The local elections will be held on Thursday May the 5th and already candidates have started to set out their stalls.
Most of Orkney’s councillors are elected under the description ‘Independent’. This year the Scottish Greens will be fielding 5 candidates hoping to build on the success of 2017. They have a manifesto so the electorate can to some extent understand what policies they would like to pursue if elected.
That’s what political parties do. They present the electorate with a set of policies and the voter can decide whether or not they agree with them and base their decision on that. How competent the candidate might be as a councillor is more difficult to determine but speaking to them on the doorstep or hearing them being interviewed by the media is helpful.
There are some folk that think political parties have no place in Orkney’s local elections. They even suggest that candidates elected as part of a political party would not represent local needs. For over 50 years Orkney has elected Liberal/LibDem politicians as MPs and MSPs – do they not also stand up for local issues?
But how do you judge what an ‘Independent’ candidate represents politically?
The SNP doesn’t permit anyone who is a member to stand as an Independent. If a member of the SNP wants to do that then they have to resign from the party. This is not the case with all political parties and councillors have been elected in Orkney as ‘Independents’ who are members of political parties. A few might admit to it – but not all do – and you really have to wonder why not?
Candidates will most likely publish an election address which is supposed to be where they state what policies they will pursue if elected. The difficulty comes after the election and they take up their roles as councillors.
Many will already know each other very well for a variety of reasons: being re-elected; previous work colleagues; familial links; members of the same club. Others, elected as Independents, especially for the first time, might not have these cosy connections to fall back on. For councillors with no old pals to fall in with, getting anything through council is very difficult.
It also means that officials have considerable influence over the direction of council policy. When groupings are based on old pals or social and familial connections then scrutiny of papers and forensic questioning slips by the wayside because that kind of activity is usually pursued by an opposition party. And none of that is helped when there is so much secrecy still about decision making.
In 2020 the public saw how easy meetings could be made publicly accessible through online platforms like Zoom. The Scottish and UK Parliaments even adopted virtual meetings which the public could watch. The parliamentary committee meetings are the most interesting because that is where elected politicians can gather evidence through interviews. Being able to watch, not just listen to, how elected politicians and officials respond to questioning allows citizens to better judge how well they are being represented. It is a really important part of our democracy.
Once elected, how does a councillor in Orkney communicate with those whom they represent? That is another vital strand of the democratic process – communication and accountability. Sadly very much lacking in Orkney.
Being an effective councillor who really wants to support people in our community is a hard job. It’s actually made even more difficult in Orkney because of a complete lack of political direction. It leaves power in the hands of a few with little scrutiny of policy resulting in poor decision making.
Sadly many people have become disillusioned with elections and will not bother to vote.
Your individual vote is the most powerful tool any citizen has. That is why it took centuries to win universal suffrage because your vote can make a difference.
At the local elections on Thursday May 5th anyone aged 16 or over that day, who lives in Orkney and who is registered to vote, will be able to vote. Please do.