It's time to take a new look at how local democracy engages people

Voter turnout in council elections has been declining for a number of years. So what can we do to turn that around in next year's elections?

05-05-2016. Picture Michael Gillen. GRANGEMOUTH. Grangemouth Town Hall, polling place. Scottish Parliament election 2016. Voting gets under way.

Fewer than 40 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote in the last council elections in 2012, reflecting a worrying downward trend in democratic participation. Proportional Representation and separating local and national elections don’t appear to have had any significant impact on turnout – but there is still a wider case for these reforms.

The Scottish Parliament’s Local Government Committee is conducting an inquiry into voter turnout. I am sure they will pick up on the range of practical suggestions that have been submitted in evidence and these could be an important contribution to a broader solution.

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Unison members deliver electoral registration services across Scotland, but as with other council services they have had to retrench to the statutory basics.

Dave Watson, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Unison Scotland

Nonetheless, there are examples of best practice, such as staff working with schools to register young voters, which could be expanded if the funding was made available. Modern Studies teachers also do a great job raising awareness, but the practice is not consistently applied across Scotland in a crowded curriculum.

Civil society is playing its role. Charities like Enable have done some excellent work in assisting people with a learning disability to vote. Trade unions have run registration and postal voting campaigns that ensure more of their members are registered and vote in elections.

There is also a role for civil society in creating a buzz around elections. Traditional hustings events have their place, but interactive events work better. Tabletop activities allow smaller groups of members to direct their specific concerns to the candidates. Politicians may find this more challenging because it’s less easy to duck the questions, but participants prefer them.

We could also make better use of social media. In the last election Unison produced a series of candidate question infographics for our members to use, which generated a high reach on Facebook and Twitter.

Dave Watson, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Unison Scotland

Political parties also have a role to play in improving turnout – not just with their traditional campaigning. Councillors are not generally representative of the communities they serve, when only 25 per cent of councillors are female. Councillors are also much older than the general population. This may reflect the unwillingness of people of working age to seek time off from work, despite the statutory entitlement. Being a councillor is too often viewed as a full-time commitment, when that was never the intention.

I can recall a previous local government minister being pilloried by councillors for describing them as part-time. The response in my council area was to put a centrespread in the council paper, showing councillors on duty from 7am to midnight. It is hard to imagine anything better designed to put working people off standing for the council!

Important though all these measures are, we have to recognise that voters will only turn out when they are meaningfully engaged and believe councils have real power to effect change in their communities.

When I talk to our sister unions in European countries that have higher election turnouts, two factors impress me. The first is the size of European councils and the corresponding number of elected representatives. For example, Scotland has on average 1 councillor per 4,270 people while France has 1 per 125. Many of Scotland’s “local” councils are far removed from real communities of place and the pressure is to make them bigger, under the false guise of economies of scale. Smaller councils would not only be more relevant and visible, but would be less demanding on’ time, encouraging a wider range of people to come forward.

Secondly, they are often unitary authorities, operating on the principle of subsidiarity. This means they run most local services, except those that cannot sensibly be run locally. In Scotland, local services are run by a large number of quangos, central government agencies and departments, as well as the council. Community planning does its best to coordinate, but to the voter, it all looks like the council isn’t running the show.

The Scottish Government is committed to reviewing the role of councils and health boards. Election turnout isn’t the only factor to be considered, but it should be an important factor in rebuilding respect for local democracy.

Finally, we know registration and voter turnout is lower in disadvantaged areas. When people living in poverty say that they can’t influence things, it’s because every day of their lives they see their needs and voices ignored by the powerful. Much is written about “hard to reach” groups – actually they are “seldom looked for”. Increasing turnout means ensuring that all voices are heard.

In the short term we can 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.

Dave Watson is the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland