Scottish local democracy can build and strengthen our communities

Phil Connor, ERS Scotland Campaigns Officer

Posted on the 13th May 2022

Democracy is the right for people to decide how the place where they live is run. But too few people now believe that this right is being honoured, too few believe that they decide and too many believe they are powerless.

That Scotland’s local democracy needs to be renewed is a fact agreed upon by parties and campaigners from right across the political spectrum. ERS Scotland, often as part of the Our Democracy coalition, has long been working toward a local democracy for Scotland worthy of the name ‘local’. For the next stage of this work, in advance of this year’s Scottish council elections, ERS Scotland director Willie Sullivan and James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, co-authored a pamphlet By us and for us: How Scottish local democracy can build and strengthen community.

This pamphlet sets out a vision of how we can revive local democracy in Scotland. Informed by what people have told ERS Scotland about how they want to participate in their local democracy, the authors re-imagine what a truly local, participatory and powerful democracy could look like. The pamphlet builds on deep research and work with voters in Scotland about ways to meaningfully involve them in the vital decisions that affect them and their communities. There is also concerning new polling that suggests people feel less and less that they have meaningful influence over the decisions that affect them – 1 in 5 people in Scotland think party donors are the most influential force when it comes to shaping public policy.

Given we are living in a time when people are becoming more divided politically and socially, Sullivan and Mitchell identify that continuing with the current status quo carries many more risks for democracy than even big changes. The systems of governance we have in place are not good enough for enough of us, and are not up to the challenges and complexity of the 21st century. In line with the Declaration on Local Democracy as agreed at the Democracy21 conference, any upgrading of these systems must involve citizens and communities themselves.

The onus is now on communities and political leaders to change the momentum and nurture democratic initiatives and institutions that connect people and give them a sense of empowerment. This can take a number of forms, such as selecting people by sortition to sit on citizens assemblies where they debate local policy in depth and feed into local councils’ decision-making. These short roles would be paid and people selected in a way that represented all sections of the community. In time, these and other democratic bodies and initiatives could create a ‘honeycomb’ of democratic layers that give communities a continued and meaningful say over the decisions that affect them.

We have learned the lesson of our last hundred years; it is not enough that the future is built, it must be built for us. We must now learn a lesson for our next hundred years; it is not enough that the future is built for us, it must be built by us. We call for a new democracy which is ready to help us build for a hundred years to come.

Read the new pamphlet, By Us and For Us

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