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Why we need to de-clutter our politics

Terry smiling headNot long to go now until there is some relief from the election pressure that is weighing heavily on the electorate. The voters may be finding the burden of information overload too much to bear – and the same may be true of the politicians.

The absence of stickers and signs tied to the lamp posts and peering from windows has been noted this time around and seen as an indication of the parties’ own indifference to the ‘other’ election taking place on Thursday.

The somewhat weary second billing of local government issues behind the heavyweight topics of independence and Brexit mean the arguments over street lighting and fly-tipping are low on everyone’s list of priorities.

It’s difficult enough drumming up interest in local elections which tend to draw lower turnouts than Westminster and Holyrood elections. That is a shame because the work done by our local councils is important, and touches all of us directly.

Forecasts for the turnout this time are not looking too rosy, not helped by campaigns that have failed to come up with anything that hasn’t been promised (and not delivered) before – cleaner streets, spending more on schools, etc.

It’s little wonder, therefore, that voters, weary of the rhetoric and constant bombardment of failed pledges, choose to stay in and watch Eastenders, a programme about people shouting at each other (rather like sitting through a council meeting).

Overshadowed by the big ticket attractions, local government cannot compete for attention with the jousting that goes on between the political parties on the bigger stage. Not that it should. A big turn-off is the politicising of our town halls.

I recall as a young reporter turning up to council meetings to hear from councillors who stood as independents. They were lawyers, taxi driver and shopkeepers by day, and gave up their evenings to talk about cracks in the pavements and how many flower baskets should adorn the high street.

Over the decades local government has been hijacked by professional politicians, some of whom go straight from school into a career that leads to being, effectively, a full-time councillor.

I have nothing against the hard work and dedication they show. Some are excellent and are undeservedly criticised. However, dividing cracks in the pavement and bus timetables down party lines just doesn’t seem right.

Yet, you see it in every council chamber. Councillors actually line up on party lines, for or against local schemes, whether it’s a major planning development or spending on …well, flower baskets.

Why do they do this? They are not ideological issues. Indeed, not much ideology at all is needed to run a local authority. It’s mostly about making decisions on applications to build a conservatory in Kelvinside, or re-configure a road junction in Dumbarton.

Nevertheless, the General Election on 8 June has all but killed off interest in Thursday’s town hall elections, which are now being seen as a nationwide opinion poll on the parties and therefore a sort of ‘warm up act’ before the real showdown. They should not have any bearing on each other, but on Friday morning the analysts, pollsters – and media – will be looking for clues as to the result at Westminster in six weeks time.

None will be much concerned with local issues. Even the voters are complicit in this running down of local government. How many will be voting for Ms Sturgeon, Mrs May or Mr Corbyn even though their names do not appear on the ballot paper and have nothing to do with it?

Voters are now conditioned to follow ‘the party’ of whatever complexion, and at this time the overwhelming message concerns a second independence referendum and Brexit…. neither of them relevant to Thursday’s vote.

In some cases the campaign issues raised by the parties are not relevant to the 8 June vote either. Why for instance, is the SNP government’s record on health and the police being challenged? The two forthcoming elections are not about contesting seats at Holyrood. Why are council candidates battling over a second independence referendum? It’s nothing to do with them.

No wonder the voters get confused and decide to switch off.

It’s long been said that Britain is over-governed. De-cluttering our political system and ridding local government of party politics would be a useful start.



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