2007 - 2021

Democracy 21: Let’s Build A Democracy Fit For The 21st Century

‘If it’s not built by us, it’s not built for us’: Reshaping local democracy in Scotland

The early years of this decade were an invigorating time for Scottish political activists. Meetings about the type of country and democracy we wanted started attracting hundreds of people – rather than the handfuls that we had been used to. One of the many things that took root during that fertile period was an investigation into what would make a good Scottish democracy. The Electoral Reform Society’s ‘Democracy Max’ project was an 18-month process: a representative ‘peoples gathering’ deliberative forum, public meetings, and expert roundtables all arriving at a detailed report – recommending everything from media regulation to a citizens second chamber.

Six years on, we are still pushing forward on the main insight from that process and the subsequent campaigns and actions. We are aware that our structures of democracy will always be limited if they are built from the top down.

In this age of political discontent and crisis, we have to recognise that the method by which our institutions are designed and made – if they are fundamentally elite-driven – will result in forms of elite rule.

I suppose one could just about live with a benign hierarchy if it was benign enough to share things out equally, look after the weak, the sick and those that need that extra care and kindness. But despite the best efforts of many of our politicians in Scotland, and the undoubted commitment, hard work and often self-sacrifice of many public servants, that outcome still seems some way off. This just goes to reinforce our conclusion that the problem is systemic.

Political intention, ideology, the personality and the party of our representatives all matter. But there is something inbuilt now in the way that our democracy has evolved that has made it operate much more in the interests of some than of others.

This is a factor of all sorts of cross-cutting relationships and structures. People and institutions (public and private) that have power and wealth are very interested in using it to get more – or at the very least resist sharing what they have accumulated.

In some spheres, this has become so hyper-driven through developments in technology that it is no longer contested in the way that it once was. Profiling and manipulation through social media, as well as the immense sums of money spent in election and referendum campaigns hang a large question mark over the idea of free and informed choice in elections.

This can be partly addressed by better regulation, policing and enforcement. But making politics local and deliberative – i.e. ensuring the space and time to think and talk with other members of your community about problems and solutions – is an important way to inoculate our society against anti-democratic forces.

“It is also a way to grow and develop more of into informed, critical and active citizens. Some powerful people might not like this, and might say people just want us to make decision on their behalf. But this is infantilising and insulting – because there are examples of Scots across the country collectively doing things for themselves to often hindered by the authorities and institutions when they need to be allowed to flourish.”


These activities have been the inspiration for the most recent phase of a campaign for democracy to be built from the ground up: ‘Act As If You Own the Place’.

The Our Democracy coalition has been learning from and experimenting with deliberative forums in small communities across Scotland – asking them to plan the futures they want, then vote on budgets for community projects to help make the plans happen. This has shown that these sort of new institutions and processes can be created within the shell of the old.

People are already trying to do it: let’s reshape our structures so support this kind of activism. The Scottish government is currently consulting on how to revitalise local democracy. That’s a start. The Democracy21 Conference in Glasgow on Saturday will zoom out to look at the challenges to modern democracy – but then go close up to where we think a big part of the solution lies: re-making democracy from the local, up.

Because if it’s not made by us then it won’t be made for us. Sign up to attend the Democracy21 conference this Saturday here.

Comments (6)

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  1. Jim Stamper says:

    These are a couple of developments which should help move things forward.
    One is that the Centre for Scottish Constitutional Studies is soon to open a website where the contents of a constitution will be open to everyone to make proposals and suggestions.
    There is also a push on to have an Equal Right of Appeal for communities and those affected by proposed development. Currently just the developer can appeal.

    1. David Robins says:

      An Equal Right of Appeal means even more money for lawyers and planning consultants. Why not just abolish the developer’s right of appeal? If a democratic decision has been taken, locally, it’s no-one else’s business.

      Appeals are a huge waste of civil service resources. If there really are wider issues, the power of call-in at an early stage would provide a sufficient safeguard. That’s subsidiarity in action; overturning local decisions lawfully made is not.

      The present system survives because it allows the centre to delegate politically difficult approvals to the local council while retaining the power to force through yet more approvals on appeal if councils fail to deliver.

      1. John Wilson says:

        David, the problem is not just with removing the developers right of appeal, it is also the undemocratic nature in the way the planning decision are made without any real recognition taken of the views of local communities. The SG made great play of the role of local decision making by passing the community empowerment legislation, however at many local area partnership meetings communities are refused the opportunity to place planning on the agenda for discussion. At present the planning system fails to adequately take account of the concerns expressed by communities and one way, not the only way, is to introduce equal rights of appeal.

      2. Crubag says:

        I think it survives because developers are better organised than communities.

        1. John Wilson says:

          When you consider the financial resources available to developers and house builders, with the support of Homes for Scotland and others, communities are always going to be on the back foot. The profits that are made through the transfer of use for land and on the sale of over inflated house prices, affects the ability at present for communities to engage on a level playing field. Hence the call for equal rights of appeal for communities to at least get there opinions heard.

  2. Derek Henry says:

    America are moving in the right direction as they are very close in introducing a job guarentee which should be in the new Scottish Constitution.

    The job guarentee is a no brainer as it immediately turns the table of the old age battle of Capital v’s Labour.

    The Job Guarantee wage is only paid to people working in Job Guarantee jobs. The more people on the scheme the more government spending. When they move to private sector jobs that payment stops — which automatically reduces government spending.

    So It is a fantastic ‘auto-stabiliser’. Spending goes up when the economy is down, and spending goes down when the economy is up. It would replace the automatic stabiliser we have at present. I always say imagine what it would have looked like months after the financial crash if a job guarentee had been place. There would have been no job losses. Families would have been safe and aggregate demand would have stayed at pre crises levels.

    Because it is carefully targeted at only the people that need it, and it automatically self-adjusts based upon need, there is no requirement to correct any over spend via taxation on the other side.

    The result of that is straightforward. The current low tax rates can stay.

    Not only is it a brilliant automatic stabiliser it is a fantastic price anchor also.

    A crucial point is that the JG does not rely on the government spending at market prices and then exploiting multipliers to achieve full employment which characterises traditional Keynesian pump-priming. It works like any Monopoly price setter the government sets the price and lets it float.

    Full employment, brilliant automatic stabiliser and a fantastic price anchor.

    Not only that it solves the productivity problem because Capital now has no choice but to compete for Labour. If the government sets it at a good wage level with paid holidays and a pension etc. It forces Capital to up it’s game and either match those conditions or better them to keep their staff. Or they choose to invest instead because they can see Full employment and that increased aggregate demand which will improve productivity and lift all boats.

    How would it work ?

    Business is tight. Employer A hires Labourer B at the minimum wage. Employer A can then pile more and more work and hours on Labourer B because B’s alternative is the dole. So B ends up earning far less than the minimum wage for their hours while Employer A earns super-normal profits, or perhaps even normal profits in a downturn, when they shouldn’t.

    Hardly fair is it. We have a minimum wage for a reason.

    However that scenario only applies in a system that is systemically short of demand and has no alternative employers bidding for Labourer B. There are other scenarios over the business cycle. When you get alternative employers popping up, as you do in an expansion, you get the following:

    Business is good. Employer A hires Labourer B at the minimum wage. Employer A piles on the work. Employer C pops up, but doesn’t like the unemployed because they have no idea if they will turn up. Instead Employer C offers the minimum wage and promises faithfully to be nicer to employees. So Labourer B changes jobs, and Employer A is stuck because the alternative is unemployed people who they have no idea will turn up, let alone work the crazy hours now expected. Then Employer C piles on the work… Rinse and repeat.

    You’ll note the scenario is highly dynamically disruptive, yet this is the scenario that plays out pretty much every day in areas like the construction business. It is partially the reason why getting things completed is so difficult. The cultural dynamic is corrosive and workers walk off the job.

    Now let’s look at boom time:

    Business is really good. Employer A hires Labourer B at the minimum wage. Employer C pops up, doesn’t like the look of the unemployed and starts touting round their alternative offer at a higher rate. Labourer B asks for more money, or they’ll move. Employer A doesn’t like the look of the unemployed, because they have no idea if they’ll turn up, so agrees to pay more money because there’s loads of work coming in and charges accordingly.

    The unemployed buffer has little effect on the behaviour of business because it is a one way trap designed to frighten labour.

    Now lets replay those interactions with a Job Guarantee in place.

    Business is tight. Employer A hires Labourer B at the market determined minimum wage. Employer A can no longer pile on the work onto Labourer B because there is a guaranteed decent employer who Labourer B will move to if ill-treated. So Employer A has to keep the work at a reasonable level. Employer A now earns normal profits, and may move into a loss, while the worker earns the minimum wage.

    Surely that is how it should be?

    Let’s do the expansion phase:

    Business is good. Employer A hires Labourer B at the minimum wage. Employer C pops up offering the minimum wage and has the choice of Labourer B or new Labourer D currently with a track record of reliability on the Job Guarantee. Employer A would be happy to retain Labourer B but knows they have the option of Labourer D. Neither Employer A, nor Employer C can pile on the work, because the Job Guarantee is known to be decent. So both Employer A and Employer C get the labour they require at a fair deal and stuff finally gets done.

    And the boom phase.

    Business is really good. Employer A hires Labourer B at the minimum wage. Employer C pops up offering the minimum wage because they have the choice of Labourer B or new Labourer D currently with a track record of reliability on the Job Guarantee. Labourer B asks for more money. Employer A would be happy to retain Labourer B but knows they have the option of Labourer D so they turn the wage rise down. Labourer B can’t get any more money out of Employer C either for the same reason. Yet still neither Employer A, nor Employer C can pile on the work, because the Job Guarantee is known to be decent. So both Employer A and Employer C get the labour they require at a fair deal and stuff finally gets done.

    Importantly Employer Z will tend not to pop up and stay around because policy has been set sufficiently tight that the Job Guarantee buffer will not exhaust. But even if it did the Job Guarantee remains a credible threat to labour services in the private firms. Nobody can become a parasite business. Competition for labour would ultimately eliminate one of the other players, force their profits down to the new normal, or drive an innovation cycle (doing more with less). All of which leads to cheaper prices, not more expensive ones.

    How do we pay for it ?

    Once you know MMT paying for it is not a problem you just spend the currency you’ve created from thin air.

    However if you wanted to make an arguement you would simply say How much does it cost now to keep people in entrenched unemployment and underemployment ? How much does it cost to leave idle resources just sitting there unused when we could get people to use them.

    In the US twenty-seven million get the Earned Income Tax Credit, because they hold low-wage or come-and-go jobs. Another several million get unemployment insurance—in a good year. Forty million or so get food stamps—it was over seventy million in the 2008 crisis. How many millions take Social Security early or have applied for disability because they couldn’t find work? The public payroll pays a lot of people for not working. Much of this “burden”—not all, but a lot—would shrink

    It will cost less to introduce the Job Guarentee and never mind the cost of social issues that unemployment causes. Crimes, Jails, family break up and mental health problems.

    Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA literally built the infrastructure of modern America, including 572,000 miles of rural roads, 67,000 miles of urban streets, 122,000 bridges, 1,000 tunnels, 1,050 fifty airfields, and 4,000 airport buildings. It also constructed 500 water treatment plants, 1,800 pumping stations, 19,700 miles of water mains, 1,500 sewage treatment plants, 24,000 miles of sewers and storm drains, 36,900 schools, 2,552 hospitals, 2,700 firehouses, and nearly 20,000 county, state, and local government buildings with unskilled workers. They built modern day America.

    So if we introduced a job guarentee in Scotland. We would set up centres in every community and create the jobs locally. We would ask local communites what do you want ? Then ask the locally unemployed to provide them. Nobody would need to move away from families to find a job or have to get on their bike. Which also gives people more skills and makes them more attractive to the private sector in the future.

    A bottom up solution that solves so many problems which if I get the chance I would like to talk about on Saturday.

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