Alice Kinghorn-Gray: Scotland's democratic deficit must be overcome

Scotland has a long way to go before it can be regarded as truly democratic, writes Alice Kinghorn-Gray

An Electoral Reform Society survey found 76 per cent felt they had no influence on council spending
An Electoral Reform Society survey found 76 per cent felt they had no influence on council spending

If democracy was to be judged solely on levels of representation, Scotland would be considered the least democratic country in the European Union.

There is just one “local” representative for every 4,270 people – compared to one in 200 in Austria, one in 400 in Germany, and one in 2,860 in England.

This is undoubtedly a major problem with our democracy and sadly it is far from the only one.

A real centralisation of power has left people from the Orkney Island to Dumfries feeling bypassed when it comes to vital decisions about their communities.

When the Electoral Reform Society surveyed people across the country it found that 76 per cent felt they had no or very little influence on council spending or services.

Sadly, this has become the norm – for people to feel completely detached from council HQs based in entirely different communities.

It’s worth remembering that councils are funded by the taxpayer and were set up to serve the taxpayer.

The big decision-makers, the well-paid top brass, are of course elected by ordinary citizens. But that should not be where people’s involvement ends. Democracy is not about one vote every four years.

After all, councils make vital policy and spending decisions on so many aspects of our daily life. This ranges from how often your bins are collected, to the social care your relatives receive, and how local housing needs are met.

It is clear to us that big changes are needed in how are politics operates. It’s why tomorrow we have invited reformers and campaigners from across Scotland to gather in Glasgow for a major conference.

The idea of Democracy 21 is to imagine a new, better democracy which places power in the hands of people.

Speakers lined up include representatives from the media, Open Democracy, Common Weal, NUS Scotland and Well­being Economy Alliance.

It will be far from entirely academic: it’s work and outputs will feed into the Scottish Government’s Local Democracy Bill, for which we have high hopes. And the conversations will cover how we regulate online campaigning in the “digital Wild West”, how to rein in fake news, and dealing with the rise in populism.

And while the exact nature of what a reformed politics might look like has yet to be defined, the driving force must be placing power at the grassroots.

Power must lie with the people who know their communities best and have the interests of the community at heart.

That is a true democracy – people having the necessary tools to determine their own futures. For too long people have been subject to decisions made by others, feeling helpless to affect the glaring injustices right before their eyes. At the moment, most of us do not have the power to make important decisions at the community level: power is exercised over us by the ­government, by the council, or by companies who don’t work with our community interests at their core.

But if democracy is about anything it is about citizens being able to run their own affairs. That is why we have been asking people to “act as if you own the place”. We have encouraged communities all over Scotland to hold “Act As If” councils: events bringing local people together to talk about how they want to run their communities. The plan is that talk turns into action and people go beyond acting as if they own the place, to actually owning it. The success of these projects – local “deliberative” events – shows people are willing and able to work together to make decisions for themselves.

What is also encouraging is the Scottish Government appears to be on board with the need to redistribute power.

In the last few weeks it has launched its initial consultation around local governance, called Democracy Matters.

The opening sentence of the consultation document is a recognition of the fact that “somebody somewhere is making demands on your behalf”.

But, it continues, “something has begun to change. There is a growing recognition that it is often better for decisions about the issues that affect different communities in Scotland to be taken with more active involvement of those communities.

“Whether that is communities in different places organising at a very local level, or communities with a shared interest organising at a more regional level.

“This enables public services to work in ways which meet local circumstances and reflect the priorities of different communities.”

Respondents are asked for their views on which areas they would like more control over and what would be required to deliver such additional powers.

ERS Scotland is encouraging as many people as possible to take part in the consultation – it is a rare opportunity for citizens to shape how our democracy operates.

As part of Democracy 21 we have also today launched a Declaration on Local Democracy to act as a focal point for those who share our view that there needs to be a decentralisation of power.

It calls for a truly local democracy, with towns and villages able to decide for themselves.

It calls for a truly participatory democracy, in which citizens are regularly involved, rather than being side-lined until an election.

And it calls for a truly powerful democracy, in which citizens have the resources to implement their visions.

Politics in Scotland is already more open and inclusive than in England, thanks in part to a better electoral system. But being better than Westminster isn’t getting over a particularly high bar.

Scotland does not escape the inequality, confusion and precariousness that is fuelling volatility across the globe.

Communities are ready to redesign their local democracy to work better for them, allowing them to flourish by taking control of their future.

There are inspiring signs that though Scotland’s democratic deficit is large, it can be overcome. Democracy21 marks the next step in that journey.

Alice Kinghorn-Gray is campaigns organiser for the Electoral Reform Society Scotland