit in Scotland at the local level
•  To resolve this the Scottish Government should set up a Commission to devise a layer
 of democracy which can be established below the level of the existing local authorities

In considering how that might be done the report recommends:

•  There is no justification for any major restructuring of the administrative bureaucracy
 of existing local authorities; what is needed is not an extra layer of bureaucracy but
 an extra layer of democratic decision-making to guide and instruct that bureaucracy
•  There are some core principles that must be adhered to in devising that layer of
 democracy, central among which is that democracy must be universal and not
•  The proposals should be bold in following the principle of subsidiarity – we should
 trust communities to make as many as possible of the decisions which impact on
 them themselves, which means making sure they have the maximum possible power
•  However, it is important to also make clear that national government does have an
 important role in establishing national policy frameworks and in ensuring national
 minimum standards.

It also seeks to set the debate in context:

•  Cost should not be seen as a deterrent: as there is no proposal for restructuring the
 administrative function of existing local authorities the cost of introducing democratic
 councils should be no more than a few tens of millions of pounds at most
•  Fear of ‘competence’ must not inhibit the debate: the tendency of some professional
 politicians and administrators to assume communities are not capable of managing
 their own affairs is clearly contradicted by the experience from across Europe
• This is not a low-priority issue: the current structure which sees politics and decision  making take place distant from and with little reference to the people the decisions
 affect lies at the very heart of many of the major problems of disillusionment with
 democracy that are regularly identified in Scotland and the UK as a whole

We believe that this is a matter that should command strong cross-party support and urge
politicians of all parties to support these calls for reform.

For the full article see here.