Friday, 4 December 2009

"Whose Price is Right in the Politics of Shopping?"

Published in the Scotsman, 24/11/09

"Forget the result of the Glasgow North-East by-election. As a predictor of UK general election voting intentions, it tells us precisely nothing. This result was meaningless, with only a third of those registered actually bothering to vote – about as much an indicator of what will happen next year as Jordan's performance in the I'm a Celebrity bush-tucker challenge tells us about progress towards gender equality in the UK workforce.

Similarly, by-elections flatter to deceive. Remember Dunfermline West? Did Willie Rennie's "famous" win allow the Liberal Democrats to go back to their constituencies and prepare for power? Did John Mason's "sensational" result in Glasgow East put the
SNP on a motorway to independence? And what about Glenrothes? Did Lindsay Roy's "show-stopping" victory kill Nationalism stone dead? No, no and no again.

To forecast the outcome of next year's UK general election, we should look to the town centres rather than the civic centres. The last four Scottish by-elections for Westminster seats have not presaged any general political trend whatsoever. As psephological experts such as Professor John Curtice keep telling us, by-elections are, at best, a barometer of public angst, a snap-shot rather than a long-term indicator of any electoral trend.

Activity in our town centres tells us much more about the Great British public. As a nation of shoppers, we demonstrate our level of economic confidence through retail, with early signs of a downturn or of an uplift in general economic activity appearing first on the high street. Isn't retail activity an accurate indicator of the state of the nation's mood, demonstrating how we feel about ourselves, our families and our communities?

And what is it that most influences how people vote in the self-interested privacy of the polling booth? The likely impact on their pocket. So, as we approach the final Christmas shopping spree before the general election, will Santa be good to Gordon or will that boy Dave get the toys that he's asked for? Will our collective economic behaviour in our town centres, shopping malls and online reveal our political thinking before the general election has even been called?

Will a Christmas sales boom indicate that the nation agrees with Labour's fiscal strategy of spending our way out of recession or will a tightening of the personal purse strings show that people are already taking their lead from an incoming Tory government expected to set about public spending cuts with real rigour?

Let's examine the evidence. As the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) reported last week, the Scottish high street witnessed a 1.5 per cent increase in like-for-like sales in October, matching the year-on-year rise the previous month, just ahead of the UK figures. The SRC said "Scottish customers are regaining the spending habit".

Set against the wider economic context of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report forecasting 0.2 per cent growth in the fourth quarter of this year, these retail sales figures will be toasted at the Downing Street Christmas party. But can the political temperature really be taken from our eagerness to shop till we drop?

It is instructional to look at the impact our obsession for retail therapy has had on the very fabric of our lives: whether it's the impact on the physical nature of our communities, with town centres and their ubiquitous shopping-mall satellites fashioned from our trends and tastes, with a liberal sprinkling of Americanism, or how the way our week is often organised around shop opening hours.

So much of our society is shaped by our consumerist mind-set that it is a source of great wonder why politicians haven't yet made more of an effort to get a share of that market, other than switching their constituency surgeries from draughty (and often embarrassing) community halls to the cosy comfort of a the local superstore's café. Whilst they're at it, how about politicians going the whole hog and using the National Lottery's superb IT network for voting?

So, if all the action is in the supermarket aisles, what can our politicians do to shape our political shopping choices? Well, to give credit where it's due, our MSPs are ahead of the game. The creation of the Town Centre Regeneration Fund (TCRF) this year was the first real recognition of the political importance of our town centres and the genuine sense of attachment that all communities have to theirs.

In a widely welcomed move, the Tories and Labour united with the SNP minority government in a budget-day exercise to support our town centres: new politics in action at last; a well-packaged tenth anniversary gift from the Scottish Parliament. The creation of the TCRF has also been described as Scotland's first real example of another Americanism; pork barrel spending, for our high streets. But, the cash committed to the mammoth task of dragging Scotland's town centres into the 21st century was a measly £60 million from a budget of more than £33 billion, which, on my shopping calculator, is about 0.002 per cent. This is more pork scratching than pork barrel, and it will be fascinating to see whether this initiative, designed and marketed as a one-off for capital spending projects, will see the kind of capital and revenue growth that our politicians would love to see in their economic forecasts.

This will be one of the topics at the second "Vital and Vibrant Town Centres" conference in Perth this week, along side other economic growth initiatives such as the Business Improvement District model. Appropriately enough, the event will hear from the other side of the pond, with Chuck Dalldorf, from the League of California Cities, talking about town-centre improvement mechanisms that have made a real difference across the US.

As for predicting the result of next year's election, what can our town centres tell us? Will a confidence-induced rush through the doors of Harvey Nicks save Gordon Brown or will an economic "dumbing down" to the bargain basement of Poundstretcher indicate a new austere alignment with David Cameron? Well, what's the common factor in consumer and political choices? As they say in America, it's the economy, stupid"

Ross Martin, Policy Director

"A prickly subject, but Russell's the man to tackle it"

This article was published in the Scotsman on Thursday 4 December. You can access it here.

"Scottish education is stuck at a crossroads. As school standards flatline, following a sustained period of unprecedented investment, the four main political parties at Holyrood don't show any signs of a clear direction of travel.

After ploughing in a cash injection of over £1 billion to fund the botched McCrone pay package, our putative political leaders sitting in the Scottish Parliament have very little to show for it. Little wonder they've resorted to those old political playground staples – name calling and the blame game.

Its just not good enough from our MSPs. Labour has been leading results-driven reform down south, but refuses to even contemplate education innovation in Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats can't seem to convince themselves that their universal embrace of local democracy is at all appropriate for the most important, and expensive, public service – our school system.

The Tories have still not recovered from their humiliation over their utterly failed push towards opt-out and are blindly fumbling around at the bottom of their reform cupboard in search of a market mechanism that would pass any popular test.

As for the SNP government, their school report card has been well and truly marked – and the half-term picture is bleak. The ludicrous drive towards class size limits of 18 – a number plucked from the ether – was always going to end up down a classroom cul-de-sac.

A phased approach towards 25, the actual and practical limit in all small schools that run composite classes – would have generated almost universal support from parents, teachers and, perhaps as importantly in light of this week's events, also with their own local education authorities.

The Scottish Futures Trust is more than a few school site starts away from matching the much-maligned public-private partnership (PPP) programme "brick for brick".

The Curriculum for Excellence is under sustained bombardment from the very people upon whom the government must rely to implement it with energetic enthusiasm – Scotland's school leaders. And teacher numbers fell faster than the sector's confidence in the education secretary throughout these past few months.

Meanwhile, under the cover of the concordat, local councils have been getting on with the job of seeking "Scottish solutions to Scottish problems" – which was meant to be the motivating factor, even part justification, of the Scottish Parliament.

The balance of power, and more noticeably of action, has shifted – away from central government and towards an increasingly confident local government, with councils of all political colours beginning to show real signs of education reform.

Whether it's Labour-controlled North Lanarkshire, leading on the modernisation of the comprehensive secondary school, or the SNP-Lib Dem coalition in charge of East Lothian promoting a mature and reflective debate on how best to run the schools in its area, local councils are recognising the fact that budgetary constraints demand new thinking on the design and the delivery of Scotland's school system.

This shift of power, and with it the introduction of local flexibility, has been barely perceptible against the background of noise being generated in and around Holyrood, yet it may well be the clearest signal yet as to the future direction of Scottish schools.

At its heart lies the educational elephant that has been an ever present in our school classrooms these past few decades – parental involvement.

There have been many attempts – all failed – to encourage parents to actively engage with the education sector. We've had everything from the Tories' School Boards – that were exposed early as ideological vehicles for opting individual institutions out of the local education authority system rather than a mechanism for real engagement – to Labour's botched School Councils, that were neither one thing nor the other, introduced with practically zero preparation or parental support.

It is time to take stock of Scotland's school system, to stop reflecting on past glories and for our political class to realise that standards will not rise unless local people – be they councils enabled to act with more freedom or parents positively encouraged to directly engage – are allowed in on the closed-shop of school education policy making.

It is time to wrest control from the administrators and the other defenders of the tired old status quo and give real power to those who have an interest in improving performance.

Now, the new education secretary has form here. In his previous ministerial roles, Mike Russell has shaken up the way other parts of the public sector do business with their customers.

From "encouraging" Historic Scotland to change its image from old fuddy-duddy to trendy, accessible, welcoming host, to pressing Scottish Water to directly channel its resources into supporting the Scottish Government's central policy purpose of enabling the developments that drive sustainable economic growth.

Mike Russell certainly understands the fundamentals of good-quality, efficient public services, and that they involve the engagement and participation of the people with whom these services must be designed and delivered.

This is a very shrewd – and in some quarters at least, readily forecast – appointment, and it will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked with him when he grabs the education establishment by the scruff of its school collar and faces it firmly in the direction of pupils and their parents.

It is simply inconceivable under this new minister that every one of our schools will be run on the failed centralised model of Her Majesty's Inspectorate for Education, where bowler-hatted civil servants fan out across the country dispensing their detached verdict on teaching and learning standards after a few days' inspection.

But there must now be an acceleration of real reform, with an emphasis on improvement through the engagement of those with most at stake in raising performance levels.

And if that means upsetting the fractious teaching unions, then this minister has at least written the book on 'Grasping the Thistle'."

Ross Martin, Policy Dircetor

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Edinburgh City Region Conference, November 09

Monday's city region conference provided important food for thought for stakeholders and policy-makers alike. Presentations will soon be available on the CSPP website.

Following the event Bill Jamieson published this article in response to one of the presentations given.

"Time to decide on the future of our schools"

Published in The Scotsman, 10 November 09

When Tony Blair called comprehensive schools bog standard he wasn’t deriding the excellent effort of the many fantastic teachers who ran England’s schools, he was simply making the point that the comprehensive concept was not designed to deliver dull uniformity. David Berry’s call for an open debate on the structure of Scottish schooling asks the very same question but it is unlikely to result in the very same answer – and rightly so.

Scotland starts from an entirely different base with its own educational heritage and, more importantly a stronger communitarian context. The possibilities for radical reform are far greater here than they ever were South of the border.

Scotland has a fine culture of community activism that strangely has not yet found its way into our education system. Now is the time for that public engagement.
For far too long the political and educational establishment in Scotland has thrown a protective, and defensive, cloak around the structure of Scottish education. The world has changed, yet Scottish school management hasn’t. So, how can we best reflect the needs and aspirations of local communities within a wider, comprehensive system? Indeed, is it possible to promote change in a positive way when our current system is so self-protective?

First, we must recognise that our system needs change. Whether the debate is shaped by those that call for a simplistic concentration on exam pass rates or whether we can actually reshape the comprehensive model to suit the needs of the modern world we must at least recognise that a structure built for the last century is not fit for purpose as we reach the end of the first decade of the current one.

And, as the debate on public spending continues to rage it is essential that we do not lose sight of the proper rationale for reducing levels of expenditure or allow the tired old language of "cuts" to dominate the discourse. The central policy purpose of changing the public spending profile must be to better design and deliver higher quality, more responsive services to the public and not simply to spend less public cash, either in the short the medium or indeed the longer term.

Of course, the inefficiency that has naturally developed from the botched re-organisation of local government in the mid-90's must be addressed. The waste that has been allowed to build up through the creation of non-jobs allegedly created to monitor the work of the public sector but that rarely, if ever, result in radical change for the better also has to be swept aside. The quango bonfire is still to see a spark thrown at it in anger and the shared services agenda has yet to be promoted with real rigour.

We must focus on the real gains in service improvement that can be achieved, whilst our politicians, at least most of them, have yet to grasp the real public service thistle that universal provision must be means-tested or even that structural change is needed to increase service efficiency. We will only know that our politicians, at all levels, are serious about delivering sustainable change to public services if they develop programmes to reduce the over-reliance of the Scottish economy on public sector provision.

Dave Berry’s brave step forward to start a root and branch debate about the nature of service design and delivery is therefore to be welcomed and not derided by the dinosaurs who simply seek to protect the status quo; Tony Blair called that the “forces of conservatism”. It is simply not good enough for our politicians to revert to the black-and-white certainties of opposition. Real reform demands real debate of real ideas. It is time for all of our politicians to step up to the plate and take on the challenge of change.

Of course, a host of Scotland’s schools, often supported by their local councils, are doing fantastic, cutting edge work, from driving the enterprise agenda to supporting community bands, from delivering excellent sporting opportunity to creating cultural agendas that provide our young people with opportunities that give them a step up in the wider world. The innovation in Dave Berry’s announcement is that he is willing to look at things from a different perspective.

Sure, we haven’t yet seen the detail of East Lothian’s proposals. We don’t yet know whether the Lib Dems and the SNP both agree on the exact nature of whatever is being proposed. We have no clear steer as to whether the community engagement being proposed is of a social enterprise model, whether it bites into Labour tradition as a co-operative or even whether it is a possible step towards greater involvement of the private sector. All we know is that education is founded on ideas and debate and here, at last, is someone willing to start that discussion.

If we are to reshape our public services, or more accurately our services to the public, in any meaningful manner then that must involve a radical shift towards a mixed economy of provision that recognises and rewards the benefits of the private and social enterprise sectors as well as great quality public sector design and delivery. Scotland's birth and growth rate for SMEs (about the worst in the UK and possibly across western Europe) could receive a massive boost if the public sector was to encourage the 'spin-out' of certain services to its own employee base. This applies equally to the creation and development of our social enterprises in a country where the co-operative movement has such a rich and proud political heritage.

Our schools are the most important social asset for many of our communities and the most costly economic asset for our local authorities. If Dave Berry is asking us to think more carefully about how we, as the community, wish to manage that asset then I for one am willing to take part in that debate. Come on Scotland, can we leave the party politics at the door and have a real debate about our future – Scotland’s schools?

Ross Martin, Policy Director

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Reform the Commons and like Scotland give power to the people

Article published in The Scotsman. Click here for the article.

"It's all over. The script has been written. We simply await the author reading the last lines and closing the book. The result of the UK election is as sure as Simon Cowell making another million from this year's X Factor.

So predictable. So dull. The UK's political pendulum swings again. The only hint of electoral excitement, other than the fun of baiting the BNP on Question Time, is predicting whether David Cameron can secure an outright majority. If he does, then, as others before him, he'll have 'won' absolute power on a minority of the vote. We call that democracy.

If he doesn't, my own prediction, then the fun begins. Power would have to be shared, political respect would have to be earned, argument would have to be won. Votes in the House would matter once more.

In Scotland, we're ahead of the game. Since devolution, the people have been the authors of our own political story and we haven't yet trusted any single political party to hold power on its own. Our politicians responded firstly with Executive coalitions, between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and now with a minority SNP government that has to fight its corner at every turn.

But this more representative, inclusive, democratic style of politics is a result of the electoral system and not, as would be the case at Westminster, in spite of it.

Our democracy has been strengthened by ensuring that every vote counts – or, at least, when we get the counting process right. If a single party can command majority public support then it deserves an outright majority in any parliament. If not, then the government must seek to reflect the prevailing mood of the nation, as it clearly has done in Scotland since our new century began.

The big policies that have hallmarked Holyrood (eg the smoking ban, free personal care, freezing the council tax) all commanded majority support in the Chamber. This makes for better, longer-lasting legislation that provides political stability across the life-cycles of the policies rather than the much shorter life time of any individual administration.

Imagine, for a moment, a hung UK parliament. No single party with an outright majority. Or no party in receipt of an electoral bonus the scale of which our greedy bankers would recognise; failure to secure a majority of votes rewarded with absolute political power. Our democracy is broken.

As we prepare for the forthcoming UK election we must remember that just like our banking system, our electoral system is in crisis. The crisis in confidence in our political class at Westminster, already heading into the trough, became critical with the expenses scandal. And just as we seek to stimulate our economy back to life with the shock treatment of injecting huge amounts of financial capital, so our democracy would respond to an injection of political capital – the type that would make every vote count.

Here in Scotland, democracy is alive and kicking. Nurtured and nourished by devolution, our elections are exciting, energetic and unpredictable. Why? Simple. We injected our own political capital by making every vote count.

It has led to better legislation. It has also led to a cleaner bill of health for our parliament. MSPs face tough competition all year round. They operate in a political marketplace that hands power back to the people.

Vote for a Change is seeking to get voting reform on the General Election ballot paper. In anybody's book, that's worth voting for.

Ross Martin, Policy Director

Friday, 23 October 2009

Caroline Spelman MP @ Conservative Conference: Contribution to the Mayors Consultation

The Centre have agreement from Caroline Spelman MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to publish this speech as a contribution to our elected mayors consultation.

It can be read here.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

New book advocates fiscal autonomy for Scotland

‘The Political Economy of Financing Scottish Government’ by economists Professor C Paul Hallward (University of Connecticut) and Professor Ronald MacDonald (University of Glasgow) was launched on Monday 12th October at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Introduced by Professor Drew Scott, Co-Director of the Europa Institute, the book was praised as an important piece of work in the wider debate on the future of Scottish monetary policy.

The book comprises a of collection papers on the funding of Scottish Government. The authors argue that with soft budget constraints the Barnett formula of the bloc grant is unlikely to survive because of the UK’s budget deficit. They present alternative proposals on appropriate forms of financing for Scotland under its current status within the Union (fiscal autonomy) and outside the union if Scotland was to become independent (full fiscal autonomy).

At the launch McDonald questioned the UK’s ‘one size fits all’ monetary policy. Despite opinion polls indicating minority support for the Scottish National Party, he argued that funding from Westminster ensures that a non-Unionist majority in Scotland continues to support the status quo. The lack of fiscal autonomy means that there is no incentive among Scottish politicians to drive economic growth, given that tax revenue inevitably goes to the British exchequer.

Comparing Scottish public services to the rest of the UK, MacDonald suggested that under the current system too much emphasis is placed on equity rather than on efficiency. Hallward questioned the effectiveness of the Calman Commission’s recommendations arguing that it maintains soft budget constraints. The authors also contend that while the Commission’s report focuses to some extent on efficiency, little emphasis is placed on the private sector and not enough on the public sector.

For Hallwood and MacDonald fiscal autonomy would allow for the devolution of most tax policies with the exception of VAT, while full fiscal autonomy would enable the Scottish government to control all tax policies including VAT.

By providing hard budget constraints these proposals would address the current ‘one size fits all’ monetary policy and promote efficiency in both the public and private sectors. However the authors admit that there could be trade-offs in terms of an emphasis on efficiency over equity.

Nevertheless Hallwood concluded that these proposals would not only be beneficial for Scotland, but would also enable England to streamline its own taxation and spending policies.

The Political Economy of Financing Scottish Government: Considering a New Constitutional Settlement for Scotland by C. Paul Hallwood and Ronald MacDonald Edward Elgar Publishing £59.95 pp160

Stephen Meredith
Research Associate

Monday, 5 October 2009

"Welcome to the World": Contribution to the Mayors Consultation

This article was published in the Scotsman.

Scotland’s cities are facing their biggest test for a generation. As the aftershock of the global economic meltdown feeds through into severe restraint of public sector finance can our cities face up to the challenge? Is it possible for our locally elected politicians to debate and decide by committee how best our cities can tackle these very testing times head on, or is there something fundamentally wrong with our system of civic leadership?

Our City Councils have gorged on growth budgets almost since their creation in 1996 and now, all of a sudden, the funding supply tap has been switch off. As we prepare for the economic upturn, are the political leaderships in our cities equipped to take the tough decisions that bring about real and lasting change, or is a different democarcy required?

Are there lessons for Scotland from the great cities of the world as they themselves begin to tackle many of these same issues? And if so, what are the chances of our political system heeding them and implementing any required change in time to make a positive impact and avoid catastrophe?

In short, if tough decisions require strong political leadership would Scotland’s cities benefit from the election of powerful Mayors (or Provosts if you like)?

In Edinburgh, over the life-time of the City Council a common feature of complaint by the citizens of the capital has been the lack of bold initiatives that really make a difference. Where game-changing projects have been promoted they have often come to nought. Why is that? What makes Scotland’s capital uniquely ill-equipped to effectively tackle change?

We don’t have an elected Mayor. Tough, decisive and almost by its nature, initially unpopular change cannot be designed around a committee table. Local, short term interest gets in the way of the large scale change required to deliver long term, sustainable service improvement.

Whether debating school closures designed to better match the supply of places to the emerging demand for them in an energetic pursuit of excellence, or introducing congestion charging to generate huge revenue sums for public transport projects to efficiently get people to work, locally elected councillors will always seek to protect their own patch. City Mayors can see the big picture.

Mayor Livingstone sought a popular democratic mandate through his manifesto commitment for the Congestion Charge and then delivered a scheme that even the bold Boris dare not undo. In Edinburgh, we’re still trying to work out how to pay for the trams, and arguing over whose responsibility they are.

A raft of other examples can be found along the road to reform that leads out of the capital, cast aside as democratic timidity gradually squeezed out any initial signs of bold political action.

Housing Stock Transfer? Failed. The creation of a modern transport interchange at Waverley? Failed. The redevelopment of the world famous Princes Street and its incredible city centre gardens against the stunning backdrop of Edinburgh Castle? Failed. Even a shared stadium for Hearts and Hibs (a la Ac & Inter Milan!)? Failed. The list is never-ending.

Scotland’s other cities have fared no better.

In Aberdeen the council has collectively stumbled from budget crisis to budget catastrophe and back again, still with no apparent end in sight.

In Dundee, the lack of strong civic leadership and the party political in-fighting culminated in the capitulation and transfer of the Provost from his lifelong political affiliation to try a different team.

In Inverness, the local council has established a “City Committee”, which in democratic terms pushes all the right buttons but in reality has no real devolution of power from the parent Highland Council.

In Stirling, the council’s major challenge – how to grow the city and its surrounding region – suffered greviously from committee-ism and local vested interests, with the choice of the “least bad option” of plonking a 3,000 house super-scheme out of sight and out of mind on the other side of the motorway.

Is it possible for any committed collection of councillors to drive real, lasting change from around the committee table?

“Glasgow does” I hear you cry! Perhaps not, as Glasgow’s Council Leader is treated externally, and to a large degree internally within the City Chambers, as a City Mayor without the formality of the title. Preparation for the Commonwealth Games, apprenticeships for all young Glaswegians who want one, the completion of the missing M74 road link, modern purpose-built schools and hospitals (following a robust programme of closures to remove spare capacity), the Clyde Gateway. All delivered with strong political leadership – just like a Mayor!

So has the time come for Scotland’s cities to join the family of nations by electing Mayors? It is certainly an idea that is finding increasing, cross-party political traction. Labour introduced City Mayors in England. The Tories have now endorsed the concept for the whole of the UK. The Liberal Democrats are against, but would surely trade City Mayors for greater proportional representation at Holyrood or its introduction at Westminster.

And what of the SNP? In preparation for the Independence referendum it is essential that the SNP make the case that Scotland’s economy can stand on its own two feet. This relies on our cities being the engines of sustainable economic growth; which is, after all, the Scottish Government’s central policy purpose.

As Ministers ponder the possibility of introducing such a radical change perhaps they will ask themselves whether Bonn, Paris and New York are wrong in their belief that City Mayors play a crucial part in the drive to pull their cities out of recession? Can we introduce Elected Mayors for Scotland’s Cities? Yes, we can. Or, as someone else once said, “Its time”.

Ross Martin
CSPP Policy Director

Monday, 14 September 2009

News from nowhere - Stop Barroso?

Who will be the next President of the European Commission? While this question may not occupy the collective mind of a continent more pressed with unemployment and the credit crunch, it's certainly set the tongues wagging in the corridors of European power. What should have been a cakewalk for the ex-Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Barroso (already President for these past five years) - he was unanimously reappointed by the 27 Member State Governments in the Council - has suddenly turned into a rather anxious ratification process in the European Parliament, due to the obstinate resistance of several of the European Parliament political groups.

They have already scored one success: they postponed the vote which was supposed to take place in July until the autumn. Now, this week in Strasbourg, the critical vote will take place: Barroso must win a majority to secure his position for the next five years, and to become the first President to be re-elected since the great Jacques Delores.

Why the brouhaha? Those opposing Barroso (the Socialists, the Greens, the Left and most of the Liberals) have a solid argument: "Top politicians should not be reappointed without taking stock of their performance." Too often the selection of (technically speaking) the most powerful person in the EU is reduced to a game of Buggins's Turn: the key is to rotate between a conservative from a small country and a socialist from a large country, a la the process I described last time. So Jacques Delores (France, Socialist) was followed by Jacques Santer (Luxembourg, Christian Democrat), Romano Prodi (Italy, Democrat) and Barroso (Portugal, Christian Democrat - he referred to himself as not a conservative but a "centre right democrat").

This, to put it mildly, does not always produce optimal results: the Santer Commission was sacked in 1999 for financial corruption. Furthermore, this is the election of the person driving the European policy agenda for the next half decade: surely there should be a serious democratic debate before the person is chosen? Barroso's "election manifesto" is dull, unimaginative, and tries to be all things to all men. For many MEPs, Barroso simply does not measure up to their expectations.

The drive against Barroso has been led mainly by two major parliamentary characters: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-President of the Greens and formerly of 1968 Paris barricade fame, and Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group, and ex-Belgian Prime Minister. They have two main arguments. The first, mainly pushed by Cohn-Bendit, is that Barroso has been too right wing: he has pushed the single market, economic liberalisation agenda ahead of any action on the environment and social justice.

According to the "Stop Barroso" website, "Barroso has misappropriate the "Better Regulation" agenda to promote deregulation is the name of competitiveness...Overstepping the Commission's remit, Barroso is trying to force through authorisation of GM crop varieties in the EU...a refocusing of the Lisbon Strategy orientated exclusively at a short sighted growth and job approach, putting the environment in the waiting room..." Barroso has promoted nuclear power, refused for years to regulate financial markets, and tried to force through privatisation of public services through the Services Directive. With the financial and climate crises in full swing, Barroso's response has been tepid at best and outright negligent at worst.

The second argument accuses Barroso, not for what he has done, but for what he has not done. For politicians like Verhofstadt, the European Union simply has not done enough under Barroso's stewardship to tackle the problems of our time and to assert its power in the world: instead, Barroso has been the lackey of the Member States, and has thus allowed Europe to fragment and lose focus. As ALDE declare:

"The European Union faces a choice. Either it takes a step backwards, becomes a bureaucratic and loose confederation of diverging countries and gives up being an international heavyweight, or we decide to move forward, to become a stronger union speaking with one voice in the world, convinced of our European values and standards."

For Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt, this means more common European policies: a common European recovery plan, common defence policies, even a common foreign policy. Barroso is simply not up to this task: Europe needs a strong leader independent of the Member States. The implications for the balance of power in Europe are obvious and a little ominous.

Will they succeed? Probably not. The "Stop Barroso" brigade always faced an uphill battle, against the unanimous assent of the Member States, and the support for Barroso by the right wing political groups. They have also made a number of errors. First, they did not put forward an alternative candidate. It is a little difficult to emphasise Barroso's negative qualities when there is no one to compare him to, and the possibility exists that a replacement for Barroso may be worse.

Second, lay the focus, not on the merits of the argument per se, but on procedure: specifically whether to vote on Barroso under the Treaty of Nice or (if it passes) Lisbon. This may have been a useful delaying tactic, but it smothers the debate in fiendish complexity and makes it completely inaccessible to the average European. It has also resulted in splits within the "Stop Barroso" camp on the correct line to take on procedure, which has actually thrown many Liberals back into Barroso's big tent.

Finally, it is incorrect to pin all the ills in today's EU on one man. The structure of the EU makes it inevitable that the President of the Commission will to a certain extent be the errand boy of the Member States, who do after all have to approve all legislation. There is no point in the President pushing an agenda which will be rejected by the nations and regions, which are the components of the EU. If the agenda of the EU leans right, that is probably because most of the current governments in Europe are right wing, not because of Barroso. We have a Europe of the nations, not a European super state (whatever the Daily Mail may say): most people want it this way, and replacing one man will not change it.

The case against Barroso can be seen here.

Barroso's platform can be seen here.

Daniel Wylie

News from nowhere - Stop Barroso?

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Why Elected Mayors Matter - A View from North America

This blog kickstarts our discusion on elected mayors so please feel free to post your comments on the efficacy of elected mayors for Scottish cities. Further info can be accessed here.


While not always a positive measure of success, an interesting observation on the importance of Mayors can be seen in children’s cartoons on television. A number of cartoons features “The Mayor” – from “the Powder-Puff Girls,” to “Sponge Bob Square Pants” and “The Simpsons” cartoons, mayors are an accepted, expected and understood symbol of the life of a city.

And not just for children

In multiple polls and interviews, children and adults overwhelmingly can’t remember who their elected representatives are. U.S. Senators, U.S. Members of Congress, state legislative representatives all draw empty stares and occasional shocking wild guesses. However, an overwhelming number of respondents in America consistently seem to know at least two of their elected officials – they know who the President is, and they know who the mayor is.

Why is this true for mayors?

The services local government provides – the basic nuts and bolts services of what matters in daily life – from parks, public safety, water, sewer, streets, electricity, local transit and many others are provided by cities. Mayors are the heads of the organization that matters most to the majority of residents.

When it comes to the things most people need, depend on and see daily, those services are provided by local government. Local government is the form of government seen and touched by the majority of Americans and because it is so accessible, it is also perceived to be the most accountable.

Unlike the President, most mayors are seen locally throughout their communities frequently and people have almost unlimited access to their mayors. From the smallest city to the largest city I have worked with (Sacramento has a population of 465,000), all the mayors I work with all shop in grocery stores and farmer’s markets; ate in local restaurants and stood in line at retail stores. All were easily recognized and almost everyone felt comfortable approaching and talking with their mayor.

Allow me a moment to digress and explain that there are several governance differences in how cities operate in the US. Without getting bogged down in too much detail, there is a strong mayor system; a strong mayor - strong city manager model; and a model where the office of mayor rotates annually between elected councilmembers and the City Manager has the lead role in the administration of the city. Regardless of the city structure, the mayor is seen as the voice, face and leader of the city and the larger community outside of the geographic borders or the incorporated city.

There are layers of local government in the US – counties, cities and elected special districts (water districts, school districts, transit districts). With all the layers of local government, people look to one person to be the voice of their community, and regardless of the size of a city, that person is the mayor.

In times of celebration, tragedy and in moments of community challenges – the spokesperson for the city and often for an entire region in the case of a large city is the mayor. It is expected and the presence and direction of the mayor can calm residents, provide information and consistently, regardless of whether that city is strong mayor modeled city or any of the other models of how cities operate.

An example of this is what happened in Sacramento when I was Chief of Staff to Mayor Heather Fargo on the terrible tragic day of September 11, 2001. After news of the attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon occurred, Sacramento’s Mayor, City Manager, Police and Fire Chiefs; our team rapidly had a press conference to have the Mayor go live on television with several other public officials and appropriate public safety staff to reassure the city and the entire Greater Sacramento region.

The mayor, as the most identifiable spokesperson, established calm by first recognizing the unprecedented tragedy that had occurred and asked residents to be calm by providing information. At the live press conference Mayor Fargo stated known facts at that moment (10:00 a.m. PDT) and reiterated several times that the city was fully in contact with all appropriate state and federal agencies. Other officials including the police and fire chiefs also spoke, but they reiterated the mayor’s message. The mayor promised and provided frequent updates as frequently as possible or necessary as news or information became available.

Not only was the mayor able to establish the key message that the city was connected and evaluating what it needed to do but also played a crucial role in preventing violence. During the subsequent press conferences, the mayor talked directly about the safety of Sacramento’s Muslim community and other racially and culturally diverse at risk to be potentially targeted for retaliation due to the shock of huge tragedy.

Mayor Fargo reminded all residents that Sacramento is a racially, culturally and religiously diverse city and any threats of violence would not be tolerated and aggressively responded to by the Sacramento Police Department. As the recognized leader of the city, the message was repeated many times and there were no reported instances of racial or cultural violence in the days following September 11, 2001.

An elected mayor is a voice for the community and when voters believe city government is accessible and accountable, it is largely because of the accessibility of the mayor, city council and the immediacy of services provided by cities. The accountability and trust comes from the fact that an elected mayor has to go before the voters for re-election. The belief in direct accountability comes from the direct availability of voters to vote for another mayor and in some cities to also recall an elected mayor under specific instances.

I now work with the League of California Cities and in the cities I work with – the smallest, Point Arena, has a population of 495 and the largest, Santa Rosa, a population of 156,268 – mayor’s are known, accessible and the best symbol of all that is positive about direct elections and a connection voters understand. Elected mayors are sometimes celebrities, sometimes have to deliver bad news, and are frequently seen in the aisles of grocery stores with melting ice cream as they are way-laid by residents complaining or unhappy about a city service or activity. But it is that melted ice-cream moment that captures the importance elected mayors provide to their residents and why local government polls so high in national and state polls for trust and accountability.

Yes, the cartoon version of mayor in “The Simpsons,” Mayor Quimby, is a stereotype of a corrupt, big city mayor. But even in this popular television city, everyone knows the mayor and it is the mayor who is at every important event occurring in the fictional American City.

Chuck Dalldorf
Regional Public Affairs Manager, League of California Cities

Thursday, 13 August 2009

For all the talk of green shoots and France and Germany exiting the recession the fact of the matter in Scotland, notwithstanding Edinburgh's strong performance, is that recovery is a long way off. And, even when we do return to the days of economic growth it will be slow and protracted.

Figures released recently paint a bleak picture, particularly in relation to unemployment which as we know is a lagging indicator. Official data shows that UK unemployment increased by 220,000 in three months to June, reaching a 14 year high.

There is a distinct possiblity of another "lost generation" as illustrated by the fact that there was an increase of more than 50,000 under 25's without work, bringing the total in June to 928,000. As David Blanchflower stated in the Guardian today, "this is not a good time to be young and looking for a job". Importantly, these figures do not include the thousands upon thousands of individuals who entered the contracting labour market after graduating. The levels of youth unemployment in Britain exceeds that of France, Germany and other EU member states.

In response the UK Government pointed to their new "Backing Young Britain" campaign which is "bringing businesses and public and voluntary sectors together to ensure that the valuable skills and experience of our young people aren't being wasted"

Undeniably we all have a role to play in preventing the hopelessness and despair which characterized the lives of many young people in the last recession. At the Centre we are currently re-working our internship programme to provide policy-making opportunities to those very graduates who are struggling to obtain unemployment or experience.

Further details will be posted very shortly.

Prof Richard Kerley on the Scottish Govt's Strategic Objectives

In the recent edition of Public Servant Scotland vice principal of QMU and CSPP director, Professor Richard Kerley, questioned whether or not the Scottish Government’s five strategic objectives assist the public sector in “making strategic choices”.

Since the election of the SNP Government in 07’ the strategic objectives (wealthier and fairer; safer and stronger; smarter; greener; and healthier) have become political commandments across Scottish politics. As Prof Kerley says, “All policies and programme proposals would be judged against the extent to which they helped to achieve these objectives”.

Kerley makes several observations about these objectives. Firstly, he correctly points out that by the time we reach May 2011 (date of next parliamentary elections) the Scottish Govt’s response when asked to judge the strategic objectives (SO) will be “too soon to tell”. They are “long term objectives that do not lend themselves to short term judgment”.

And secondly, if the SO are a “pretty good shortlist” and represent “broadly shared desirable outcomes” do they help anyone in “making strategic choices”? Does it set a broad direction for all public agencies and stakeholders to follow? Kerley remains skeptical:

“Just calling something strategic does not make it so…. Decision makers need guidance - not rote templates - as to how they make choices between various options for resource allocation. Without such clear guidance then the game to be played by all organisations will be how they can best present their special case as meeting these objectives”.

Clearly he has a point. The dominant language is the SO with its accompanying 15 national outcomes and 45 national indicators. Public agencies’ proposals are awash with this hegemonic discourse, revealing an “almost hypnotic quality”.

But is this a bad thing? Simplifying government speak, indeed creating a degree of uniformity, isn’t this to be welcomed? Undeniably Kerley is correct - decision makers do need more guidance. But if the strategic framework set out by the Govt is appropriate and fitting shouldn’t it remain in place regardless of which party holds the levers of power? Semantic maneuverings aside, could any political party in Scotland reject the Govt’s single overarching purpose to increase sustainable economic growth?

Of course they could. Our combative political, dog-eat-dog political culture is in anathema to such consensual notions as the first ten years of the Scottish Parliament validate. The existence of a minority government seems to have affected this social fact little which is deeply unfortunate as the example of Finland demonstrates the value of cross-party consensus.

During the 1990’s Finland was transformed from an “inward looking agricultural economy” into an “open, internationally competitive and technology oriented economy, with a solid macro-economic stability and an exemplary social safety” (Angel Gurcia, OECD Secretary General). Central to this transformation was an innovation based economic strategy and strong political leadership.

Let us focus only on the former. Cohesion between Government and opposition parties (and also between industry and workers) contributed massively to economic recovery and sustained growth. A cross-party commitment was made by all - in the depths of the crisis - as they put the country’s economic woes before their political ambitions, thus creating a general economic policy “centred on the growth of its telecommunications cluster”.

The contrast with developments north and south of the border in the UK could not be starker.

Monday, 10 August 2009

“Holyrood and the search for Scotland’s soul” (ps. it isn’t at the bottom of a tin of Tunnocks tea cakes)

While the Scottish Parliament was celebrating its tenth birthday BBC Scotland ran a series of events (and a poll) to commemorate this occasion. For this they should be commended because ordinarily they are a real lack of political programmes. Of course, it shouldn’t take ten years of devolution to prompt this but they do have to keep space for tragic 1980’s (90’s if we are lucky) B Movies.

The Scottish public were spoiled for choice; well those who were up late enough to have their devolution fix. One programme - grandly titled “Holyrood and the search for Scotland’s soul”- deserves a degree of scrutiny. With such an ostentatious title I was expecting it to be narrated by Sean Connery or Ewan McGregor; maybe even Tom Devine. Imagine my shock when I saw Brian Taylor going into a kilt shop in the opening scene - I feared the worse.

Within minutes I was squirming. Already it had eclipsed my fears, a feat in itself, with Taylor having dished out Tunnock’s Tea Cakes and Irn Bru to encourage Stirlingers to come up and share their views on devolution. I tightly grabbed my cushion for emotional support knowing what was coming next. Yes, the piper arrived and a young girl began “spontaneously” (aye right) dancing.

Now I was genuinely scared, angry even. If I could have swore half as well as Malcolm Tucker from In the Loop I would have. Yet like a masochist Scot I kept watching.

Actually, this turned out to be the lowest, cringe worthy moment in the programme. What followed were some interviews with political heavyweights like Tony Blair, Alex Salmond, and Gordon Brown etc. Brown smiled (I clutched the cushion ever more closely) as he skilfully avoided saying “Scotland” too much. Like the boogie man, Middle England is never far away.

Taylor’s search for Scotland’s soul (sorry I laugh every time I type this) took him to foreign shores. The key question this cake-eating, cowboy hat wearing, singing visit addressed was this: do we need independence to express our Scottishness or can we accommodate it within the union?

On impendence he went to Norway (cake-eating) and on unionism he went to Texas (singing and cowboy hat), America. Needless to say, this fact finding mission produced diametrically opposed views but it was refreshing to remove the debate from its often parochial anchor. The visit to Norway, in particular, provided food for thought, no pun intended.

On returning home Taylor outlined Holyrood’s major achievements. It was the usual list: thou shalt ban smoking; thou shalt reject tuition fees; thou shalt introduce free personal care and so on. One wonders when these successes will be recited in an evangelical chant at Time for Reflection.

I was just about to channel hop when Taylor said that the different policy focus in Scotland was because of a different identity and that these legislative achievements (particularly the smoking ban) consolidated our “pride, self-belief and confidence”. This caught my attention. My mind wandered to the de-industrialised landscape of urban Scotland. This gloomy reality and Taylor’s assertion were entirely at odds.

They were other examples of Taylor’s questionable conclusions. In 2003 Holyrood “spoke to the soul of Scotland” regarding the Iraq War and in 2007 the Parliamentary elections were a “battle for the soul of Scotland”. Without question the former was a “key maturing process” for the Parliament and of course there was a strong anti-war movement in Scotland. But a country’s soul, if it has one, is collective and has to speak for all of the country. Clearly this was not the case. Iraq provoked democratic protest but the vast majority were too enmeshed in Scotland’s hyperreal popular culture to notice. And the election was most definitely not a battle for the soul of Scotland. Like the 09’ European elections outlining a verdict on the current Prime Minister was high on the agenda for voters.

Yet, my contention with the documentary runs deeper than mere disagreements on certain issues; it’s philosophical. Taylor’s programme was rooted in the belief that: (1) a coherent Scottish identity exists and (2) a political institution can satisfy our soul. Let’s focus on point one and disregard the other (with a nod and a wink to Max Weber) as a political elites’ pipe dream. Taylor is certainly not alone in making these conclusions about Scottish identity – a certain SNP come to mind for example.

For Taylor a modern Scottish identity consists of fairness, equality and justice. Resisting the desire to shout “long live the revolution” and “death to the ancien regime”, one wonders how accurate this characterisation is. Isn’t fairness incompatible with a decade long growth in income inequality? Doesn’t the remaining vestiges of patriarchy strike at the heart of our aspiration to be an equal nation? And the continuing growth of fuel poverty and the prevalence of slopping out in our jails are surely incommensurable with justice. Right?

My purpose here is not to ethically proselytise about the state of Scottish democracy. I’ll leave that to our “transparent” elected representatives. I only wish to shatter the illusion he and others wish to create by shining a brief light on the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality. Scottish identity, as I see it, is inherently relational. More often than not, our policy makers have largely reacted to New Labour policies down south while the Barnett Formula has allowed the Parliament the great luxury of only having to bother with one half of the balance sheet.

Indeed, a binary narrative permeates Scottish identity and our politics. One side is good (Scotland), the other bad (UK). For example: Iraq, smoking, education, health, energy, social care and so on. This trend demonstrates a remarkable ability by the Scottish political elite - not that they are along in this, for e.g. the Cold War - to invoke implicit moral arguments.

Scottish identity is not simply relational, however. It is deeply fragmented and inchoate. At best it is in flux; at worst a caricature of itself. Unfortunately my belief in the later continues to gain credence when I look at the Homecoming Scotland campaign to attract the Diaspora. It is all kilts, whisky and Rabbie Burns, a sure sign of the increasing commodification of Scottish culture. To be fair it is a tourist drive mind you.

Holyrood and the search for Scotland’s soul had good intentions. I don’t doubt that. But, if ever there was a programme which illustrated the shared assumptive world between the political elites and the culminating disconnect from ordinary Scots’ it was this. In Orwell’s words, it gave “solidity to pure wind”.

Barry McCulloch
Policy Officer

“Serving Scotland Better: Scotland & the UK in the 21st Century”: Briefing Note


It has been some time since the publication of the Calman Commission’s final report. 269 pages long and costing the tax payer somewhere in the region of £500,000 (as has the National Conversation) it has produced fierce debate across the political spectrum. Much of the contention surrounds its main proposal to devolve further fiscal powers to the Scottish Parliament (from here on in the “Parliament”): that is, increasing the Parliaments’ tax varying powers.

Commentators, politician and journalists alike flocked to comment. The words ‘authoritative’ and ‘intelligent’ were never far away, notwithstanding the barrage of criticism too. The Centre deliberately held back from rushing an analysis of this important work, believing that it’s always best to let emotions settle before attempting to objectively assess a piece of work that seeks to alter how our country is run.

Let us offer a few important words of caution prior to the analysis. The Commission’s report is not an objective assessment of the devolution settlement in Scotland. The aim of this report, as Sir Kenneth Calman stated on Newsnight Scotland, is to “strengthen the parliament, help it serve Scotland better and maintain and develop the union.”

The important term here is “develop the union” which naturally necessitates the exclusion of the independence option. Remember this commission was created by a Scottish Labour leader, Wendy Alexander MSP, as a response to the SNP’s National Conversation.

Now this is not a political point; far from it in fact. We only suggest that if it was truly objective it would have reviewed all options. The participants in this analysis are influenced by their beliefs, values and unionist prejudices. Hence, this document is as much a declaration of values and principles as it is an objective assessment of devolution. See this is an intellectual warning of sorts.

What follows is not an exhaustive analysis of the report but an overview, one that merely scratches the surface.


The Commission has three key aims which would create a Parliament to:

1. “serve the people of Scotland better”.
2. “improve [its] financial accountability”.
3. “secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom”.

These aims are looked at via several chapters. We will focus on the social union; the economic union; and other recommendations for strengthening devolution.

Social Union

Considerable attention is placed on outlining “Scotland’s place in the UK” where they seek to validate the positive and popularly backed relationship Scotland has had with the rest of the UK throughout its history; notwithstanding the occasions where conflict and tension has been the norm. Put simply, they seek to promulgate a 21st century version of unionism. Correctly they argue that issues, interests and values are shared throughout the UK. Importantly they state that:

“The evidence confirms that it is possible to have a distinct Scottish political identity, and differing Scottish policy choices, without undermining the essential unity of the United Kingdom in relation to matters that are critical to all its people.”

Undeniably, the “Scottish Parliament is here to stay” but whether or not it has “embedded itself in… the consciousness of the people of Scotland is debatable, particularly when seen in the context of a recent BBC Scotland poll which found that 46% of Scots think devolution has made “no difference” to their lives.

In reality the Parliament has been more readily accepted by the political elites/”usual suspects”, a view validated by looking more closely at the poll. The responses to the question: “Scotland's devolved parliament has been in existence since 1999. Do you think devolution has been a good thing for Scotland, a bad thing, or has it made no difference one way or the other” have a clear and identifiable trend. Those who think it has been a “good thing” are located in the higher social classes (AB and C1, 51%), whilst those who think it has made “no difference” can be found in the lower social class (C2 and DE, 53% and 56% respectively).

Lindsay Paterson provides further proof of this claim. Citing statistics from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2007, Paterson affirms that “professionals are much more impressed by the Parliaments’ record… [they have] become its public bulwark”. Indeed, 67% of those working in high professional/managerial occupations thought the Parliament was giving people a greater say in Government in contrast to 34% of those in semi-routine/routine occupations.

There is no doubt that they are serious question marks over the report’s claim that the “verdict of the people of Scotland is that… devolution… has been a remarkable and substantial success”. The evidence with which they base these claims on is thin because the data is not representative of the population.

Hidden away in footnote 2.4 (p58) the authors reveal that: (1) respondents were “self-selecting”; and (2) the group “constitute a non-random sample [that] is not… representative of public opinion”. Point one is particularly important if we bear in mind that predominantly it is the usual suspects who respond to open consultations; not your average citizen (see Paterson 2009).

Hence, the Commission can not legitimately extrapolate generalizations from the sample to the population. It may appear that we are being pedantic but this entire report is largely based upon the belief that devolution is perceived to be a success by the Scottish population. This belief, then, may well be a skewed interpretation of a (self) selected few.

Foreign Policy

The case, it seems, is closed here. The Commission’s argument that “all parts of the UK must be joined together for defence and national security” appears to be the orthodox view. Certainly, the BBC Scotland poll reaffirms this view with 63% responding that the UK Government “should make most of the important decisions for Scotland about defence and foreign affairs”. But is it? Clearly the foreign policy functions of the state are “integral to the effective functioning of the United Kingdom as a sovereign nation-state with international responsibilities”. This is beyond doubt.

What remains less clear is if this architecture is in the “best interests of all its [UK’s] citizens”. Two high profile examples illustrate that there is a philosophy developing in Scotland that markedly contrasts with the view south of the border. The first of which is the Iraq War in 2003. The Scottish Parliament witnessed some of its most relevant and emotional debates on this issue, while Scottish civil society demonstrated in its thousands against the military operation. Of course the anti-war marches were replicated and surpassed throughout the UK but no other devolved parliament witnessed such antipathy to the invasion.

Secondly, the nuclear arsenal at the heart of UK foreign policy during the Cold War and maintained today is flatly rejected by a growing number of Scots’, including the current Scottish Government. They reject the arsenal in principle, refuse to accept that the UK needs a nuclear deterrent in the post Cold War international system and believe that Trident should not be renewed nor placed at Faslane Naval Base.

Is the Commission correct to argue, then, that the UK should exercise defence and national security powers indefinitely? That devolution of this power “is undesirable in principle”? “That it is in the best interests of all its citizens?” It seems that the case is far from closed and that the debate over nuclear power (both military and civilian) will continue to escalate, particularly if the next UK Government is Conservative and the SNP win a second term in the Parliament. Indeed, it could be postulated that by advocating the security status quo this report would create a Parliament that did not “serve the people of Scotland better”.

Economic Union

Without doubt the key objective for the Commission was to create “better linkage between taxation decisions and spending decisions it makes”. It was this issue, this recommendation, which the report would be solely judged against. This proved to be the case. Amid the flurry of commentary it was as if the Commission’s report only contained one section on finance. Its recommendations were:

1. That the Parliament “should be able to determine a ‘Scottish rate’ of income tax applying to all rates, but should not be able to change the difference between the rates”. Thus giving the Parliament “some control over its total spending”.
2. That “Stamp Duty Land Tax, Aggregates Levy, Landfill Tax and Air Passenger Duty should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, again with a corresponding reduction in the block grant.”
3. That the Scottish Government be given the “capacity to borrow for capital investment on a prudential basis”.
4. That the Parliament strengthen the” intergovernmental arrangements to deal with finance”.

These recommendations were, not surprisingly, both applauded and attacked. For some it didn’t go far enough (for e.g. the Scottish Government) while for others it was a “road map for devolution mark two” (Annabel Goldie, Scottish Conservative leader). For us the recommendations represent something of a “half-way house”. We commend the report’s attempts to address the linkage between tax and spend and its attempts to create more financial accountability in the Parliament (not to mention the other suggestions – see below)

Yet, it doesn’t go far enough. Weighed under by the numerous party political concerns and the culminating need to compromise it retains the anachronistic Barnett Formula; a “block and formula arrangement… that is unique internationally” (p73). Its uniqueness is not a source of pride, however, and ranks alongside the UK’s unelected House of Lords and its relic of an electoral system, FPTP, as a regressive feature of British politics.

The Commission hedges its bets on modifying the much maligned Barnett Formula - which will “still provide a significant share of the funding’ for the Parliament” - by “introducing a new Scottish Variable Rate (SVR) of income tax… which should apply to the basic and higher rates of income tax, building on the statutory framework that already exists for collecting a different rate in Scotland from the rest of the UK (p7, 10). Of course this power, as set out in Part IV of the Scotland Act 1998, has never been used. The authors admit that: “the SVR has not been successful in creating financial accountability”. Not surprisingly, the MSPs have shied away from utilising this power perceiving it as ‘electoral suicide’.

All of this begs the question why the Commission chose to retain the Barnett Formula? In the executive summary the authors’ state:

“Because it reflects the principle of the social Union, that taxes are pooled together and shared out in the form of a grant according to need” [and because it has] “no remit in relation to the rest of the UK”.

In considering why the SVR has not been used they also reach these conclusions (p79):

(1) There hasn’t been a “political consensus in the Parliament to exercise the power”.
(2) The last ten years witnessed “rapidly growing public spending” via strong economic growth. This may have suggested that “further growth from additional taxation was unnecessary”.
(3) Efficiency and simplicity of the grant-based system has “many practical advantages”.
(4) “The start up cost of the SVR for the first time” would have been “substantial” in comparison to the revenue which might be generated.
(5) A decision not to use the SVR “has no effect” on the Parliamentary budget.

Other implicit justifications can be found in the make up of the Commission itself. The Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Liberal Democrats and Scottish Labour may agree on rejecting independence but they disagree quite vociferously on the future of devolution in Scotland. It’s well known, for example, that the Lib Dems are proponents of federalism while it is far from certain that a new Conservative Government (if they are successful in the next General Election) would deliver on the report.

Our point is this: the entire report, particularly on financial matters, was arrived at through compromise. It is only by compromising that the Commission could speak with one voice. This need to compromise, it could be argued, had a detrimental effect on the financial recommendations of the report. But more than anything the single most important factor in only modifying Barnett is that:

“…the balance between these conflicting principles and the combination of funding mechanisms to be used should be determined not by the technical considerations of funding mechanisms, but by the constitutional objectives that the funding system
is designed to support.” (Underline added)

Here is conclusive proof that the report’s overriding aim is not to improve the Parliament’s financial accountability but to “secure the position of Scotland within the UK”. Of course this is no surprise to anyone - the report was a response to the rise in support for independence. Yet, one can still be surprised, perhaps even angered, that a document that was publically funded subjugates any factor that doesn’t serve their raison d’ĂȘtre: namely, maintaining the union.

A salient criticism of this report was published in an open letter to The Scotsman by a group of seven respected academics. They conclude that the “fiscal reforms proposed by the Calman Commission are at best an opportunity missed and at worst a recipe for economic instability in the future”. The authors’ continue:

“Only under fiscal autonomy can the accountability of the Scottish Parliament properly be entrenched… The proposals will do little to enhance the ability of a Scottish government to introduce measures necessary to improve Scotland's underlying economic growth rate, or to balance the Scottish economy through good times and bad.”

The last point is worth stressing. The recent Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland 2007-08 (GERS) report illustrated that “estimated current budget balance for the public sector in Scotland was a deficit of £7.1 billion (6.3 per cent of GDP) excluding North Sea revenue, a deficit of £6.4 billion (5.5 per cent of GDP)”. Clearly, tough decisions will have to be made if Scotland is going to recover from this recession, particularly when the deficit is likely to increase. The budgetary squeeze on the public sector will be severe.

Yet thus far the debate in the Scottish Parliament has centred on the £500m efficiency savings that the UK Government is imposing in Scotland. Largely they have swerved the important debate that has to be had on the state of our national economy and the cost of our public sector. And, who can blame them?

The Parliament is “not accountable for the total of their budget or how it is raised; it has no fiscal powers that can be used as policy instruments and it does not have a direct financial stake in the performance of the Scottish economy”. This leads the Commission to propose increased tax-varying powers to bring greater responsibility and accountability to the Parliament. But given the MSPs historical reluctance to use this power it can not be said with any certainty that they will find this greater ability to vary tax more appealing than before. Agreeing with the academics above, we maintain that the solution is full fiscal autonomy.

Strengthening Devolution

In addition to the above recommendations, the Commission also sought to devolve the following powers to the Scottish Parliament:

1. The administration of elections.
2. The regulation of airguns.
3. Regulation-making powers relating to drink-driving limits and national speed limits should be transferred to Scottish Ministers.

Naturally, these recommendations have been well received across the political spectrum. The first one in particular will be critical in atoning for the debacle that was the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary and Local Authority elections.

The Commission also proposed changes to the Parliament itself. One that stands out is the proposal to alter the bill process from three stages to four, allowing MSPs more time to reflect on newly made amendments made at stage three.

Nevertheless, the committee system remains largely unchanged albeit they were some recommendations (see 223). While the committee system is rightly acknowledged as being “generally effective”, it is highly questionable that it is still a “detailed scrutineer and an effective counterweight to the executive”. For a unicameral system like ours this is a serious concern. Indeed, any democratic system must have functioning checks and balances.

In the absence of a second chamber, the Consultative Steering Group (CSG) believed that “strong” committees would “rein in the government when necessary”. They anticipated that the committees would “initiate legislation, scrutinise and amend the Scottish executive’s proposals and have wide-ranging investigative functions”. Power-sharing too would be a central facet of the post-devolution parliamentary process.

Unfortunately there has been a notable schism between the ideals proposed by the architects and the practise of the committees themselves, as they always are. The scrutiny and legislative role of the committees have faced innumerable challenges throughout the last ten years. To name but a few, these are: (1) considerable time and resource pressures, particularly when compared to Westminster; (2) the lack of support from Government in drafting amendments and consequent executive dominance; (3) and innate partisanship.

Such challenges must be seen in context, however. The Scottish Parliament is not yet a teenager and its processes and deficiencies will most likely be refined through time. What Scotland has in place now is a vast improvement on what existed pre-devolution. And moreover, the inability of the Parliament (specifically the committees) to be an effective bulwark against executive dominance correlates with global trends. Since the dawn of the modern American (“imperial”) presidency, for instance, power has been firmly rooted in the executive branch.

Thus, rather than excessively criticising the Parliament for failing to live up to the CSG ideals one must perceive these principles “as ideals to work towards” (Carman and Shepherd, 1999: 27). The Commissions’ recommendations are prudent and will most likely result in an improved committee system. Still, if the committees’ remain unable to be a “detailed scrutineer and effective counterweight to the executive” a serious debate will have to take place if Scotland wishes to maintain a system that has functioning checks and balances.

What next?

The key issue now is whether or not the recommendations will be delivered before the next Westminster election by the current UK Labour Government. Thus far we have had mixed signals. The proposal was well received by the UK Government but one wonders whether or not such complex proposals could be realistically enacted in a year (or less), particularly as they attempt to steer their own democratic and banking reforms through Parliament. They may be “kicked into the long grass”; not out of reticence but purely because of the congested legislative timetable or because they are perceived to be a low priority.

The truth is we don’t know. On the one hand we have the Scottish Labour leader Ian Gray stating that the proposals are “complex” [and] will take some time to bring in”, while on the other hand we have other Unionist leaders (including Iain Gray) saying that they are “real momentum” behind these proposals. They hint that the recommendations will be “moved forward quite quickly” though one may reasonably wonder how valid this claim is when another mechanism (cross-party steering group) has been created to deliver these proposals.

All in all its business as usual in devolutionary politics - more smoke, more mirrors. What is irrefutable, however, is that this is an exciting time in Scottish politics, epoch defining even, as we seek to map out how devolution should develop after the Calman Commission. Yet the Scottish people remain the elephant in the room. Our elected representatives continue to affirm that Scots support this, that and everything but the truth is they don’t know - they assume through polls or sporadic consultation exercises/e-discussion forums that this is the case. Clearly, what is needed is a more inclusive, bottom up review of devolution where all Scottish citizens can have their say in the future of the country.

The time is ripe for a radical redistribution of power where it is truly shared between the people of Scotland, the legislators and the Scottish Government. The Commission’s report is neither putting us on a motorway to independence nor a lasting defence of the Union. This particular road less travelled is to a different place - it is called Federalism.

Now is the time that we fulfilled, or at least attempted to, the participative ideals set out in the CSG. The new “devolution default” position is clear: unless there is a compelling national interest not to, all power should be devolved. This isn’t grandiose “new politics”. This is democracy.

Barry McCulloch, Policy Officer

Friday, 10 July 2009

News from Nowhere: Against the Dealmaking Culture

The European elections are over. They were not a success (the winning parties would disagree). Turnout has fallen in every Euro election since 1979, and this one was no different: only 43% of Europeans bothered to go to the polls. In some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, turnout was embarrassingly low: 25% in Poland and 20% in Slovakia. Furthermore, these elections were not about Europe, except in the broadest "let's stick it to those barmy bureaucrats" sense. What we had was 27 different national elections: in Britain it was about expenses, in France it was about Nicolas Sarkozy's record in government, and in Italy it was about Silvio Berlusconi's personal life. The divide between Europe's enthusiastic elite and its apathetic people is as wide as ever.

So, as the new mandate of the European Parliament convenes, have our political class learned anything? You might think that the shock of the elections would have jolted them into reconsidering the way they do business. The EPs modus operandi has traditionally been based on a cosy consensus between the major political groups, where official posts and legislation are carved up in smoke-filled rooms (of course, smoking is not permitted in the EP building). The advantage of this lies in the ability of smaller groups to occasionally claim their share of the pie, winning legislative victories which would be unobtainable in an adversarial system. The disadvantages are the retardation of a democratic culture, an unwillingness to consider new ideas, and the "lowest common denominator" aspect of European legislation. In addition, popular enthusiasm and engagement with the European Parliament is not likely to be cultivated by a hierarchical culture, where all the key decisions are made by a few barons and then handed down for approval by the peasants (barring the occasional peasant's revolt).

The election of a new President of the European Parliament is a good test of the new mood. The previous President, Hans-Gert Pottering, was a creature of the bureaucracy: a stuffed shirt who would abjure democratic procedure in plenary if it stood in the way of a good deal (as in the climate change package last December where he disallowed all amendments in plenary to speed the vote up). This time, we were all set for a good democratic contest between Jerzy Buzek, a Polish conservative, and Graham Watson of the Lib Dems. Watson ran as the insurgent candidate who would break the consensus culture and revitalise Parliament's institutions. Until yesterday, when he withdrew from the race. His press release reads something like a forced confession during a show trial of the Stalin era: "The EU is mired in a crisis - economic, environmental and constitutional, and the three political families which founded our Union have decided to unite their forces to save it." One could point out that it is precisely during a crisis when it is most important to have vigorous debate and opposing and alternative views. The truth, however, is simple. Watson's group - ALDE (liberals) - have struck a deal with the conservative and socialist groups on committee chairmanships, and Watson had to withdraw as part of the bargain. So, the choice for President is now essentially Buzek....or Buzek.

A cynic would remark that the European Parliament elites go to remarkable lengths to save their members from the bother of actually voting. He might say that: I couldn't possibly comment.

Full Euro election results can be found here.

Daniel Wylie

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

PMQs = zzzzzzz

The battle lines for the next General Election were clearly drawn at last week’s PMQs: its “Labour investment vs. Tory Cuts”. One could be forgiven for thinking that we were back in the 1980’s as Gordon Brown repeated on several occasions, “we are the party of the many; they are the party of the few”.

This week’s ding-dong was presided over by the new speaker of the House, John Bercow, who one paper described as being ‘underdressed’. New politics indeed!

Picking up from last week, David Cameron repeatedly asked the PM to apologise for ‘false’ claims over govt spending, specifically his claim that ‘capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics’. ‘Government figures show that this is not the case’.

Therein followed mundane political pantomime: my figures are right; yours are wrong; apologise; I have nothing to apologise for; cut, cut cut; spend, spend, spend; and so on. Even the Lib Dems weren’t spared with Brown stating it was them ‘not the Labour party who wish to cut public spending’. Hell hath no fury like Brown’s fury as Nick Clegg found out for sensibly pointing out that ‘balancing the nations’ books is going to take big, difficult, long term decisions’.

As Clegg mentioned policy reversals I wished too that I could reverse out of this bizarre and irrelevant exchange. It was as if there was no political crisis; no unanimous public condemnations over the expenses fracas; no genuine opportunity to renew our democracy.

It was business as usual at the commons, insulating the debate from extraneous political developments. And no, the speaker’s populist assertion that ‘there [was] simply too much noise and the public doesn’t like it’ doesn’t count. One wonders whether or not it is the political elite’s tactic to bore us with this ‘style’ and permanently place us in an apathetic coma.

As the storm clouds continue to hover over Westminster, with no sign yet of the winds of change sweeping in real, meaningful reform, I flicked channels to see the debate on the historic Climate Change Bill in Holyrood. With its open practices and dressed down members this does indeed look like “another place”.

It even has the approval of our Secretary of State, judging by his refreshingly welcome and apparently warm exchange with John Swinney yesterday. Mind you, the sight of two big Scotsmen hugging each other on the nation’s telly was a little much so I’m off to enjoy the sunshine and watch Andy win Wimbledon! It’s like watching PMQs, except the ladies do the grunting!

Barry McCulloch, Policy Officer

Monday, 22 June 2009

Calman: A Taxing Question?

And so it comes down to tax. It always does. Even before its birth, the Scottish Parliament was defined not only by its ability to close the democratic deficit with Westminster but also by its power to raise, or lower, taxation.

Tony Blair’s political masterstroke of including a question on the Tartan Tax in the devolution referendum ensured, amidst howls of political protest (but crucially with the consent of the people) that the Scotland Bill would pass unhindered through the House of Lords.

Is Calman a similarly brilliant power play? Will the proposal to raise the tax varying power from 3p in the pound to 10p (half the Income Tax rate) have a similar political impact, stabilising the next decade of devolution? Will the direct link between representation and taxation finally kill off Independence?

On the plus side, the recommendations from this cross (unionist) party group hit the right notes, at least when judged against the original Westminster score for devolution. Yes, additional tax powers will bring greater responsibility for our MSPs, although this proposal falls way short of fully proportionate tax & spend.

If the fiscal mechanism of taking a slice of the Barnett cake at source and forcing our MSPs to levy it back, or keep marginal tax rates low relative to the rest of the UK, is designed to bring greater responsibility and accountability then it could succeed. Although we’re not going to see a radical tax reduction as public finances are squeezed.

But why should our MSPs suddenly find this greater ability to vary tax any more appealing than before? The 3p variation has never even been seriously debated, let alone implemented. What chance a game-changing10p tax reduction? Nil.

The other changes proposed by the Calman Commission, such as greater power for our MSPs - to lower speed limits, to reduce legal alcohol levels for driving and to cut the amount of airguns in circulation - will no doubt be welcomed by all political parties.

But does this need to revert to legislation when education and positive encouragement fail, demonstrate an active, healthy, participative democracy? Or, does recourse to the law in order to force social behavioural change betray a more fundamental breakdown of trust between the elected and the electorate?

Since the Calman Commission was established just over a year ago the public has become increasingly detached from our expenses-scandalised MPs (whilst being denied the opportunity to kick them out)! Public trust in our politicians has broken down to dangerously anti-democratic levels.

Although the parties, whether through Calman or in their forthcoming party manifesto commitments, are beginning to move on this, none of them appear to have grasped that instead of tinkering with the existing political settlement it needs turned on its head.

Our political class needs to give power back to the people, for example through stronger local democracy, proportional representation (not the pretend variety called AV), and greater public involvement in the design and delivery of public services.

It is against this backdrop that Calman must be seen. A new “devolution default” position is beginning to emerge amongst the electorate and it can be summed up thus: unless there is a compelling national interest not to, all power should be devolved.

Calman is not putting us on a motorway to independence. Neither is it a lasting defence of the Union. This particular road less travelled is to a different place. It is called Federalism. Can our politicians grasp that?

Now that really is a taxing question!

Ross Martin
Policy Director

Friday, 12 June 2009

Renewing Democracy Phase I: Project Report

Report Summary

The introduction of elected mayors in Scotland's cities should be considered in order to provide stronger democratic leadership

The implementation of STV for council elections will ensure increased competition in local elections and introduce choice

The growth and extension of the co-operative movement will strengthen democratic involvement in the political process

The reform of local government taxation can begin to rebuild trust in the political process by improving democratic accountability

The use of more direct democracy, such as referenda and recall votes, would enhance local democracy and strengthen political accountability


Our democracy has just undergone its most energetic test for a generation. On May 3rd, Scotland's Parliament and Council elections took place in an uncertain political atmosphere, conditioned by a turnout 4 years ago that began to question the very basis of representative democracy. Although turnout this year appears to have arrested the downward trend of recent times, there have arisen a number of real issues surrounding the parliamentary count in particular, with possible implications for future levels of participation. It is essential that the body politic in Scotland takes steps to not only address the faults in this year’s count, but also looks at the wider context for Renewing Our Democracy.

This project, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and established to examine the five key questions of democratic renewal listed below tested the CSPP’s general contention that greater public engagement is required to save the process of politics from terminal decline. Higher levels of engagement, it is argued, will engender increasing levels of trust between politicians and the public, thereby developing a stronger sense of accountability for our democratically elected institutions.

This report details the systems and structures that will be required to renew our democracy, citing examples of best practice, promoting new ideas for and redesigning existing aspects of our mainly outdated methods of public engagement. It describes how the newly elected Scottish Parliament and its partner Councils can begin to restore public’s faith in the framework of representative democracy and how actual public engagement can reshape it.

The five key questions of democratic renewal assessed by the project were;

Structural change - would Elected Mayors (Provosts) work for Scotland's cities?
• Systemic change - will the introduction of the STV form of PR save Scottish Local Government?
• Public engagement - is direct democracy really workable as a partner to representative democracy?
• Decentralisation - can local, regional and national government work better together to deliver the democratic will of the people?
• Taxation - what way forward is best for local and regional government?

In order to ask these questions, the CSPP organised a range of different opportunities for people involved in, and those who feel themselves on the fringes of, the political process to meet with politicians, policy advisers and others at the decision-making end of our democracy. These events varied in their scale and nature, but were all designed to maximise public engagement in this project, opening out the opportunity to discuss these issues directly with the people who run our democratic institutions.

The CSPP’s three key policy drivers in the field of Public Service Reform ("extending demand management", "introducing local democratic drivers" and "developing a new sense of common ownership") were also run through the discussions, helping to focus minds on how the use of power brings with it a responsibility to exercise it in a manner that can build public confidence, strengthen accountability and renew trust in the political process.

This report is the result of these deliberations.

Tackling the 5 key questions

Although each of the events was focused on one particular question participants took the opportunity to discuss the inter-relationships between these different aspects of our democracy weaving their thoughts through the project and thereby strengthening the overall outcome. The CSPP’s three key PSR policy drivers also provided prisms through which to view each question, with for example, the issue of demand management being a proxy for what is expected to be an increasingly tight budgetary backdrop over the next few years.

1. Structural Change - Elected Mayors for Scotland's Cities?

The series commenced with a very lively debate in the Scottish Parliament, expertly chaired by the respected Scottish political commentator, Ian Macwhirter. This event heard a variety of views on the notion of elected Mayors, or Provosts, for our cities. The strength of singular leadership was seen by many to be an inherent advantage of the mayoral system, as long as appropriate democratic checks and balances were built into the structure, such as a city-wide council elected under proportional representation, to hold the Mayor to account on a day-to-day basis rather than the once in every four years test of public opinion that the current system offers.

Interestingly, the discussion took place in the wake of Edinburgh City Council's failed congestion charging referendum, where the public had vetoed the proposed scheme by a significant majority. In contrast to the London Mayor's decision to implement the UK's first congestion charging scheme the result in Edinburgh was partly seen as an indictment of the structure of the city council's democratic process, in so far as the proposed scheme itself was the result of a political compromise that emerged from the ruling Labour Group's internal politics. Given that the city Labour Group was elected on a minority share of the vote it came as no surprise to many participants that its proposed congestion charging scheme failed. This was seen as a consequence of the ruling group's failure to build a political consensus for even the principle of the scheme, either across the political spectrum within the city council or indeed with its neighbouring (also Labour) councils within the congestion charge catchment area.

Indeed, the retiring Leader of Edinburgh's City Council offered the opinion that a directly elected Mayor would have followed London's lead, seeking endorsement for the principle of a congestion charging scheme at the election and then implemented it. This view was given additional impetus by many participants, in light of Helsinki's decision to implement its congestion charging scheme and then, after effectively a 2 year trial period, hold a referendum on its merits. This approach was commended for both its democratic strength and also its demonstration of strong political leadership.

Another aspect of the discussion was the effect of the London Mayor implementing what is after all one of the most visual examples of the CSPP’s first PSR policy driver - "the extension of demand management". In the Scottish context, at least since the early days of devolution, problems of service supply have invariably been solved not by managing demand, but by increasing levels of service supply. For example, the policies adopted by the Scottish Parliament, with a fair degree of cross-party consensus in both cases, on free personal care and the abolition of up-front tuition fees are supply-side solutions of this kind.

The decision by Ken Livingstone to manage the demand for road space within London's city centre would traditionally have been seen as a policy derived from the right of the old political spectrum. Its overwhelmingly successful introduction, by a political figure of the old left was viewed by most participants as the kind of pragmatic politics that reconnects ordinary people with the political process. In terms of public engagement, it was felt, there was a real lesson for political parties here - not simply to promote change, but to lead it in difficult directions as well.

Policy Outcome 1:

The introduction of Elected Mayors would provide stronger leadership for Scotland's Cities and reconnect the political process with the public.

2. The Systemic Challenge - STV for Scotland's Councils?

The opportunity to take part in a mock STV election featured prominently in this event, particularly as a graphic demonstration that knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the counting mechanism is not a necessary pre-condition for an effective and well-targeted campaign under this system. Participants were mainly, by the nature of many such events, self-selected enthusiasts although a number of those who did attend had not been advocates of the system but were keen to understand how best to operate within it, either as political contenders, as council officers or as individuals who engage with local authorities.

The session, held in the STUC* offices in Glasgow, was given strong political and emotional resonance with a contribution from the Leader of the Alliance party in Northern Ireland, David Ford MLA. This first hand account of the impact of the STV system on the politics of Northern Ireland, and in particular, the nature of party campaigning where real competition exists on each part of the political spectrum, was an inspiration to all those who attended. In the words of one attendee, it was clear that STV brings politics closer to people as it "ensures real competition for every vote".

Increased competition in local elections was seen as a very attractive replacement to the "once-every-four-years door knocking" of the First Past the Post system and thought likely to encourage greater public engagement with the political process. This introduction of political competition within each electoral ward was also seen as a change that would, eventually, lead to closer political co-operation within individual and across neighbouring councils. It was strongly felt that this closer co-operation would result from many more possible 'political synapses' forming between individual members who may connect politically, regardless of their position within a particular party group or on a given council.

This would also move local councillors on from their outdated use of protective and possessive terminology such as "my ward", and towards a more inclusive mind-set regarding the community which they are fortunate to represent alongside others, more often than not from a different party.

It was agreed that under STV the majority of the population would be represented by someone with whom they could identify, even partially, having cast their vote for a winner and not, as was the case, for one of the many who didn't get elected. The opportunity for people who generally align themselves with one particular political tradition, a strong lesson from Northern Ireland, to be represented by someone from that part of the evolving political spectrum was also seen as a strengthening of democracy.

Another issue which arose during this event was the importance of introducing political plurality into the day to day governance of some areas of Scottish local government, where massive majorities of single party councillors have until now been elected on an increasingly small, minority, share of the vote. The implementation of STV, and the ongoing competition that comes with it, was therefore recognised to be an excellent example of the CSPP’s second key PSR policy driver, the "introduction of local democratic drivers".

Policy Outcome 2:
The implementation of STV for council elections will ensure ongoing competition in the local political marketplace

*The CSPP would like to record its thanks to the Scottish Trades Union Congress for their warm hospitality for this event.

3. Decentralisation - Partnership in Power?

The decentralisation event provided a number and range of ideas and initiatives indirectly proportional to the number of people who attended. This group looked at both structural and systemic solutions to democratic decline, promoting a number of ideas that, it was agreed, would suit the post devolved political settlement in Scotland.

Given the almost consensual nature of the Scottish body politic - on social issues at least - and the converging of the mainstream political parties into what the CSPP has previously termed a Social Democratic Soup the co-operative movement was regarded as an appropriate way in which to increase public engagement in service design and delivery, and thereby in the political process, without the use of the 'sharp policy tool' of private sector involvement.

N.B. the BBC carried out a poll in the pre-election week indicating that the number one political concern of the public is the involvement of the private sector in public services.

The use of a wide range of third sector organisations was discussed, and this featured in a follow-up event held in partnership with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations entitled "What Government for Scotland?"

However, the main focus during this decentralisation debate was on the use of co-operative models, given the very strong heritage of the co-operative movement in Scotland and its cross party political attractiveness. It was strongly felt that the co-operative models utilised in areas as diverse as housing, health and football were worthy of consideration for other parts of the public sector devolving power and responsibility to the local level and thereby increasing both individual and collective stakes in the political process.

Indeed, the original emergence of the Co-Op Party was as a direct result of political frustration with the mainstream political movements of the time and it was agreed that the decline in voter turnout, which has been apparent for some years now, is an indication of individual frustration at the lack of coherent collective responses to common problems faced by communities, such as anti-social behaviour. The co-operative movement is an excellent way in which individuals can come together to solve particular problems by designing their own solutions and delivering improvements to those aspects of public life that suffer from disengagement.

Examples of successful co-operative organisations included a number in the housing sector, where it is notable that attempts to introduce other forms of tenant participation, e.g. through the housing stock transfer ballots in a number of local authority areas, have failed spectacularly. Other fine working examples included; a range of organisations in the care sector, community transport providers, health sector groupings (e.g. doctors and dentists) and top tier European Football Clubs, such as FC Barcelona and Real Madrid!

The participants were of the view that other sectors could benefit from this public hands-on approach, for example, would it possible for rural schools to be run more effectively and efficiently, by a co-operative that included the community, the teachers and the other staff involved? Is it possible to conceive of local transport co-operatives that organise public, school and other bus services?

The participants discussed these possibilities for the co-operative movement within the context of the CSPP's third key PSR policy driver "developing a new sense of common ownership".

It was strongly felt that by giving people a real stake in the key outcomes of the political process, i.e. the services and facilities that politicians seek to provide once elected, the co-operative movement can play a major role in renewing our democracy. It was widely recognised that the individualist nature of our increasingly consumerist society can be tackled in a positive way that enables individuals to come together around a common concern and take collective action.

Policy Outcome 3:
The growth and extension of the Co-operative movement will strengthen public involvement in the political process.

4. Paying for Local Government - Representation without Taxation?

Taxation is now at the centre of Scottish political discourse, with the parties having put forward a range of replacements or alterations to the Council Tax in the current election campaign. This event predicted that tax would indeed take central stage and sought to deliberate over the various structures and systems of local taxation that were likely to feature in the short, medium and long term.

A very lively debate, chaired by the respected Scotsman journalist, Bill Jamieson, was held in the Scottish Parliament, with representatives of the two major change proposals, i.e. a Local Income Tax and a range of Green Taxes - putting their case to a cross-section of the political community. The participants debated a variety of proposed taxes against the backdrop where, as one participant put it, "no taxes are popular".

The merits of each suggested form of taxation were discussed including the proposals, as they existed at that stage, of each of the main parties contesting the Scottish Parliament elections.

The merits and disadvantages of different forms of local tax raising were discussed and it was agreed that there were advantages and disadvantages to all the alternative proposals.

As part of the discussion it emerged that in each suggested instance of change there would be a significant minority of overall financial losers. It was felt in discussion that this would pose a challenge to each of the parties proposing change since it was recognised that those benefiting from such chance tend to keep silent while the losers complain vigorously.

It was also suggested by some discussants that the manner in which all parties appeared to have peremptorily rejected the very thorough Burt proposals as not even meriting discussion was partially indicative of this phenomenon.

In addition to the form of taxation the issue of the imbalance between revenue raised directly by local government and that handed out by central government was seen as an area of huge concern. It was universally agreed that local government's over-reliance on central funding skews the power relationship between these two different levels of the state, and also denies local communities the opportunity to make a direct link between taxation that is levied from them and the representation of them. Furthermore, the inability to link inputs and outputs, i.e. the levels of local taxation with the levels of services provided, was seen as a fundamental fracture in the relationship between the elected and the electorate.

Policy Outcome 4
The reform of Local Government Taxation can begin to rebuild trust in the political process

5. Public Engagement - Is Direct Democracy possible?

The series finale was opened by the retiring Presiding Officer, the Rt. Hon George Reid MSP with a very reflective assessment of how the Scottish Parliament has sought to engage the public during its first two terms. The success of the Scottish Parliament's committee system, and in particular the Petitions Committee, the fact that over a million members of the public have visited the Holyrood building and the exciting progress made by the annual Festival of Politics all demonstrate positive ways in which politicians can better engage with the public.

The Presiding Officer did however go further, asking whether forms of Direct Democracy were applicable to the Scottish political scene, citing 'recall votes', localism and referenda as examples of mechanisms that may well have a positive impact on both the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Local Government. The progress of information technology, even since the new Scottish Parliament was created, has been staggering and it was recognised that software and systems were now available for politicians and others involved in the political process to improve voter engagement.

An aspect of this IT revolution, is the use of mobile phones, with so many possible applications for Direct Democracy, e.g. the new school councils gaining instant feedback on proposals such as the healthy eating initiative through text messaging, tenants associations being able to carry out community security through phone alerts and of course the future prospect of voting by text message. These opportunities for instantaneous feedback on policy proposals, for an ongoing dialogue with the community or for a more engaging method of voting are just a few examples of where technology can be utilised to significantly strengthen public engagement in the political process.

Other forms of direct democracy were also discussed, as indicated above. 'Recall' votes on either individual issues, on the ruling Coalition of a Council or even on the Scottish Executive could be considered as a mechanism by which politicians could cede control back to the public, changing the nature of the relationship between the elected and the elector. This particular mechanism was seen by many as a means of rebalancing power away from an increasingly distant political elite and back to an increasingly disengaged electorate, either avoiding unpopular policy decisions or simply forcing those elected to take decisions on our behalf to explain their own thinking and seek popular understanding, if not support for a particular course of action.

The notion of a 'new localism' has been gathering pace recently with a wide cross-section of the body politic now debating a number of variations to this particular policy theme. This event, and others in the series, discussed a number of different systems and structures that could play their part in the development of a new localism, including the democratisation of the quangotocracy in Scotland, where the majority of the Scottish Executive's budget is spent by unelected bodies. Although a number of suggestions for the democratisation of quangos were discussed, e.g. directly elected Regional Health Boards, it was widely felt that a coherent package of reform was required, one that looked at the issue in the round.

Of course, it would be remiss of the participants at this particular time, when the future governance arrangements for Scotland have been at the heart of the election campaign, not to discuss the use of referenda in the process of politics. Of course, there were those amongst the participants who believe that representative democracy negates the need for referenda, as it entrusts those whom we elect with decision-making on our behalf. However, the case for referenda was also strongly made, and for the use of such a decision-making mechanism at various levels of government. For example, voting on moral issues such as the abolition of Clause 28, could be a policy area that is given back to the electorate, rather than simply categorising them ‘issues of conscience’ that are free from the discipline of the party whip system.

Although there is always a difficulty in deciding what question to ask, if an unprompted answer is actually desired, it was generally felt that the careful and considered use of referenda, as done to create the Scottish Parliament through the two-vote ballot, can be a democratically cathartic experience, determining "the settled will" of the people, at least for a few years!

Policy Outcome 5:
The use of Direct Democracy, such as referenda and recall votes, can strengthen democratic accountability.

Ross Martin
Policy Director
Centre for Scottish Public Policy
May 2007

Edited by Professor Richard Kerley, Vice Principal, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

Appendix 1- The Advisory Group

The Renewing Democracy Project was overseen by the following members of its Advisory Group, chaired by Mark Lazarowicz MP, to whom the CSPP would like to extend its gratitude for their insightful input, energetic assistance and rigorous initial analysis of the issues to be discussed;

Sarah Boyack MSP Scottish Labour MSP for Edinburgh Central
John Curtice University of Strathclyde
Cara Gillespie The Scottish Green Party
Professor Richard Kerley Queen Margaret University
Mark Lazarowicz MP Labour MP for Edinburgh North & Leith
Ross Martin Policy Director, Centre for Scottish Public Policy
Sir Neil McIntosh CBE The Electoral Commission
Kenneth Munro Chair, Centre for Scottish Public Policy
Ken Ritchie Electoral Reform Society, Scotland
Amy Rodger Electoral Reform Society, Scotland
Michael Russell MSP SNP MSP for South of Scotland
Martin Sime Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations
Paolo Vestri Scottish Local Government Information Unit
Melanie Ward NUS Scotland President 2004 – 06