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31 August 2022

How regional mayors could make Scotland’s democracy better

Scottish Labour’s proposal is a canny attempt to increase popular participation while decentralising power away from the SNP.

By Rory Scothorne

Across Scotland, the rubbish is piling up. Bin workers across 21 council areas are striking for a pay rise, demonstrating the real value of their labour by allowing the nation’s streets to fill up with rotting waste, broken glass and plenty of happy rats and seagulls. In Edinburgh, where a staggered nationwide strike wave began on 18 August, the annual Edinburgh Festival exacerbated things: the old town became a midden, its cobbles strewn with decaying promotional flyers and takeaway boxes as mountains of bin bags filled the narrow side streets. In a city that was once notorious for its combination of overcrowding and public filth, the hordes of tourists were treated to the most participatory fringe show of all.

The strike is cutting to the heart of national politics, too. Although the SNP attempted to blame the strike on Labour, which runs Edinburgh Council as a minority administration, its nationwide spread includes several SNP-run councils. Both the SNP-led Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) and the Scottish government now recognise that a meaningful pay rise for bin workers requires central government funding, and Labour moved quickly to suggest new proposals for local government reform. They have been helped by a visit to Edinburgh from Andy Burnham, who took the opportunity of an appearance at the festival to support calls for a Scottish system of directly elected mayors.

The bin strike has exposed the desperate need for a reform of local democracy in Scotland. Excluding additional Covid-19 support, council funding has fallen by 4.2 per cent since 2013, while ring-fenced components of councils’ block grant from the Scottish government further reduces their ability to respond directly to voters’ priorities. The Scottish government’s failure to reform the regressive council tax system – promised since 2007 – has also made it harder for councils to independently raise revenue without making themselves unpopular. Councils have been left with little power and great responsibility, forced to be the bearers of cuts while central government claims popular and costly policies like universal free period products as its own.

[See also: How the SNP lost the support of the “indy-curious” like me]

This is exacerbating a wider crisis in the legitimacy of local government. Turnout in Scottish council elections has only exceeded 50 per cent once in the 21st century. In this year’s elections it was a meagre 44 per cent. Voters are also alienated by the size and structure of local democracy, which has been consolidated over half a century to the point where Scotland now has some of the most centralised local authorities in Europe. A 2014 Cosla report found that the average Scottish local authority represents approximately 165,000 people within 2,500 square kilometres, compared with a European average of 5,000 people within 50 square kilometres.

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Scottish Labour is proposing a series of local government reforms, including a new funding model that would reduce the Scottish government’s ability to encroach on local finances. The most eye-catching suggestion is for directly elected mayors. This is clearly inspired by the success of England’s “metro” mayors. In Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has used the role to build a distinctive national profile for himself and his “city-region”, where he has begun integrating and municipalising much of the transport network. In Teesside, the unlikely Conservative success-story Ben Houchen has been similarly vigorous, taking an airport and an old steelworks site into public ownership. Both have been rewarded with enlarged electoral majorities, and have influenced thinking in their respective national parties in the process.

There is undoubtedly a case for Scottish mayors. The term itself – thanks in part to American and now English connotations – carries a certain prestige and authority that is lacking from the ceremonial lord provosts who currently represent Scottish councils. Directly electing the position would create a new layer of accountability and leadership, boosting the status of mayors on the national stage. That avenue to national status would be more accessible than central government for local causes and social movements, turning mayors and mayoral campaigns, with their kenspeckle public personas, into a potential focal point of grassroots activism. Across Europe, mayors such as Zagreb’s Tomislav Tomašević and Barcelona’s Ada Colau have used mayoral politics to bridge social movements and institutional power, sometimes clashing directly with central government in the process.

But there are downsides. Such a system would only intensify Scotland’s overreliance on charismatic leaders in politics – a dependency that has often turned early successes into disasters: look no further than the Scottish Socialist Party under Tommy Sheridan, or Alex Salmond’s toxic split with the SNP. Proposing mayors to solve the problems of centralisation is also something of a contradiction; while it is intended to create a counterweight to local government, it also suggests a tendency towards strengthening executive power, whether at the council level or the national.

The “city-region” model that has inspired Scottish Labour’s proposal is also a risky one in Scotland, where some of the worst examples of central government neglect concern peripheralised rural communities; how, for instance, could a mayor fairly distribute their attention across the sprawling Highland Council area, which covers more than a tenth of the entire British landmass? Many highlanders are suspicious enough of Inverness-centrism, never mind Edinburgh and Westminster. Scottish Labour already struggles in such areas, and it is likely that the proposal has largely been forged with the main cities in mind, as prominent civic identities that can challenge the centre for the attention of urban media.

Mayors are somewhat out of step with the trajectory of local government reform in Scotland, too. A directly elected figurehead would reverse some of the pluralism that was supposed to be encouraged by the adoption of the single transferable vote system in 2007, which turned almost all councils into either coalition or minority administrations. The mayor’s proposal hints at Scottish Labour’s abandonment of this pluralist spirit, as does the UK party’s latest plan to ban any coalition with the SNP in their constitution.

There is little sense yet, in fact, of what the wider political and economic vision behind Scottish Labour’s new proposal actually is. On the one hand, the party is attempting to style itself as a more localist force, challenging the concentration of power with the Scottish government under the SNP; on the other, its leader Anas Sarwar is attempting to bolster unionism by deflecting the SNP’s own decentralising criticisms of Westminster. There seems to be nothing more sophisticated here than the appeal to “subsidiarity” – the rather vacuous principle that power should lie wherever it works best – which has often characterised Labour’s attempts to escape from tricky constitutional questions. The more important question, which neither Scottish Labour nor UK Labour have answered yet, is what power “working” would actually look like.

The idea for mayors is ultimately finding favour with Scottish Labour because it makes more immediate political sense. It is an attention-grabbing effort to claim the terrain of political reform from the SNP during a time of widespread discontent with politics. Labour has entirely failed to tap into Scottish discontent with the political establishment since the departure of Jeremy Corbyn, suggesting that it is at least conscious of the need to do so. But that popular discontent is largely with Westminster, not Holyrood. While the latter may be losing some of its recent sheen, Scottish Labour is still trying to drum up discontent as much as exploit it, using policy announcements to direct people’s attention to problems that the SNP are failing and reluctant to solve.

Indeed, Labour’s best political argument for mayors is that the SNP is unlikely to embrace the idea, leaving the ground free for Labour to occupy. Prominent spokespeople for local government, directly accountable to the people, would potentially disrupt the SNP’s ability to speak on the people’s behalf. Mayors could become meaningful lightning-rods of protest against the Scottish government, and dissolve some of Scotland’s defensive unity against Westminster into something a little more representative of the nation’s real diversity. That would be no bad thing.

[See also: What could Liz Truss as prime minister mean for Scotland?]

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