Birth of a Grassroots Transformation

By Joyce McMillan
Published June 26th 2004 in The Scotsman
IF THERE’S one thing we can safely say about the gods of political success and failure, it’s that they like a good laugh. On Tuesday last, after months of criticism and backbiting capped by a lacklustre performance in the recent European elections, the mild-mannered John Swinney resigned from his four-year leadership of the SNP. And on Wednesday - with remarkably little fuss, thanks to the general roar of speculation about the Swinney succession - the Scottish Parliament passed a measure that is likely, over the next few years, to begin a quiet transformation in the SNP’s position in grassroots Scottish politics; a measure that could, as The Scotsman’s political editor argued last month, have provided a "major fillip" for John Swinney, and may still almost double the number of elected SNP politicians between now and the end of the decade.

The measure in question, of course, is the Local Governance (Scotland) Act, designed, among other things, to introduce proportional representation in Scottish local government in time for the elections of 2007. There’s no missing the bitter irony of the coincidence between John Swinney’s political fall and a reform that is bound to favour not only his party, but his chosen style of politics. There’s no point, of course, in idealising proportional representation as an answer for all our political ills, as some of its supporters tend to do. This weekend, local officials and researchers from seven cities across the European Union are gathering in Edinburgh to mark the end of the three-year Demos Project, designed to investigate ways of encouraging greater citizen involvement in local decision-making. If there’s one conclusion on which they can agree - amply supported by the experience of the roughly proportional Scottish Parliament since 1999 - it’s that differences in electoral systems have only a marginal impact on the growing western syndrome of low electoral turnout and public alienation from formal politics.

As the bitter opponents of PR inside the Labour Party have been quick to point out, multi-member PR systems of the kind now adopted for Scottish local government, with a balanced group of three or four councillors for each large new ward, tend to weaken the personal link between voters and their representatives in ways that make for less immediate transparency and accountability. And the introduction of this reform - negotiated by Scottish Labour’s Executive coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, as a key element of their current partnership agreement - has come at the price of a quid pro quo to Scotland’s threatened ranks of Old Labour councillors, in the form of a raft of financial benefits, including substantial pensions, salaries and severance payments for councillors. This is hardly likely to diminish the current sense of distance and mistrust between voters and an increasingly professionalised political class.

Yet for all that, it seems to me that democrats in Scotland must welcome the slow-burning reform implied in the new Local Governance Act, if only because - like the Scotland Act itself - it offers us the rare sight of a dominant political party actually bringing itself, for its own complex reasons, to surrender some of that visible dominance.

In some parts of Scotland, the results of the voting reform are likely to be substantial, if not quite revolutionary. According to electoral expert John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, Labour stands to lose about 100 of its 509 Scottish council seats, dipping from 42 per cent of the available places to 34 per cent on a roughly similar voting pattern. The SNP, meanwhile, stands to increase its representation by more than half, from just under 200 seats to almost 300. There will be no more Glasgows, where Labour has traditionally won 90 per cent of the seats on barely half of the vote; no more Midlothians, where the SNP won one-quarter of the vote in 2003 without taking a single seat; and, as Professor Curtice points out, no more Labour control of Edinburgh "in a month of Sundays", since the party’s current slender council majority is based on less than one-third of the vote.

In other words, Scotland’s local authorities in future will actually reflect something close to the real balance of local opinion; and in a nation where Labour has long had the arrogance of a party whose performance was grotesquely flattered by the old electoral system, that must count in itself as a major democratic advance.

But beyond that, proportional representation in local government offers other opportunities for genuinely progressive change. Proportional systems are generally more flexible, for example, in allowing under-represented minorities to enter electoral politics. Just as importantly, given the current slow-burning talent crisis in Scottish politics, this small but profound shift in the balance of local politics will also widen the political pool from which our elected representatives are drawn. Today, 42 per cent of our councillors come from the tiny talent-pool of a Labour Party whose membership represents less than one-half of 1 per cent of the population; the more that number declines, the larger the opportunities for others to move into public life.

And then finally, the coming of proportional systems at least allows politicians the possibility of cultivating what are, in the British system, some relatively unfamiliar political virtues - for example, those of constructive compromise and creative consensus-building. It’s clear, of course, that these are not the only political assets that count. There are moments when a strong adversarial debate is desperately needed to clear the political air. And the fate of John Swinney - a natural consensus-builder, who, as chair in 1999-2000 of the fledgling parliament’s enterprise and lifelong learning committee, prided himself on never once having had to put a proposal to the vote - tells us everything we need to know about the preference of the media, and of the public as media consumers, for flashy, quick-witted, sharp-tongued and superficially charismatic political leaders over quietly charming, non-macho characters like Swinney, or the similarly hounded and ill-fated John Major.

BUT in the end, politicians interested in the future of their trade are bound to note the extent to which political times are changing, away from the mass political parties and big ideological confrontations of the past, towards a system in which politicians of all parties struggle with similar complex questions: the size and limits of the state; the balance between public spending and private provision; the levels of taxation that will be tolerated by the vast new middle class which dominates our politics; and - above all - the best systems for ensuring the maximum return for every penny of public spending.

In such times, there should be a place here and there for coalition government, and for a pooling of wisdom and views between parties, in the effort to build a working consensus that can actually deliver results. And there should be a place, too, for politicians with the qualities of John Swinney. Not, perhaps, as leader of the SNP, at a moment when the party is preparing to shoot the white-water rapids of division and self- reinvention - and of almost inevitable separation between gradualists and fundamentalists - that it was bound to face in the aftermath of devolution. But seven or eight years down the line, when the surviving moderate wing of the SNP, with a much stronger base in Scottish local government, is beginning to rebuild itself as the nation’s main party of opposition - well, then John Swinney’s time may come again. And if it does, the quiet passing of this week’s Local Governance Act will have marked the beginning of his long road back.