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What society needs from Politicians

If we want our society to succeed, for all of us, we need politicians to succeed in delivering for us. This cannot be measured on career longevity or party standing but on real achievements for country and constituents.

We need to encourage more political minds of a calibre that can critically analyse information, really listen to understand problems and assess potential outcomes  before making decisions. Being a ‘team player’ seems laudable on the surface but not at the detriment of individual thinking. This is particularly important if the end goal is an independent Scotland and all the creativity and problem solving it will take to ensure a country that can thrive for all! 

Without fearless politicians, speaking up against populist tides through the generations how would fundamental societal progress have been achieved, such as the abolition of slavery?

This time of crisis for so many, is not the time for us to prioritise ‘a career in politics’ of compliant ‘team players’, this is the time to seek out and support the brave politicians of principle who will ask the difficult but necessary questions!

If we are to build consensus to achieve the safest, most robust solutions for inclusive, stable, peaceful transition to an independent nation we must ensure the freedom for our elected representatives to question on our behalf, even their own party direction, without sanction.

Gatekeepers of Quality 

Political parties are the gatekeepers to vet candidates to ensure they provide us with a choice of high calibre individuals to vote to represent us. They must take seriously the responsibility for the output their internal  process produces.

We, as the electorate can measure political parties on whether they will deliver on their manifestos and promises at the next election, but this is broad brush as much depends on the alternatives.

Least worst is no longer good enough, if it ever were. Success at elections depends both on your performance (or promises) and that of your opposition. It’s time we had a finer lens to measure and scrutinise, at least annually, how our elected representatives are performing for us.

Removing Barriers to Representative Politics 

It might even make winners less daunted at what they need to do to succeed and help losers know better what voters expectations are for next time. We must put focus on encouraging people from across society to come forward as potential candidates and break through the politico bubble that’s is currently a barrier to those ‘not in the know’.

Surely we can all agree that if we aspire to truly representative government at all levels, then removing such barriers to entry creates ideal conditions. In a Scotland seeking to demonstrate that our desire for independence is on the grounds of civic betterment for us all, this is critical.

If those in power push back and question why must they be transparent and accountable: the electorate should really be asking them “why?”

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Perception in politics can make or break you

Winning is hard, as politicians have a spotlight on them which presents some very real perception problems to navigate. Once a perception is set, it can be hard to change so transparency and accessible accountability provide a sound evidence base to counter unjustified negative perceptions and critically, for the electorate, leaves nowhere to hide for justified ones!

What do politicians do when problems arise and what should they do? 

Option 1:

  • cover the problems and claim “all is well” even when evidence mounts to the contrary

Option 2:

  • throw up hands saying “sorry, we WILL endeavour to do better, we will learn and we will prove to you we are worthy of your vote”

Option 3: 

  • nothing, ignore it

I’ll leave it up to readers to decide what politicians should do and what they think they do do 😉

How to help winners succeed!

How you win is a key focus of political parties. The familiarity of the party machine at election time is what gets HQ juices flowing but where is the energy invested in USING the power from a win, beyond re-election, to deliver. That is what’s actually important to constituents after all! 

Some of our newly elected Scottish councillors will have never done this job before so how are they (or any other newly elected representative) set up to succeed?

Most parties have an assumption that mentoring by an ‘old hand’ is the key yet isn’t that a bit like being taught to drive by your Dad? 

Clash of wills between ‘master and apprentice’ may swiftly derail progress, in addition to the risk of picking up ‘bad habits’ from a ‘master’ with years of driving from an outdated hIghway code from when they ‘passed’. 

The process stuff should be fairly simple to go through at an induction, but beyond administrative learning, how do our new councillors learn to really succeed for their constituents? Simplest way is to observe who gets things done and where their priorities lie. 

When One Master becomes Two 

The key thing that changes from trying to get elected to being elected (unless independent) is a politician’s reporting line suddenly expands beyond their party.

To get elected candidates are part of a team, largely reliant on party brand and voter management strategy to be successful. Once elected, politicians now have two masters: party and constituents and their needs and wants don’t always align. 

Who the primary master is for a politician is fundamental in driving outcomes for; politician, party and constituents. Whether you’re a fan of Churchill or not, or agree or disagree about duties of parliamentarians to be ‘country first, then constituents’ I think few voters would disagree that his stated third duty, to political party should always ranks after both.

Yet as we see in all areas of government, the whip system is often deployed to protect a party position, at times to the detriment of some representative’s own constituents or even arguably the country. I’ve even heard from some candidates that party loyalty is tested at vetting, to assess how much of a ‘team player’ candidates are, using examples setting constituents interest against party! 

I find this very concerning but it reinforces why I could never be a politician in such a party system. I’d likely lose the whip before lunchtime on my first day, assuming I passed vetting!  Most folk who I believe would make excellent political representatives are of the same independent mindset. Some already elected have been punished for not being ‘team players’ either at vetting, selection or even through demotion! 

What do you do when interests clash – Local Hero or Party Nero? 

If politicians ignore constituents issues in favour of party line, they run the risk of; 

  • bad press,
  • heated surgeries
  • red hot constituency inbox
  • reputational damage as ‘Party Nero’, cloth eared to constituents when party interests and personal career interest are assumed to trump constituents interests
  • risk to re-election, if they’ve the stomach to continue in politics.

If the politician aligns with constituents interests, as their primary master, they can become the ‘local hero’ but this is too often at a personal cost within their party.

There’s an abundance of examples at all levels of government of politicians ‘rebelling’ to take positions against their own party’s line and even losing the whip because of it. There are many reasons for this for example:

  • Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s March 2003 eloquent resignation speech in protest against the invasion of Iraq
  • Andy Wightman’s resignation from Scottish Greens following an uncomfortable whipped adherence to party line on the Lamont ‘6 words’ amendment to The Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill
  • Elected councillors resigning party whip to stand as independents for their constituents on points of local interest or issues within their party

So what have we learned about the problems (and indeed benefits) of winning? 

Winning presents politicians with the real opportunity to make a positive (or negative) impact on their constituents lives and on society’s direction. The last few years have brought home that many decision made by politicians can be literally be life or death ones. 

Politicians are human beings and will make mistakes as we all do but it’s how they deal with their successes, failures and insecurities that have a wider impact on us all. 

Final part: What does society needs from politicians?

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How do voters know what’s true?

Well, we don’t have much to go on as voters when it comes to ‘actuals’ on a politician’s promises or indeed record in office. It’s true that politics geeks do like a good trawl of a voting record but how many folk have the time, knowledge of process or even interest to do that? Media have a role of course but the front page story above shows, it’s a pretty pointless exercise after votes have been cast! 

What could we do to help voters?

First principles, make it easy for voters. If politicians truly want an empowered electorate we must help them to make robust democratic choices, to support them or their party, by convincing them instead of ‘fooling them long enough’ with flashy soundbites and personality politics, to cast their vote.

To do this, effort must be expended to allow voters to base our decisions on evidence rather than just promises we can’t easily track the delivery of.

How do we know how politicians are actually doing? 

Most people don’t but we could change that, starting with transparency. Look at how other ‘industries’ manage to track employee delivery.

Most employees have some sort of appraisal at annual review to see who is:

  • ‘on track’
  • overachieving and candidate for promotion
  • Underachieving and in need of training etc.
  • failing for other reasons

So why don’t we do this for politicians? Their decisions impact our society so surely their tracking is critical to us all? 

Why don’t our politicians have to provide a ‘report card’ when elected, to measure progress against their stated objectives and election promises?

At every new election a CV should be provided of a politician’s background, experience and views on / voting intentions on key issues! Parties must have this information for their internal vetting so why is it not available to politicians prospective employers: the electorate?

Is it just because no one has asked them to before? Good politicians who deliver have a lot to gain from such accessible transparency after all. 

Next part: Perception in politics can make or break you

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All hail the winners but then…

‘SNP held Glasgow’ was trumpeted after the local council count by a Scottish media with very little to work with from a pretty non eventful election.

The ‘hold’ was true but the ‘grip’ is fragile. The previous shockwave win of SNP from the long incumbent Labour stronghold in 2017 was seen by many as a seismic democratic change for Scotland’s largest city. The reality though from pals from my home City and visits to friends and family is that not much changed and many of the changes are not largely positive.

This is disappointing as Scotland’s ‘Dear Green Place’ has so much going for it in both its architecture, green spaces, vibrant culture and of course it’s indomitable people.

The fragility of last week’s results is that a slim majority leaves open the very real possibility of losing control from by-elections, where those is power tend to be at a disadvantage when constituents are angry. The machinations of forming administrations is not always straightforward but it can be telling as to who is willing to work with who and why!

A fragile majority on any administration puts pressure on those who were elected to demonstrably deliver! Given the need for serious work from our local authorities at anytime never mind a cost of living crisis, stability and focus is key.

The last Glasgow SNP administration was beset with early bad press from the Lady Provosts’s spending, leading to her stepping down from role, to a series of resignations from SNP councillors, claiming issues with group leader and overall discipline within the group.

One week on from the election we saw front page of Glasgow Evening times with a splash story on a recently re-elected SNP councillor who they have now ‘fact checked’ statements he made at recent election hustings as evidently ‘untrue’. This relates to excuses he made when attempting to explain his 84th of 85 position on council meeting attendance – not ideal when seeking re-election. He was re-elected, so, where does that leave his voters? 

It’s interesting this story broke a week after his constituents cast their votes so it’s a moot point as to whether it would have made any impact if voters had been made aware before the vote but it does raise a wider, serious issue. 

How do voters know what’s true? I’ll explore this in next part of this blog:  How do voters know what’s true?

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In defence of democracy

Let us begin by looking at the what the election for local government was, how the results stacked up, and how some people have chosen to respond – and ultimately why our defence of democracy is needed.

To quote the Electoral Reform Society

“STV (single transferable vote) is a preferential voting system which produces results that are approximately proportional to votes cast.”

https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/publications/the-power-of-preferences-stv-in-scottish-local-elections/#sub-section-3

Wikipedia offers this as an explainer, this is what will show if you search what is an STV election is.

Single transferable vote (STV) is a multi-winner ranked-choice voting method, an electoral system in which voters rank candidates according to their preferences, with their single vote transferred to other candidates based on these rankings if their preferred candidate is eliminated, so that their vote still counts.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_transferable_vote

What we establish here – is that coming ‘first’ or being ‘largest party’ isn’t the aim of the system.

The aim is to get any many people elected that share the views of the electorate.

The STV voting system is the preferred voting system of the party of government in Scotland, which at this time is the SNP.

So it surprised us today to see a Scottish Government minister say ‘a sad day for democracy’, following a council administration forming.

https://twitter.com/MairiMcAllan/status/1526875308586041344

Let’s take a look at how the result stacked up, thanks to the incredible work of BallotBox Scotland and its license we can bring you this visual

https://ballotbox.scot/le22/south-lanarkshire

The ‘issue’ seems to be the pro-Indy councillors seemed to get 28 councillors, the pro-Union councillors got 34 – and subsequently have chosen to form an administration.

This is exactly what STV is designed to do. Force people to seek coalition and understanding from likeminded others.

The SNP even decided to put forward itself for administration in minority.

67% of the vote, the majority, went to non SNP councillors, and thus democracy in action – the elected representatives rejected the SNP minority, favouring a broader represented coalition.

Much hysteria follows by politically engaged people, who know and understand voting systems and result sets compounded by the realities of coalitions. Which makes it all the more ridiculous.

This is incredible. One government minister called it a ‘sad day for democracy’. Another government minister decries the result as a ‘disgrace’.

While its always a bit horrible to see your political opponents form administration and work together against you. It is neither disgraceful or sad for democracy. This is what is supposed to happen.

Stories like this are occurring all over Scotland as administrations form and individual supporters or activists may be angry and vent.

However government ministers must hold themselves to a higher standard. We have a proportional representation system in Scotland and it has delivered its verdict. To suggest otherwise in an attempt to discredit the democratic system we sit on is callous, naive and dangerous.

We must have respect for our political opponents and the mandate they carry from their electorate. We must defend the democratic systems and institutions we are fortunate to have. You cannot rail against Scotland having governments in Westminster it did not elect if you utterly disrespect the result of the democratic elections held under proportional systems in our own councils.