FIVE years ago 444 of the good burghers of one of the leafier parts of Edinburgh walked solemnly to the polling station, entered the sanctified privacy of the booth and with their stubby little pencil scribbled down a vote for a man dressed as a penguin.
‘Professor Pongoo’ beat the Lib Dems. His share of the vote would have saved a deposit in a UK Parliament contest. Across the country in a Holyrood election it would have won a penguin party eight seats.
I love joke candidates. From the inflatable dalek who I once watched take questions in a student election hustings to Murdo Fraser, they have an important place in our democracy.
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But electorates worldwide show a marked tendency to be more fanciful with their votes when they think little is at stake. Three years ago Germans elected to the European Parliament a satirist from a party that proposes war on Liechtenstein. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the UK elected Nigel Farage.
The other risk of elections not being well-regarded in themselves is that people vote on the ‘wrong’ issues. As an example – purely hypothetical – imagine the national politics of a country were really dominated about the issue of, say, whether eggs should be served hard or soft boiled. It becomes an all-consuming debate, conducted in TV studios and over dinner tables. This hypothetical, purely fictional country might even have a referendum on the matter. And then when they have elections after that – totally unrelated to the preparation of breakfasts – it is temptingly easy for everyone to vote on that basis. Some parties will even be so unscrupulous as to make appeals based on the issue.
Democracy however only functions when the people as a whole are making a judgement between different possible programmes that actually stand to be implemented by those they elect. Councillors cannot dictate what you have for breakfast. Suggesting that they can would be almost as strange and fanciful as implying they could decide whether Scotland is independent. But what they do have control over is huge.
Finding that scope is as simple as following the money. £17.9 billion all-in was spent by Scotland’s 32 councils in 2015-16. It adds up to well over £4,000 per adult in the country.
Councils can’t print money – they aren’t like tinpot dictatorships or the Bank of England post-2009 – so all of that cash in one way or another came from each of us.
If I have to hand over four grand to someone, I’d like to have a say in who that someone is and what they’re doing with the cash, thank you very much. How odd that less than 40 per cent of people felt likewise last time.
Yes, the biggest single chunk of that funding comes from Holyrood, but even in that there is much greater freedom in how it is spent than a decade ago. Local councillors, not MSPs or Scottish Government ministers, are the politicians who take the on-the-ground decisions across the whole range of the Holyrood powers, from schools to housing. Implementation by any Scottish Government of a manifesto therefore depends on at least some form of working relationship with local government.
Councils are a place where innovation can be born. Women held seats in councils before they could cast votes for Westminster.
The municipal socialist experiments of Red Clydeside were forerunners to the later creation of the welfare state.
Today’s councils are not always credited with that innovative spirit, but it is still there if you go looking for it. The City of Edinburgh for example has been a trailblazer in participatory democracy, learning as they go along but inspiring other councils – and at least one former Scottish Government minister while he was in office – to follow suit.
Local government also has an important but less tangible convening power.
Argyll & Bute Council has faced fire in these pages for many decisions, but it has also recognised that the community it represents has a very specific issue of population decline. Young people raised in the area leave at rates that threaten future prosperity. There is no section in the Local Government Acts setting out that Argyll & Bute Council must address this – it is simply taken as part of their general mission to improve the lives of those they represent.
Nor is there a section elucidating specific powers, but what powers they do have they use, including that convening power. We can debate the effectiveness of Argyll & Bute’s chosen strategy another day, but no one else but a council has the authority to bring together the private sector, enterprise agencies, education providers, the NHS and all the almost countless agencies that dot the public sector to underline that such-and-such a specific local issue is a problem and that they need to work together to tackle it.
In short, councillors can be leaders. The best individuals are truly embedded in their communities in a way parliamentarians responsible to larger constituencies, needing to have eyes on national politics never can be.
The best councils work in partnership with those communities, have the courage to be daring, and deliver with a local knowledge no national government could ever match.
All of that makes for important elections, worthy of attention and worthy of a well-considered vote.