In the most recent local government elections in 2022, turnout in Glasgow was 38.4%. This was even lower than in the previous council elections of 2017. Concerning as this overall figure is, it masks considerable variation between wards, where for some the turnout was 50% and for others 28%. Based on other data, it is also likely that there was a significant difference in the voting patterns across age groups, with young people less likely to vote than older people.
These figures indicate significant disengagement with the local democratic process, and suggest that people feel the political process has little to offer them. This in turn creates a gap between those who are elected to govern and the people that they are supposed to serve. Some might argue that we need technical solutions (such as compulsory voting) to overcome the democratic deficit, but at best these are quick fixes which do nothing to create deeper, richer and more creative approaches to democratic engagement.
In the face of this breach between politics and people, there are nevertheless groups and individuals who are actively concerned about governance and accountability, and who are committed to challenging the status quo. SANE is one of them and it is for this reason that we have been collaborating with Research for Action and It’s our City in Sheffield to explore the concerns, demands and campaign strategies for broadening and strengthening local democracy across the landscape of resistance in both cities.
In Glasgow we hosted two co-learning conversations where groups could share activities and plans, discuss experiences with Glasgow City Council and other public institutions, identify common demands and build solidarity. All had been involved in challenging local decision making; in defence of services and public spaces, in defending and promoting cultural heritage, in exposing privatisation and corporate interests, in challenging inequality, and promoting peace and security.
There were many different ways of working, including alternative policy development, building knowledge, exposing political blockages, using existing systems (FOIs, petitions) to act as levers of dissent, non-violent direct action and documenting experiences. Participants were frustrated, angry, bemused about their encounters, concerned also about the rhetorical contradictions between what the Council says and what it does. But there was reflection too about the tactics and strategy of building more democratic relations with the local authority, with a recognition that there is fragmentation across different forms of activism which dilutes impact.
Whilst there was agreement that there had been over centralisation of decision making by the Scottish Government over many aspects of peoples’ lives, it was also agreed that local government could not be ignored as a site of contestation. It had to be held to account even though its workings were often hidden, despite the pretence of engagement and despite the barriers created by the political culture.
But this wasn’t sufficient. The need for new strategies for the way that power is distributed, and for ways of stepping out of the relationship that funding creates were discussed, a post capitalist imaginary essential if political, economic, social and environmental justice is to be achieved.
The project was a starting point and we are keen to continue with conversations about governance and ways of extending democracy. As importantly, we want to try and rise to the expressed challenge of helping to make better connections across different campaigns and how time can be carved out for thinking and strategising together. As with our other short blogs we invite you to get in touch with your thoughts and ideas, even better to work with us on the next stage of this project and how it can help to build the process for a People’s Plan for Glasgow.
Democratising Governance – creative output (posters) by our fantastic artist, Reece!