23 December 2014

Engaging our voters

The regeneration of voters was one of the overwhelming results of this year’s referendum, and a factor which lifted the spirits of the Yes campaign following the results.

Engaging the voters and tearing through voter apathy has been the subject of much debate over the past few years, but trends were reversed last September when turnout averaged 84.5 per cent across Scotland.

Keeping the momentum going beyond this mass surge in political engagement is now the challenge.

Following talks with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Prime Minister David Cameron has decided to give the Scottish Parliament the power to lower the voting age in Scotland to 16, in time for the 2016 election. This is a welcome result as the younger generation have proved they are more than capable of making political decisions for themselves.

But so far, on a local level – in the world of local councils and small town democracy - the voting public have yet to taste the same surge of energy for change.

Earlier this month I spoke in a Scottish Parliament debate on the importance of regeneration in local government.

Historically there was very little connection between voters and the wider community. In 1831, there were fewer than 3000 electors in Scotland for parliamentary elections, which meant that the connection with the wider community was negligible.

Until the Pontefract by-election, which took place on 15 August 1872, people voted by going up to the front, to the returning officer, and saying what candidate they were going to vote for. Indeed, before 1872, the way in which people voted was published.

Democracy worked in a substantially different way once the 1872 Ballot Act came into operation.

Looking at international comparisons from 1960 to 1995, top of the league is Malta, which during that time, without compulsory voting, had an average turnout of 94 per cent. In the same period, Denmark had 87 per cent turnout, Sweden had 86 per cent turnout and the UK had 76 per cent turnout.

In the United States, turnout in that period was lower at 48 per cent. That is interesting because the US has a very different model of democracy. Basically, all power is held at the bottom of the heap and the states choose what powers to give back up to the top. However, this does not seem to make any difference to engagement.

We talk about turnout going down, but the turnout among those who could vote in the 1945 general election was 70.05 per cent, and the turnout in the 1997 general election was almost identical, at 69.39 per cent. So, what motivates people to vote is perhaps something quite subtle. The high turnout that we had in the referendum might be because people felt that they could change the system, rather than simply change the faces.

There are some ideas that could be considered in local elections to see if it makes any difference. Randomising the order of people on the ballot paper could work, or alternatively circular ballot papers could be used, so that no one is at the top and no one is at the bottom.

Although I have been a member of a political party for 53 years I wonder if would also be helpful to eliminate the party designation from the ballot paper so that people voted for who they actually knew, rather than the party.

Ultimately if there is one lesson we can take from the referendum and try to replicate it at a grass roots level it is that we need strong messages that are reinforced across local areas if we want people to be engaged.

9 December 2014

Helping Tourism?

Within the past month the Smith Commission, set up in the aftermath of the referendum, has delivered its proposals for a more devolved Scotland.

One of the recommendations which supports years of campaigning is the potential devolution of Air Passenger Duty (APD). The present Scottish Government is committing to abolishing APD if it is devolved.

This tax has long put Scotland at a disadvantage, and hindered the country’s tourism industry, which would be boosted by the devolution of the tax and its subsequent eradication.

The tax which began its life as something relatively small in 1994 (when first introduced, passengers paid £5 for a short haul flight and double that for long haul) has sky rocketed, with up to £194 APD being paid on long haul flights.

Other European countries have already abolished APD which means that those flying in the UK are paying one of the highest departure taxes in the world, and it is not proving beneficial.

Research published by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that significantly reducing or abolishing APD would result in a significant increase in the UK’s Gross Domestic Product, and would lead to the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs across a broad range of sectors.

Abolishing APD would pay for itself through the tourist and business industries, and would stimulate growth in the Scottish economy.

In support of this move was a joint submission to the Smith Commission by Scotland’s three main airports – Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen - who all see APD as a significant barrier to growth and damaging to tourism. They also stated that there were around 2 million less passengers travelling to Scotland every year due to the tax.

So this proposal is good news. But it’s also not the end of the story. These proposals must be agreed by Westminster before they filter down to the Scottish Parliament and are voted on.

And we must not be complacent about the powers that we are given so that we lose sight of those that are still held by Westminster’s iron fist. The recommendations that have been drafted by Lord Smith fall well short of the commitments made over the referendum campaign, and well below the proposals made by the Scottish Government. This is not the home rule that was pledged to the people of Scotland.

But it is important to note that the Scottish Government has pledged to use any new powers that are delivered to the Scottish Parliament to create a fairer society for everyone living in Scotland. So it is now vital that Westminster delivers on the full package of powers recommended by the Smith Commission so that we can do just that.

In next year’s General Election, the population will again have their say on how well they feel Scotland has fared with regards to the Smith Commission and its outcomes. Hopefully the devolution of Airport Passenger Duty will be one of the recommendations that will be followed through so that Scotland can benefit for years to come. If not, make your vote count.

Stewart Stevenson
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