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our democracy, citing examples of best practice, promoting new ideas for and redesigning existing aspects of our mainly outdated methods of public engagement.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

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