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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Reinvigorate local democracy to increase voter engagement

The turnout in local government elections has been declining for a number of years. That's unlikely to change until we reinvigorate local democracy.

Today, I was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament Local Government Committee's inquiry into local government and voting. There was a useful discussion of short-term initiatives to improve registration and voting. However, there was also a recognition that wider local government reform was needed to re-engage voters.

In the short-term, there is much that civil society, including trade unions, are doing to encourage registration, postal voting and greater engagement in the political process. Like others, we have found the traditional hustings less engaging than smaller tabletop discussions. As with other council services, registration sections are having to retrench to the statutory basics. None the less there are examples of best practice, such as staff working with schools to register young voters, that could be expanded, if the funding was made available. 

Creating more of a local media buzz around elections would help, although I am less convinced about the merits of the rapidly disappearing posters on street furniture. Schools are doing positive work through modern studies, but this is not consistently applied across Scotland in a crowded curriculum.

Political parties could do more to ensure their candidates are more representative of the electorate. Most obviously in terms of gender, with only 25% of councillors being women. There is also a shortage of working age councillors and more could be done to encourage employers to view civic engagement as something to be valued. 

The size of councils in Scotland, the largest in Europe, is also a problem. It means they are more remote from the electorate and seem less relevant to local issues. The turnout in some European countries with much smaller councils, based on real communities is impressively high. It also means people would be more willing to contribute their time to participate in local democracy as voters, engaged citizens and stand for election. Being a councillor shouldn't always be a full-time role.

Another relevant feature of councils in Europe is that they are often unitary authorities, responsible for almost all local services. In Scotland, we have an array of public bodies and quangos, only loosely brought together through community planning. We have also seen ever greater centralisation, with powers removed from councils and ministers taking greater powers of direction. With powers spread amongst so many decision makers, many at national level, it's not hard to see why people feel disengaged. 

Democracy is about more than voting every four years. Councils can do more to meaningfully engage with their communities. A range of initiatives from citizens juries to participatory budgeting have been tried, with mixed success. I suspect that won't change until people believe they have real power to effect change in their communities.

So, in the short-term we can take action to improve registration and postal voting, by resourcing councils with the active support of civil society. However, in the longer term we have to respect local democracy, with councils that have the powers to effect real change, working with citizens from the bottom up. Only then will more voters deem local elections important enough to fully participate.

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