Democracy on your Doorstep

“When you are in local government, you are on the ground, and you are looking into the eyes and hearts of the people you are there to serve. It teaches you to listen; it teaches you to be expansive in the people with whom you talk to, and I think that that engagement gives you political judgment.” – Valerie Jarrett

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

Scotland is now in full campaign mode for our Local Authority elections. There will be leaflets stuffed through letterboxes. There will be photos of smiling campaigners with their Great Responses At The Doors. There will be enticements and blame games, celebrations of political records and promises of what will absolutely, definitely come your way if you only vote for one candidate or another.

For a first time or an inexperienced voter, this can be a confusing time – especially when various parties are all telling you to vote in a particular way. If you do happen to be a first time voter and would like to know how the voting system works in this election and how your vote translates into seats then I have written a political party neutral guide over on my personal blog here. I’m also in the process of collecting as many party manifestos as I can here – not as an endorsement of any them but to make it easier to compare and contrast all of them.

I’m proud of my own push for elected office five years ago and I really think it’s a thing that as many people as possible should do and should be able to do at least once. Even if you don’t win (as I didn’t), there’s a certain rite of passage to it and it can act as a window into a world that would otherwise be even more closed off and opaque that it currently is. The more people who are directly  involved in politics, the less the sector is able to close itself off into a clique who act only for themselves.

There’s another barrier in Scotland that acts to prevent people getting involved in the politics of the country and that’s Scotland’s abnormally centralised democracy. What we’re right now calling our “Local” elections are anything but. That lack of democracy is not just a barrier to politics getting done but also a barrier to people (especially people with young families or accessibility needs) from getting involved in politics – if folk are barred from making decisions that affect them, they will always come off the worst for it.

In most countries in Europe there are up to four tiers of Government. The largest you could call “National” or “Federal”, below that you’ll find some kind of “State” level government, then a “Regional” government and finally, the most local of all, a “local” or “municipal” government. These lowest tiers of government are often extremely small. Rarely larger than a whole town or a collection of villages but sometimes as small as a single hamlet – the smallest municipality in Germany is the island of Gröde in Germany with a population of just seven people.

In Scotland, there are effectively three tiers of government that exercise power over our lives and communities. Being a unitary state, the “National” government is the UK Parliament in Westminster. The devolved Scottish Parliament is the closest we have to a “State” Government – for the important differences in parity, power and esteem between a devolved government and a true state government, see my paper on UK Federalism here. Below this, we have our “Local” Authorities – many of which are larger in geography and/or population than some small European countries. Below this, we have effectively nothing. Even many English parish councils are more powerful. We do have a statutory right to Community Councils and don’t get me wrong, the places that do have functioning and effective Community Councils do see good work come out of them but they are not a substitute for municipal government.  For a start, these councils have next to no actual power and effectively no budget. This lack of power has led to an ossification in many places where the council has become dysfunctional and a place where small fish exercise their control over even smaller ponds. Worse, across about half of Scotland, these community councils don’t exist at all. This includes my own village where a suggestion a few years ago to the local community group that we should form one was met with a horrified, despairing reaction of “but that means we might have to have elections”.

My wife and her family are German so their example is the one closest to me in terms of comparative experience. My Schwiegervater lives, geopolitically, in a very similar place to us in Scotland. We both live in a village (ours with about 2,000 people; his about 700), near a slightly larger town (ours with about 15,000 people; his about 30,000) and within a reasonable commute of a major city of about a million-ish people (Glasgow for us, Cologne for him). Above that, our “State” populations diverge somewhat – North Rhine-Westphalia has a population of about 17 million compared to Scotland’s 5.4-ish million. Then, of course, Germany is a little larger than the UK with populations of 83 million and 67 million respectively.

Now, comparing the respective power of each of these government tiers is inevitably tricky. Absolute or even per-capita spends don’t always tell the full story – for example, German public spending per capita is significantly lower than UK public spend per capita and a good chunk of the difference appears to lie in the fact that German healthcare is largely privatised. What may be a slightly better way of looking at things is to examine where public spending is controlled as a percentage of overall budgets. This line of reasoning led me down a rabbit hole of trying to track down, translate and then read piles of German municipal budget records. It’s about as fun as you can imagine (for a stats geek…quite a lot!). It also led me to speaking about that journey in the keynote speech to the Scottish Community Development Network at the tail end of last year and which you can watch below:

Scottish Community Development Network

What we find in Scotland is that spending is incredibly centralised. About 84% of public spending in (or on behalf of) Scotland for “me” in my area is controlled by either the UK or Scottish Government. The remaining 14% is controlled by my “local” authority in South Lanarkshire – a region that stretches from the outskirts of Glasgow, through the urban Central Belt of Hamilton and East Kilbride down through rural Clydesdale till it meets the Borders.

As I mentioned above, I don’t have a Community Council in my village but even if I did, they wouldn’t control any public budgets to speak of.

Public Spending in Scotland
Public Spending in Germany

Contrast this with Germany where the Federal Government isn’t even the “most powerful” tier of government in terms of spending on my father-in-law’s public services and between them and the state government in North Rhine-Westphalia only account for only about 70% of total public spending. Cologne’s regional government is significantly less powerful than South Lanarkshire at about 10% of total spending but look at the difference in spending from a local level. Almost one public euro in every five is spent directly by the local municipal council that, in his area, covers the local town and its surrounding villages. As an interesting aside, I also discovered that our two regions have a public Participatory Budgeting scheme and Cologne’s has been praised as an example to look at in European democratic circles. However, on a per capita basis it is only a fraction of the size of South Lanarkshire’s own PB scheme. This could be a subject for another time but I wonder if the comparative strength of German local government means that it simply doesn’t need such ad hoc funding streams to fill in the gaps.

Common Weal has already published a blueprint for local government reform in Scotland that would restore some form of localism – our Development Councils take the best of what our Community Councils have to offer but expand, improve and empower them and the citizens of the community who would control them. They would, yes, be based on a model of drawing powers down from Local Authorities but that should preclude a wider discussion about devolving powers from elsewhere. The example of Germany shows that if Scotland does decide to restore a form of truly local government then it cannot be a case solely of devolving powers from regional government to local but should involve a wholesale view of where powers should lie across the board. I am a big believer in subsidiarity which means that powers shouldn’t be devolved down from above at all. Instead, all power should be presumed to lie with the municipal government and only devolved upwards to a higher level when a compelling case is made to do so.

And, of course, while I’ve discussed powers of public spending here I haven’t touched at all powers of tax and revenue raising. The same principles should apply here too and local councils should be granted much more in the way of ability to fund its own programmes (balanced, of course, by some kind of levelling mechanism between richer and poorer regions). The irony of the Scottish Government right now is that it is quick (though correct) to complain that its own powers and own funding avenues are too limited and too tightly controlled by the government above it but then treats the government below it in almost exactly the same way with even the one major tax power in the hands of Local Authorities – Council Tax – tied up just as tightly and too often used as leverage against our councils.

As we go and vote in our “local” elections this year we have to remember that the way Scotland is run is very far from what our neighbours in Europe would call normal. Campaigns for this kind of democratic reform in Scotland are not coming from a place of “radical transformation”. We’re already the outlier in a continent where democracy starts at your doorstep. It’s the country we deserve too. Creating it merely requires those who currently grip tightly to their reigns of power – at all levels above the local – let go a little and trust us to run ourselves. For those of us in the independence movement, this is already one of the most compelling arguments in favour of our national cause. Scotland deserves to be a normal country and that starts with allowing us to make decisions right here, on our doorsteps.

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