A letter arrives from Douglas Ross. Would I consider standing for the Scottish Tories? I am apparently just the kind of person the party is looking for and, although I realise their leader isn’t making a personal plea to me – he’s sending out hundreds of letters as a fishing exercise – it gets me thinking. Should I? Could I? And more importantly: can I count on your vote?
What Mr Ross is specifically looking for, he tells me in his letter, is people to stand in next year’s council elections. He points out that the Scottish Tories made substantial gains last time round in 2017 and in some cases won seats in areas that had never returned a Tory before, including my own. “At a national level,” he says, “we came second to the SNP, becoming the strongest opposition to them right across the country … and we aim to do even better next year.”
And so, I think about it. Would I want to be a councillor? Would I be a good one? And would it be worth it? Over the years, I’ve spoken to many of the men and women who work as councillors and I’ve been impressed by some and less impressed by others. Many of them are motivated by particular bêtes noires – litter maybe, or pot holes – and some of them are good at raising the issues they care about. They also represent what should be the ideal in politics: decisions need to be made as close as possible to the people who will feel the consequences of those decisions.
But it seems to me there are serious problems with the way councillors, and councils, work and that the problems are getting worse. In the case of councillors, most of them do the work alongside regular jobs, meaning most people working full-time are removed from the pool of candidates. Others may not be able to afford it – councillors are paid about £18,000 a year – which may well create a situation where those who are most available to do the job are not necessarily those with the most talent.
Then there’s the problem with councils themselves. Mr Ross says in his letter that in the last local elections the Tories came second nationally making them the strongest opposition across the country and to an extent that’s true: the Tories more than doubled their number of councillors. On the face of it, the opposition to the SNP also looks impressive: there are more than 1,200 councillors and only 431 of them are Scottish nationalists.
But the problem is that the numerical strength of the opposition to the SNP among councillors belies the fact there are deeper structural problems which undermine their ability to do anything. I spoke to James Stockan, the leader of Orkney Council, about this and his point was that the way council funding is being organised is unfair and is increasingly limiting the ability of councils to do their work or deviate from central SNP priorities.
The problem is effectively this: not only is council funding being cut, the ability of councils to spend the money on what they think is important is being curtailed. Between 2013-14 and 2019-20, for example, the Scottish Government’s revenue funding fell by 2% but local government revenue funding was down in real terms by 7%. In other words, the SNP is prioritising central government by passing on a disproportionate share of the cuts.
But it’s actually worse than that because the SNP has also increased the list of government priorities councils have to deliver – in fact, the proportion of ring-fenced priorities rose from 34% in 2013/14 to 61% in 2019-20, meaning that an increasing proportion of council cash is controlled by central government – controlled by the SNP. You could call it a power grab, but what it means is that councils have less autonomy over less money.
All of this, I think, should be on the mind of anyone thinking about standing as a councillor next year. In a truly federal system, much greater power would reside with councils but the direction of travel is actually the other way. And so, if I do reply to Douglas Ross’s letter, if I do volunteer to stand as a councillor, my question is this: would I ever be in a position – really – to make a difference?
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