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19 April 2012

Back to the polls

Back to the polls

For the fourth time in four years the Scottish electorate will return to the polls to vote for members of their local authority. On 3 May, more than 1,200 council seats are up for grabs for the first time since 2007.

Turnout for local elections tends to be low. But for the last three elections the national parliamentary elections have coincided with local council elections leading to a higher turnout than in previous years. After the fiasco of 2007, it was deemed that combining two elections was a contributing factor to the high number of ‘invalid’ parliamentary ballot papers (seven per cent of the votes cast). Scottish ministers therefore heeded the advice of the Gould Report and split the two elections.

Having been introduced in 2007, the Single Transferable Vote will again be used. While undoubtedly proportional, the use of this voting system in 2007 led to the vast majority of local authorities having no overall control by a single party. Each of the main parties are therefore in power or at least sharing power in one of the 32 local authorities across Scotland. More than 20 are currently being run by a coalition. Similar results are likely again. Those who are willing to bargain and compromise will, in turn, be more likely to play a role in governance.

The results will have consequences at both local and national levels. Locally the consequences are about delivery of services on the ground and in the community. Each of the parties have therefore produced local manifesto pledges, underlined by national priorities. Unlike at national elections, big, esoteric ideas don’t work here. People want to know whether their local services will be improved and developed – how it will affect their lives on a day-to-day level – the regularity of refuse collection, the building of a new shopping centre, how the local school is run, the improvement of local transport etc. Nationally, the impacts are nearly all political. The results provided a key indicator to the national progress of the various parties and can have a damaging effect on the success of a party in Holyrood.

Of all the levels of government, local churches should arguably have the greatest concern for the outcomes of local elections. Whether on issues such as redeveloping a church building or a church’s provision of an after-school club, local authorities can have a significant impact on the operation of a local church. In turn, local churches and Christians have so much to offer in the provision of vital services for the community, especially as councillors try and cope with reduced budgets. Initiatives such as Street Pastors should be a constant reminder of the positive impact of Christians who are willing to engage and build relationships with their local councils.

We are all called to be ‘salt and light’; and 3 May, provides, once again, such an opportunity.