Give power back to people at community level

Activism is the way to rebuild trust, says Martin Johnstone

Growing up in the 1970s, Power to the People was more a pop song (John Lennon) or Wolfie’s catchphrase (Citizen Smith) than a political statement.

I have been heartened in recent days by the fact that a number of politicians – from both the Better Together and Yes campaigns – have acknowledged that the polarity and aggressiveness of the debate to date has been unedifying and off-putting. The challenge now will be to have a more mature and honourable debate over the next six months that does not leave Scotland completely divided at the end of it.

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Increasingly, I believe that the debate about whether power rests in Westminster or Holyrood is a sideshow to the really important challenge: how do we reignite democracy in our local communities, bringing power and decision-making down to a human scale, rather than centralising it at an international, national or local authority level.

A number of years ago, I was involved with a group of people from one of the poorest regions of Malawi who came to visit and live in Ruchazie (part of Glasgow’s Greater Easterhouse) for a couple of weeks. This wasn’t your normal international delegation. It was people who knew about the struggle to overcome poverty in their guts and not just in their heads.

When they first saw Ruchazie, their initial impression was that it was a beautiful place. And certainly, when compared with their own living conditions in Baula, it is spectacular.

However, once they had been there for a couple of weeks they had a very different perspective. “In our village,” one of them told me, “when there is a problem, we get together and look at how it can best be addressed. Here you have to phone the council, the police or the health board and someone else decides whether the problem is big enough to warrant any action.”

And, I might add, even if it is considered necessary to do something, it frequently doesn’t happen for months and so the connection between the concern and the response is lost.

I certainly don’t want to swap the living conditions of Ruchazie for rural Malawi and I do want to celebrate the massive improvements to much of our public housing stock over the past 20 years. There is, however, a huge problem to be addressed. While the percentage of people nationally voting in any election is dropping, it is haemorrhaging in some parts of the country.

Some of our councillors are being elected when less than 10 per cent of the people living in their wards have voted for them. I suspect that, on occasions, there may be more people not registered to vote than those who actually vote for the successful candidate.

Tom Stoppard, the Czech-born British playwright, says: “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting,” (Jumpers). Whatever happens in the vote this September, the real challenge is how we build a Scotland where everyone counts. In order to achieve this we need at least two seismic shifts – one at a policy level and the other at a cultural level.

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At a policy level, we need to have a shift from representative to participatory democracy. In representative democracy, we vote (or don’t vote) every few years and then spend the intervening period blaming our elected representatives for everything that goes wrong. In participative democracy, we are involved in the intervening period between elections through things like participatory budgeting (of which Leith Decides is a good example) where we continue to make decisions about the places that we live.

Politicians are often fearful of participatory democracy – they fear it reduces their power. The opposite is actually the case. Take participatory budgeting – by which ordinary people have a say in how identified sums of public money are spent. This was pioneered in parts of the world where democracy was in its infancy and it got people used to voting. In more recent years, it has also had a significant impact on increasing voter registration and the number of people who turn out to exercise their democratic right at elections.

And this leads me to the cultural shift. Ultimately, we need to reverse the current deficit in trust. That deficit cuts two ways. We need to start actually trusting our politicians a bit more. Few, in my experience, are inherently bad people, although I may agree with some more than others. And politicians need to rediscover a trust in the electorate and deliberately choose to give away power rather than grab it.

• Martin Johnstone runs the Priority Areas project for the Church of Scotland: