When Scotland goes to the polls next week, voters may be confused about whether they are deciding on local or national issues. In some cases the electorate is being asked to vote on manifesto promises that can’t in fact be delivered locally
Scotland’s 2012 local council elections come only one year after the Holyrood Parliamentary elections and two years after the UK Westminster elections. The current backdrop to the local council elections is the seemingly endless debate about the forthcoming independence referendum (yet another poll), which is expected to be held in around two years’ time.
With this apparent election overload, Scotland’s electorate could be forgiven if the question being asked on 3 May is: ‘Which politician are we electing now? There will be uncertainty on whether it is UK MPs, Scottish MSPs or local politicians who are seeking the vote.
The advent of devolution in 1999, (brought about by another poll) necessarily introduced a third tier of government to Scotland with the requirement for further elections. Increasingly, a by-product of this has been the diminishing distance between the responsibilities of central government and those of local government. For many, it is increasingly unclear whether responsibility lies with Holyrood or with local government.
Curiously, a look at the election manifestos reveals that the parties themselves may be experiencing that same sense of uncertainty. Each of the manifestos for the local elections contain a mix of local pledges (not unexpected in local elections) but also pledges that can, in fact, only be made by a national government. The most extreme example of this is a pledge to cut VAT – clearly a reserved matter with no powers in Scotland at any government level to do so. But is this clear to the potential voter?
Perhaps the ultimate paradox is one party’s particular claim to keep the council tax frozen. Council tax has generally been viewed as the local tangible link of accountability and widely seen as the preserve of local democracy. To have reached a position where a freeze, which is pledged and funded at national level, has become an acceptable ‘local’ pledge is indicative of how the lines between national and local accountability have become blurred.
Other party pledges include building council houses and investment in schools, both of which would be expected to be service decisions made locally rather than centralised national pledges. One party pledge is to hand more responsibility to local authorities, while at the same time proposing that schools be removed from local authority control.
Apart from this intriguing mix of local and national issues, there is one further slight but noticeable link between each of the manifestos. Each contains rhetoric around the importance of communities and further ‘devolution’ of local power. Yet, almost in equal measure, there are election pledges that suggest centralisation of local powers or some other form of centralised limitation on current powers.
So, is there a danger that local politicians could be elected on the basis of a promise to cut VAT with no ability to influence this? Could a local politician be elected on the basis of a national expectation of investment in schools when, realistically, this could only be a local decision?
Realistically, few voters will actually read the party manifestos in detail. That is perhaps the saving grace and means that, for all the wrong reasons, these risks are in fact limited.
Don Peebles is policy and technical manager at CIPFA in Scotland