SCOTLAND is the least democratic nation at a local level of any in Europe leading to widespread disinterest in regional politics across the country, according to a new report by a leading think-tank.
The study, by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, concludes that whereas voters in many countries in continental Europe will know friends, family or neighbours who routinely contest elections to represent their communities, local politics in Scotland is “strange and distant”. It warns that, with no reform, politics will become “the preserve of a tiny cadre of professional politicians who are separate from the rest of society.”
The report has been published ahead of Thursday’s local government elections in Scotland in which only one third of the electorate is expected to turn out to vote. The Foundation says it is no wonder that the electorate is switched off when they feel so “removed” from local politics, and suggests that a new layer of local democracy should be created, copying systems in Germany, where individuals are elected to represent smaller localities. The aim should then be to drive as much power down to this level as possible, giving communities far more say over how they organise local services.
Robin McAlpine, Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and one of the report authors, said: “At the local level in Scotland, the administration is basically fine, but the democracy is an absolute disaster. I don’t think anyone really believes they can use their vote to change their community any more. That just can’t be acceptable.”
The Foundation’s report compared Scotland to another nine other European countries, including the UK as a whole. Scots were found to be the least likely to have got involved in local politics. In Norway, one in 84 people stood for election, in Sweden one in 145, while in Scotland the figure is one in 2,071.
The ratio of people to councillors in Scotland is also higher than anywhere else, at one for every 4,270 people. In France, the report says, the figure is one for every 125 people. Even in the UK as a whole, the figure is far lower, at one for every 2,860.
Scotland’s 32 councils also, on average, are the largest geographically in Europe, and also serve the largest number of people, with a figure of 163,200 voters. The average EU council services 5,630 voters, the report declares.
The report comes amid long-standing claims that local government in Scotland has been largely overshadowed over the last decade as attention has turned to the Scottish Parliament. In England, referenda will be held this week on whether to introduce new directly elected mayors across the country – plans opposed by the Scottish Government in Edinburgh.
But the Foundation’s report does not believe that elected provosts or a major re-organisation of councils would be the panacea to solve the problems in councils. Rather, it suggests that new “local councils” should be created of varying sizes.