Scotland’s Constitution – Obsessed Debate is Wrecking Local Democracy. Time for a Change.

Graeme Downie | Twitter

Graeme Downie is the Scottish Labour council candidate for West Fife and coastal villages. By day, he is Director and owner of a communications and campaign consultancy. You can read more about Graeme here.

As a local council candidate, what strikes me speaking to people is that everyone, regardless of age, gender, background or political affiliation, wants to make their community and country, however they identify that, better. 

We know the divisiveness of the constitutional question has led many to believe nothing can be better without Scotland becoming independent, that’s not new.  But a side-effect of our current polarisation is a reduction in understanding of the various different levels of government, and in voters confidence it can deliver better and fairer outcomes.  The constitutional matters, nothing else.  

“Just keep banging the single question drum and no one cares what else you do. At worst, that level of tribalism can lead to corruption and the effective end to participatory democracy as voters excuse bad behaviour because of the answer to the binary distraction.”

At best that loss of confidence leads to sloppy governing, as I believe we are seeing at Holyrood now. Just keep banging the single question drum and no one cares what else you do. At worst, that level of tribalism can lead to corruption and the effective end to participatory democracy as voters excuse bad behaviour because of the answer to the binary distraction.

At local government level, I believe it is manifesting as disinterest among voters. This was evident in the recent polling by Our Scottish Future showing only a quarter of voters were confident they could name the leader of their local council. I think even that figure would drop further if we were to conduct a pop quiz to see if the 25% named the right person.

One of the many reasons for this, I believe, is a lack of attention and understanding of local government and what it does. Too many voters, when I have pointed out the role of councils in social care, economic development or education give me the same slightly blank look and talk about, you guessed it, potholes, bins and dog poo.  

Those things are important to providing better communities but they can’t be where local government begins and ends and I don’t think this is the fault of Councillors or voters. I think the constitutional question is causing a cycle of decline.  

Only focussing on the constitution has led to less interest in effective policy and governing at local level. That, understandably, causes frustration among Councillors and officials trying to govern and inevitably has a negative impact on delivery. Finally, poorer services further lowers voter expectation and convinces some of them only constitutional change can solve the ills and we start around again.

To break that cycle, we need to give local government its confidence back and raise voters expectations of it. Voters must know they can demand better and I know Councillors and officials are ready to deliver just that.

The elected Mayors or Provosts proposed by Our Scottish Future might be part of a solution but they are far from a silver bullet. We must be honest about that and not fall in to the same trap we have seen with the constitution. We need long-term public education that raises the profile and horizons of local government, to have constituents demand better of their Council and their Councillors.  

That grassroots pressure can push up and raise standards at other levels, improving governance and policy implementation whichever party is in power at whatever level.

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