Scottish council elections: National politics overshadowing local issues is a problem. Directly elected Provosts could be the answer – John McLellan
Over the next week you will be bombarded with messages about how important it is to get out and vote in this Thursday’s council elections, or to send a message to Boris, Nicola, your local council leader, or whoever else you might think is paying attention. Half of the electorate won’t bother.
As you are reading this column, there is a fair chance you will be in the message-sending half, unless your democratic choice is to cast a plague on all political houses.
And from what I know of Scotsman readership demographics, there is high probability you will already have been to the pillar box with your ballot paper safely tucked in its pre-paid envelope because, in Edinburgh at least, by last Thursday some 52 per cent of the 93,000 postal votes had been received.
By the time you read this, the figure will be up to 60 per cent, around 58,000 votes, so going by 2017’s 187,000 turnout, a third of the total Edinburgh vote has already been cast. As just under four-fifths of postal votes are usually taken up, by the time the polls open on Thursday morning 40 per cent of the vote will have been decided.
Council elections have notoriously low levels of engagement, with 2017’s Scottish turnout of 46.9 per cent regarded as a success compared to 2012’s 39.7, and it’s hard to tell if the momentum will be maintained from the record 63.5 per cent turnout in last year’s Scottish Parliament poll.
Being charitable, or naïve, maybe SNP strategists believe local services don’t motivate enough people to participate and so have not focused their campaign on the nitty-gritty of council responsibilities.
In their position who wouldn’t use First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity rating as their electoral joker, or rather Boris Johnson’s unpopularity? But, as the drastic deterioration of council services, including education, has mainly been caused by the Scottish Government’s financial asphyxiation of local authorities, drawing attention to dissatisfaction with basic services is the last thing they need.
Polling suggests cynical and costly political decisions like ferry contracts or the calamitous split of the Scottish Census from the UK will make little difference to Thursday’s results, but the SNP’s relentless focus on a personality cult and an independence referendum it knows it dare not try to call, is not just diminishing the role of councils, but of councillors who just become counters in a national beauty contest, not people selected and elected for their skills and expertise.
Edinburgh is as good an example as any, where five capable SNP councillors who wanted to get on with the job for which they were elected found themselves forced out or dumped because they were out of step with the ruling core.
It also means voters endorsing plans they vehemently oppose because their decision is based on national mood not local choices; in Edinburgh, sending Boris a message from Nicola becomes an endorsement for workplace parking levies, congestion charging, controlled-parking zones, and badly designed bin hubs, despite public consultations exposing such deep opposition to the SNP’s programme that it must include many SNP voters.
Council elections are the only way for the public to hold their local representatives to account, so if votes are not cast on the basis of local outcomes, it represents a failure of accountability.
There are occasions when national momentum marries up with local priorities, like 2007 when Jack McConnell’s Scottish Executive ran out of puff and Labour was discredited in Edinburgh by the congestion charge referendum defeat and the disastrous tram project, and again in 2012 when the Lib Dems were destroyed by their stewardship of the tram disaster and the decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster two years before.
But in Glasgow and Edinburgh this doesn’t look like one of those moments.
Despite repeated scandals and a hugely expensive series of inquiries into abusive behaviour of social work, education and care staff which would finish off most administrations, if national polling is to be believed, Edinburgh’s controlling SNP group will be rewarded for being complicit in trying to prevent the public knowing the full truth, aggressively defending the record of senior council officers, even praising those with ultimate management responsibility.
With a new standards code which compels councillors to protect their authority’s reputation, a local Scottish Public Services Ombudsman which is ineffective and pitifully slow, and no reliable means of scrutinising chief officers, the entire system of accountability is broken.
I have long been sceptical about directly elected provosts, but for Glasgow and Edinburgh at least their time may have come. Individual council leaders do not have the clout to stand up to the Scottish Government, even if they wanted to, so Edinburgh and Glasgow’s SNP leaders are lickspittle satraps, compared to Andy Street in Birmingham or Manchester’s Andy Burnham who are directly accountable for their record.
The biggest test the respective leaders of Glasgow and Edinburgh councils face to land their £55,000-a-year jobs are community council hustings and a group AGM, no training ground for leadership of cities competing on international stages.
Both councils take decisions with far-reaching consequences for the neighbouring authorities, whose residents have no say whatsoever, so what’s needed are elected Provosts for the city regions to coordinate and balance competing interests.
Candidates to be Lothians Provost, with control over regional housing, transport and health, couldn’t just stand on flimsy sloganeering, and the intensity of a campaign focussed on individual ability would expose weaknesses which are never tested in a council campaign.
The obvious flaw is the centralising SNP won’t support anything which might pose a threat. Why create a Greater Glasgow Provost whose writ might extend to a third of the population, or a Lothian Provost with a mandate to tackle Scottish Government failure to address the housing shortage? The alternative is a system in which half the people can’t be bothered to vote.
John McLellan is standing down as an Edinburgh Conservative councillor
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