Elected Provosts Aren’t The Answer

Craig Dalzell

Stalls are being set out ahead of the next couple of elections – especially when it comes to the questions of democracy, decentralisation and the constitutional issues that are raised by both. At a UK level, the Labour Party has been outlining its plans to decentralise some power from Westminster – a reaction to the extreme centralisation of the last decade of Tory rule which has seen Parliament itself undermined by Governments, Executives and Prime Ministers who thought they could get away with it. Those plans are inadequate to the point of being counter-productive, but that they are being floated at all is a sign of the pressure for change.

Up here, the pressure is, if anything, even more acute where several decades of centralisation that started even before devolution has left Scotland utterly hollowed out below a national level. The new First Minister might be promising a “New Deal” with local government…but there’s scarcely anyone to make that deal with.

Scottish Labour’s “solution” is that we should have directly elected provosts in each of the 32 Local Authorities. Rather than the leaders of the Councils being elected by the other councillors (in the same way that the First Minister is indirected elected by MSPs) there should be a separate election for the provost and that provost should be invested with greater powers to act unilaterally.

The rationale is that Scottish Ministers have been inept (the linked article above singles out one Minister in particular but I shan’t as I have no bone in that fight and if it wasn’t that person in particular, it’d be another with real or perceived failings – and we shouldn’t be making constitutional politics out of temporary personalities anyway) and thus we should take power away from them and give it to someone else. Presumably that person would always act in an effective and enlightened manner in the way that any other elected official would be incapable of…

Of course they wouldn’t.

This proposal might be a plan to pull power out of Holyrood and deliver it to Local Authorities but it is neither a plan to protect us against human failure nor is it a plan to deliver decentralisation.

On the personal level, I can see why Labour would hold up popular and effective personalities like Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham or London Mayor Sadiq Kahn as shining examples of the policy working but I’m sure they would be less than keen to state that, by definition, their plan would also empower local politicians who would pattern themselves more closely to former London Mayor Boris Johnson. A lesson for politicians: Beware setting a precedent or creating a political tool that relies on it being used only by you and never by your political opponents against you.

As I say though, this is a matter of constitutional politics, not personalities. A good constitution should be able to protect against the damage caused by bad politicians and it should avoid empowering them but it shouldn’t be designed purely as a reaction to them.

The problem with this plan to elect provosts is that it might pull power out of Edinburgh but it invests that power into single points of failure. It doesn’t decentralise Scotland so much as create 32 centralised fiefdoms. I can see why some parties might find it attractive. A single provost would be elected by a First Past the Post system of election (even if it is based on one or more rounds of run-off elections) and is thus a way of a party to gain total control over an area where it can win that election.

Imagine a hypothetical political party that commands support from around 30% of the electorate. In a purely proportional series of local authority elections we could expect that party to win around 30% of the councillors across the country. There would be slightly differences region to region, but on the whole that party would be a significant but not an overwhelming force of power. It may be the junior party in a ruling coalition. It may be the senior party in that coalition. It may merely be a party of opposition if others did slightly better. In any case, that party would have to compromise and deal and negotiate to get its policies through and other parties would have to do the same. Minority government can be a barrier to getting any one policy passed but, on the whole, it leads to a more collegiate atmosphere of collaboration, not competition.

Imagine that same party competing for the provosts who’ll run those councils though. With 30% of the vote, all things being equal and with 2-3 other parties on roughly the same footing, we might expect that they’d win 30% of the provosts. Each of those provosts would command 100% of the power available to them.

Scotland needs and deserves more decentralisation and better local democracy but creating smaller ponds for the slightly larger fish to dominate is not there answer. Nor is a “New Deal” where local councils have to continuously beg for scraps from Edinburgh. Scotland needs to look to our peer countries in Europe where power is truly local – far more local than our “Local Authorities” – some of which are larger than some entire countries – and is based in our communities at a municipal level. Glasgow doesn’t need one directly elected provost – it needs to be more like European cities of a similar size like Barcelona, Vienna or Munich where the city has its City Council (or Regional Authority for the more rural areas) but underneath has anywhere between a dozen and 40 municipal councils with significant powers to run their own neighbourhoods.

Common Weal has already published a blueprint for how these municipal councils could be created now – within the scope of devolution and without causing too much disruption to government infrastructure. Each of our “Development Councils” would be directly elected from the local community, it could appoint a “Town Manager” to oversee specific development tasks (but, unlike a mayor, would be subordinate rather than superior to the Council) and the Council themselves would be overseen by a Citizens’ Assembly of the community.

The lesson of power is that it should never be held in one person’s hands without the ability of someone else to take it from them – and that includes the ability to grant or remove power. Scottish politics has suffered for far too long from those with a little power trying to pull more towards themselves or into a place where they think they can win it all for themselves forever. The answer is to spread it out, make that power as dilute, as local and as downwardly mobile as possible. The answer isn’t replacing a single Philosopher King with 32 to them. It’s to acknowledge that democracy works best when we remember that power should lie with All of Us First.

3 thoughts on “Elected Provosts Aren’t The Answer”

  1. Mike Picken, Glasgow

    Denmark has an interesting system where parties are elected proportionally in the council chamber but Mayors and Vice Mayors are elected to executive positions responsible for portfolios in accordance to their democratic support. The cabinet has to be multi party and although parties can reflect their democratic mandate in implementing an executive portfolio there is more consensus-based collegiality in decision-making. Such a system has enabled the most left wing party in Copenhagen, the Red-Green Alliance/’Enhedslisten’, to emerge as both the largest party in the council chamber and make innovations in the environment portfolio.

  2. Bill Johnston

    For a wee bit of historical/cultural context, John Galt’s novel ‘The Provost” is worth a read. His other title ‘The Member’ is still a valuable primer for newly elected MPs.


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