Many valid reactions to the above image are possible, but for me it brought a bit of clarity to something that I’d been uneasy about for a while now. Does it look like we’re shifting power from the centre to local communities or indulging in a tactical strike?
Commitment to local democracy was one of the things that drew me towards the Greens during the indyref – if the people of Scotland were the one’s best placed to manage their own affairs, would the same not be true for the people of Dundee, or Thurso, or East Kilbride?
Why, then, have I so often find my mouth drying up whenever it comes time to speak to people about how Scotland can unlock the power in our communities?
Part of this is probably a fear of slipping into easy jargon, of becoming so used to debating with other twitter activists that I forget how to talk to people who find other ways to pass the time. Part of it’s probably based in an aversion to simple answers, and an a nagging awareness that big problems (building a postcapitalist society, say, or taking meaningful action on climate change) require unified action.
Still, I think the nervousness goes deeper than that, right down to the core, to a gut feeling that people just plain don’t trust local government/think local politics is petty or pointless.
Ten years ago I’d have said that folks were suspicious of anyone in politics who seemed overly keen on shifting power from one place to another, but that doesn’t hold up any more. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are quite a few folk out there who’re passionate about getting more power (some might even call it “independence”) for Scotland. Independence for Glasgow Council is a less popular position.
For an example of why folk might not buy the idea that we should empower councils to empower the communities they serve, let’s look at my local area, and at the recent behaviour of East Renfrewshire Council (ERC).
Last year, ERC dissolved our community councils midway through their elected terms, before asking interested parties to stand for them again in newly established boundary lines, and under a new code of conduct that was unique in Scotland.
Given that this code increased the influence of councillors in disciplinary actions against community councillors, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of those who had previously been involved in East Renfrewshire’s CCs didn’t want to apply.
As my fellow Wee Radical/East Renfrewshire Green Laura Stevens commented at the time:
The introduction of a new disciplinary process has caused the most outcry (see Section 12 Scheme of Establishment).
Any complaints made against a Community Council or Community Councillor can be brought before a panel. This panel comprises of 3 Councillors and 2 Community Councillors. However, any decisions passed by the panel can be ratified by a quorum of 3 members. It is not difficult to speculate that perhaps decisions passed at these panels may favour the Council’s interests, rather than the good of the community.
Because, after all, that’s what Community Councils are there for. To act as a link between the community and the Council. The lack of engagement with this new scheme from across East Ren highlights how little faith there is in our local government.
The idea of community councils acting as a connector between citizens and distant bureaucracy is a potent one, and as a Green I’d like to see it developed, to see power decentralised further in the hope that people were better able to influence the decisions that will hit them closest to home.
Shame it’s not so easy for me to make this argument on my home turf.
ERC ‘s informally aligned Labour/SNP administration seem to be far too willing to sell off public services, so you can’t exactly say they’re committed to community empowerment. There are also allegations of financial incompetence in the air that neatly undermine any claims to competence the council could make here – the usual attempts to sound like the one adult in the room clearly won’t cut it here.
You could convincingly make the argument that ERC should be made more accountable to the public, then, but how easy is it going to be to sell people on that idea that this is possibility when ERC have moved to clamp down on the power they do have?
A Radical Solution: Principle Over Party
Now I wouldn’t be in the Scottish Greens if I doubted out ability to do things differently, and really, the troubles with local politics – allegations of cronyism and corruption, a feeling that people only care about any given issue to the extent that it helps their position at any given moment – are common to all levels of political representation.
It’s just that this “business as usual” feel is most disappointing on the local level. If you can’t trust councils to reflect the needs of the people in their wards, what hope is there?
So how do we move on from here? How do we avoid letting all hope of meaningful local engagement disappear in that big toxic Mad Max dust cloud above? How do we address this well-earned lack of trust?
To go back to East Renfrewshire for a minute, one thing I admire about my pal Laura’s commitment to community councils is her determination to make sure that people have a voice even when many of those voices clash with hers.
There’s a strong conservative vote in East Ren – both big C and small – and that’s reflected on the micro level as surely as it is in the macro. But you know what? If you care about empowering communities to make their own decisions, the principle is either right or it isn’t, and if you don’t like the arguments that are winning round your way then it’s on you to convince people that other perspectives are valid/possible.
Thankfully, it turns out that what matters to people is often in line with Green principles rather than the priorities of distant financial elites. When resource centres for disabled adults are under threat, or the closure of local medical centres makes difficult journeys a pressing reality, people tend to want to have a say. If communities can be interested in this way, they can be brought together to make demands.
When these demands are heard, this makes real change, real community empowerment, seem possible.
When these demands go unheard, or are met with yet more waffle, then the temptation to talk about how the Greens would do things differently is strong.
There’s certainly no harm in making our position known, but we need to try to do what seems counter-intuitive – to allow ourselves to be used for these campaigns, rather than to attempt to use them for our own ends, and to fight for these positions beyond whatever tactical opportunities they might offer us.
In short, we need to care.
None of this is to say that the Greens should stop pushing to empower communities wherever possible – far from it! Maggie Chapman’s successful adventures in participatory democracy in Edinburgh make a good case for our commitment to giving up control, rather than hoarding it. Talk is cheap, but action separates those who want to play buzzword bingo from those who actually give a damn. This is why I’m arguing that if we’re truly committed to this principle, we need to push it forward both within the party and beyond – showing that change can be won from local councils while showing what can be changed for and within them.
Pushing for local autonomy in/from Holyrood is important, but trying to make sure your neighbour’s dad keeps on receiving quality care in a familiar environment is why it’s important. There are millions of individual causes like this out there, and our policies are relevant only inasmuch as they can do these causes justice.
If we can remember this, if we can genuinely rise above party politics and our immediate personal ambitions and embody these ideals in our work, we might just convince folk that real change can occur outside their front door if enough people push for it.
And if it can happen there… well, what else might be possible?