Local democracy beyond the ballot box

In just 7 days, Scotland will go to the polls to elect the councillors that will be responsible for delivering local services over the next 5 years. Last night, I participated in a discussion about local democracy, its challenges and opportunities, organised by RIC Edinburgh. I opened the discussion with these words.

Good evening everyone, and thank you very much for inviting me to participate in this discussion this evening. It’s a joy and an honour to be with you all, and I very much look forward to listening to your thoughts and ideas after Brian and I have said a few words.

I have said, often, that I want our politics to be about more than elections, more than putting an ‘x’ or a number in a box on a ballot paper on a Thursday in May (or June), and certainly more than political parties (I’m not going to talk much about political parties, but perhaps we can in discussion later on?). I want our politics to be embedded, consciously, in the everyday, to have citizens across the country who have power over their own lives and the decisions that affect them, to have communities who thrive because they have the resources and support they need to do so.

And this means a radically different approach to democracy.

It is clear that, with Westminster politics in its current shambolic state, with a megalomaniac but weak prime minister and a leader of the opposition who does not have the support of his party behind him, and therefore cannot challenge the government effectively, we are inhabiting a sham democracy. I do not believe that we have a functioning democracy in the UK. And what is my evidence for this? Well, where to begin?

Firstly, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain part of the EU, and yet the PM is determined to ignore our wishes, and has refused to engage either country in any meaningful discussion, despite the repercussions for the Good Friday Agreement or further devolution for Scotland.

Secondly, Scotland voted to remain part of the UK on the promise of continued EU membership and increased prosperity, and yet the poverty gap is increasing, and, well, the mess that is Brexit speaks for itself.

Thirdly, and this shows that the lack of democracy is not very recent, despite the fact that a million people marched against the Iraq war 14 years ago, and there was no evidence that WMDs were ready to launch, Blair took us into a war that made the destabilisation of the Middle East inevitable.

And in Scotland, and at local government level, there is also plenty of evidence that our democracy is broken.

As Lesley Riddoch and others have documented very clearly, Scotland has the least local local democracy in Europe. It is not local. It is overly centralised. And the Scottish Government over the last few years has done little to give local government anything like the new lease of life it needs. Freezing the Council Tax rather than reforming local taxation meant cuts to services and alienation of communities. There has been virtually no interest beyond communities and the Scottish Greens to give communities third party right of appeal in planning decisions. The plans to take power away from Education Authorities and hand it to Head Teachers instead indicate a worrying trend away from democratic oversight and control.

So, we have our work cut out for us. The only way to deal with the undemocratic, perhaps even anti-democratic forces operating at Westminster and to a lesser extent at Holyrood, is to rethink local democracy. And the left must play a fundamental part in this.

It won’t be easy, however. It is clear that, whilst all that I have described so far has been happening, the left, in Scotland and beyond, has not been able to intervene in ways that lead to the kinds of transformations required.

For a long time, I think, the left has mistaken centralisation for solidarity. One thing we need to understand is that governing ourselves collectively is perhaps the most fundamental principle of the left.

So we need to seek ways in which we can act collectively without centralising, we need to identify opportunities to educate our communities about the mechanisms of local democracy, and we need to resist the knee-jerk reaction that it is all too difficult, or that there is something more important going on. We know that the instinct in many politicians (both left and right) is to take power off people, and that this drives the population to the right.

When we’ve argued for a radically different type of democracy, the response often is that there is something more important happening nationally, or some other crisis too great to allow ourselves to be side-tracked.

In the Greens, we’ve faced this dilemma before. When talking about climate change, there have been those who have argued that the crisis posed by climate change is too great to allow ourselves to be distracted by talk of giving power to communities, or campaigning for decent jobs. But there is ample evidence that those people who have done best at tackling climate change are also those who have been able to take control over their own lives. If we look at the island of Eigg, some people argued against the community buy out because, obviously, the community would use their newfound power to strip the island of its assets. Instead, we know that the community has gone from strength to strength, tackling not only climate change issues, but also creating local job security, community solidarity, and so much more.

So, for those of us who want a local democracy that is truly local and democratic, but also supported and resourced properly?

The first thing I think is that we need to find whatever ways we can to include people. With the local elections next week, we can start by focussing on the things that our councils control. We must demand participatory democracy: things like participatory budgeting (like Leith Decides), participatory planning (not just the planning system, but wider planning about all aspects of education planning, health and social care planning, and so much more).

We must also embrace technology: we must make better use of online tools, not just to communicate, but for decision making too. There are lots of people for whom the old model of daytime or evening meetings is not inclusive. It a process or system excludes, then it does not serve democracy.

Including people in decision-making not only gives them a real stake in those decisions, it also benefits transparency and accountability. It involves people in delivering the social justice outcomes we want to see, but also shows them what resources are available, and that there really is money for genuine social security, for decent public services. It will also make false economies much harder to implement: the idea that cutting a meals on wheels service will save money will be seen for the lunacy it is: not only is it inhumane, it will also mean that people will end up in hospital, malnourished and unwell.

So, with 8 days to go before the local elections, what can we do.

We need to look for a genuine intention to devolve power from councils to communities – things like citizens’ assemblies to determine voting behaviour of councillors, for example. We need to call for more transparency so that participation in decisions is possible. We must work with others to build decision making into our everyday life, supporting housing cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, and so on. We can identify specific campaigns that magnify the benefits of local democratic engagement, such as calling for council and other public sector divestment from arms and fossil fuels, and demanding a better kind of settlement for local government from national government.

Using the very poor attempt at local democracy we have next week to these ends is only the beginning. We do need a radically different relationship between different levels of government, nevermind more genuine local government. We also need improved participation, engagement and transparency in all aspects of public sector governance and structures. And an element of this must be genuine inclusion of people so often marginalised by politics: women, people of colour, disabled people, people from the LGBTQI+ communities, and so on.

So, we’ve got a lot of work to do, especially given what will be happening on 8th June. If we allow Westminster politics to dominate our discussions, without using this as an opportunity to talk about a different kind of politics, about doing politics differently, we will not be doing our jobs as citizens of a better world. I firmly believe the politics of Westminster, not to mention its electoral system, belong in the history books, not in the politics of a forward looking and open democracy. The denial of a vote to 16 and 17 year olds is a disgrace. The calling of a snap election is about the wielding of power over people rather than the sharing of power with people.

But we cannot afford to be defeated in our quest for something better. I know a better Scotland is what motivates many of you here this evening. And I look forward to joining you all out on the streets, in our communities, at our bus stops, in our shops, talking, sharing, doing politics … the kind of politics that we want and deserve.

 

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