Make democracy local

A quarter of Scots in a recent BMG poll for the Electoral Reform Society (Herald 20 November 2016) said they would rather finish the ironing than go out and vote in a council election. While our commitment to neat clothing is commendable, our disregard for local democracy is both frightening and understandable.

Westminster elections have always had the highest levels of voter turnout in any elections in Scotland. In council elections, the vote has only ever reached over 50% when it was coupled with Scottish Parliament elections, peaking in 1999 at 58%, when they were joined up with the first vote for the new Parliament. The last council election in 2012 was decoupled from the Scottish Parliament elections and turnout fell to 39%. No doubt such a large drop was an effect of the elections standing alone but this was also the lowest turnout in Scottish local elections since the wholesale restructuring of local government in 1974.  Democracy

While we Scots like to think of ourselves as different, we are often still very ‘British’. Status and power is built around hierarchy with the most ‘important’ being at the top. Harking back not to legitimacy awarded from the people but what seems like a psychological throwback to the divine right of kings.

If the people truly are the source of legitimacy, then the why is it that local democracy – close to where we live, the communities, the towns and villages that we think of as ‘our’ places – seems to be even less important to us than the faltering British state? This is also where the many of the services that touch our lives most are said to be run from; planning, education, town centres, roads and transport, parks and open spaces, community safety, housing etc. Should this not be where most of our democratic interest lies?

It would be naïve to attempt to look at the problems of the local state without viewing them in the context of the problems for the state as an entire institution. Or, to single out the state as the only institution that seems insufficient in a changed time. All of them: banks, political parties, media, financial and economic system, unions, civil service, even charities; all designed in a time of ‘Fordism’ have scraped and ground forward like tectonic plates. While in contrast, our society although still dependent upon them, has moved at the speed of light. Information, communication and crucially the relationships and perspectives formed by them have been driven by a technological revolution as profound as it is rupturing. It is little wonder that these institutions now seem unfit for purpose.

Add to this the realisation that global capital relies less and less on democratic states to facilitate trade and markets, we see we are trying to operate in an environment increasingly hostile to democracy. The difficulty of siting great power in institutions that were supposed to reflect our society is that often that power was used to resist responding to external pressures that might have caused evolution. The mechanisms that were supposed to make them responsive, most importantly elections and then measuring public opinion have long ago diminished in potency.

The steady erosion of trust in these symbols is deeply harmful to democracy as an idea. Thanks to the freeing up of information people suspect they can now see that they are being manipulated. Spin, public relations and marketing techniques (often taken from sociology and misused) have sought to tell us particular stories about our lives and the world. Public ‘narrative creation’ has become a sophisticated technique of protecting established power relationships. It is now the case that more and more people can feel the difference between ‘the story’ and the reality. Both the institutions and the mechanisms that are supposed to make them accountable have ever decreasing levels of legitimacy. This disconnect is throwing up an increasing numbers of morbid symptoms including eye watering inequality and resultant populist shocks.

A significant part of the population is struggling, poor or in debt or often both. Despite the ramping up of state systems of discipline through the welfare state and ‘blame shaming’ through narrative creation mentioned above, people are no longer willing to accept only individual responsibility for their struggles. Many feel humiliated, they try so hard yet still fail in creating the lives we are all told we should have. This humiliation is a powerful sentiment driving disillusion.

The local state is part of this. Developed from a history and culture of feudalism and peaking in trust as most of our democracy did at the heights of equality and social mobility in the late 1960s, it has been in steady decline ever since. It was sometimes corrupt and unfair. Obvious examples are council house allocation through a ‘kent cooncillor’ or the buying of the planning system. Local government was also peopled with committed and caring public servants determined to make their communities fairer and better. Often they were fighting rear guard actions against the effects of central government policy or of different parts of their own organisations. Often, they had victories but not often enough.

Whatever we thought democracy was – from voting and representation to free markets, solidarity, or trust in government – our understandings now seem grossly insufficient to deal with a time of growing inequality, populist shocks, anger, resentment, and information so free its meaning is as diffuse as fresh air.

Our system of democracy was probably never as good as we were told it was. Locally it has become too distant from our home towns and too rigid and too ‘system like’ to feel human enough. Captured by accountants, ideas of efficiency are only measured on spreadsheets while at the same time people are powerless, often sad and unfulfilled.

If we believe in the ideal of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, it is clearly a crucial moment to remake it in a new and better form. This is okay, and perhaps that is part of the resilience of democratic systems – that they are fluid enough to be remade again and again. But we must be careful not to fall into the ‘confidence trap’ and believe democracies’ resilience up until now is wholly a feature of the system. It is not, and if we want to protect ourselves against at worst demagoguery and despotism and, at best, apathy and alienation, we need to do something about it.

Einstein said ‘you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it’- expert driven top down solutions without community support are an erosion of democracy its recreation can only come from the bottom up.

Local government is an old institution, and seems like one of those listed Victorian facades you occasionally spot on renovation sites. When you see behind it, there is nothing holding it up but metal props. If local democracy and the services that should be within peoples’ control is to flourish, then it must be built on a new foundation.

Not the rigid inflexible girders of past empires but something in tune with the networked society described by people like Manuel Castells. Services run by people for people. Community housing coops, energy companies, democratic schools, care coops, democratic unions helping run businesses, clubs and charities providing services including leisure and sport all making up a Scotland that is a honeycomb of democratic spaces.

Small and local but strong and nationally connected, the most solid of networks upon which our representative state democracy can rest. This should not be in competition with the state or with anyone else. The state must evolve to facilitate and support the rise of this ‘democratic society’.

‘Prefiguration‘ is the sort of word Ed Miliband might have used. The meaning is sharper than its syllables suggest: it means that if people starting to behave as if they live in the society they want to be part of, then it is more likely to come about. Ghandi captured the idea more succinctly when he said ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’. Or, as Alistair Gray said to Scots: ‘Act as if you live in the early days of a better Nation’.

The Electoral Reform Society is part of a modest intervention to create several small but significant acts that might snowball into something ambitious enough to save and remake Scottish local democracy. Along with many others, we have launched a campaign that is encouraging Scots to ‘act as if they own the place’: to organise a gathering where for a short time they can imagine what it would feel like and what they would do if they ran their own town, village, community – and then to think about how they might make these imaginings more real.
Simone Weil said that ‘imagination is always the fabric of social life and the dynamic of history’. These groups are offering help to any community that wants to run an ‘Act as if Council’. There are seven planned already for early next year, all over Scotland – from Inverness to Dumfries. You could even start to ‘act as if you own the place’ yourself. Have a look:

Willie Sullivan is Director (Scotland) of the Electoral Reform Society

Reid Foundation (2012) The Silent Crisis Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland,