Let's make our local democracy really mean something

As Green activists gather in Glasgow this weekend for our spring conference, there will be a shiver of excitement in the air. Partly that’s because they read the same polls you did yesterday, showing the independence argument on a knife-edge. Partly it’s because we see that issue looking more and more likely to offer Scotland an escape route from the UK’s Brexit nightmare.

But mostly it’s because as we look around the room at each other in the conference hall, we’ll know that out there in the crowd are the candidates who will comprise our biggest ever group of elected Green politicians in just eight weeks’ time. Following the huge surge in our membership over recent years we’re fielding a far bigger number of candidates in this year’s council elections than we have ever selected before. They’re working with the most active local ward teams we’ve ever had, and the voting intention poll which came out alongside the independence one suggested that we’re capable of a record result.

As the campaign rolls on we’ll be keen to remind people that the fair voting system for Scotland’s council elections means whether your first preference is for a big party or a smaller one you’ll never waste your vote, and never risk helping the parties you oppose. The preference system means that if your first choice gets more votes than they need, or gets knocked out of the running, your support shifts to your next choice.

We’ll also make the case that Greens have a track record of working constructively in a balanced parliament, and that we can offer the same positive attitude to local politics. Where negotiation is possible, we focus on making a real practical difference to people’s lives, just as we did in securing an extra £160million for council services in the Holyrood budget debates recently. We know that this extra cash going straight into every local council in Scotland means that a great many damaging cuts under consideration have been shelved. That will protect services ranging from meeting pupils’ additional support needs in schools, right through to parks and public spaces.

Even when agreement can’t be reached, it’s not for the want of trying. This week’s education debate was a good example; though we couldn’t reach agreement with the government it wasn’t for the want of trying, and our attitude was always about putting forward positive proposals, rather than seeking to defeat the government out of opportunism. I’m sure that government ministers aren’t happy when agreement isn’t possible, but they know that we’ll keep making serious efforts to achieve common ground.

And of course the Brexit nightmare I mentioned earlier will impact on our local councils too; a great many of the social and environmental standards which flow from EU cooperation are put into practice at local level, so our campaigns will be resolute in protecting these standards and doing what it takes to preserve Scotland’s relationship with Europe.

Perhaps the biggest message we’ll aim to get across as our council candidates hit the campaign trail is about the kind of local government Scotland needs, and the need to put real power back in people’s hands. Often we in Scotland like to compare ourselves with those other small, independent northern European countries we admire so much. But as well as independence they have something else – vibrant local democracy. With genuinely local councils which have the ability to make real choices about their community and their local economy, these countries make participation in local decision making seem like a normal, worthwhile thing to do.

That’s the kind of empowered local politics Scotland could really benefit from. But instead we have a controlling attitude at the centre. Instead of really local councils letting communities make their own choices, we have big regional bodies which feel remote from towns, villages and even from urban communities. Instead of giving councils the power to make free decisions about local taxation, we see rate-capping imposed on them in the way we all used to condemn the Conservatives for doing. Instead of letting them invest in the local economy, we constrain their finances and their legal powers.

And instead of replacing the antique, unfair and broken system of Council Tax with a modern alternative, we leave them struggling to manage the tax machinery which progressive political parties used to condemn with a loud and united voice.

So as well as setting out what Green councillors will do within their local areas, we’ll also campaign nationally for a new settlement for local government. My colleague Andy Wightman is today publishing proposals for a Fiscal Framework between the Scottish Government and the country’s councils, and Green voices at all levels of politics will be champions of the renewed local democracy that will put power back into people’s hands.

This article first appeared in The National.