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IN PRACTICE - KEITH YATES ON FUTURE SCOTTISH ELECTIONS

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Amid the flurry of the general election, the Scottish Executive has asked councils to comment on tying together loc...
Amid the flurry of the general election, the Scottish Executive has asked councils to comment on tying together local government elections and future Scottish Parliament elections.
Most councils have no problem with this - it means the four-year cycle councils have been asking for - and it continues the cycle begun with the new councils in 1995. It means the next elections will be in 2003 instead of 2002. But there is a serious debate to be had about whether the elections should be separated by a couple of months.
There are at least three stings in the proposals. The first is a badly-crafted clause which would synchronise all local government elections to the day of any Scottish Parliament elections - even if these were moved from a four-year cycle for extraordinary reasons.
Why should the democratic exigencies of the Scottish Parliament destabilise the cycle of local government elections? After all, one of the reasons councils argued for a four-year cycle was to allow more effective forward planning.
The second is the assumption that elections will be on the same day. The advantages of this, so it is claimed, is that local government would have greater legitimacy by having the same turnout as the Scottish Parliament.
It goes unstated that this would also allow the 6,000 or so candidates for the local government elections and their agents to do the legwork for getting the voters out for the Scottish Parliament.
But at what cost? The press and media would focus almost solely on the business of the Scottish Parliament. This would restrict debate and examination of the councils' work over the period of the previous administration and plans for the future.
It also fails to acknowledge that local government elections from 2007 onwards are likely to be arranged according to some new voting system as recommended by McIntosh and Kerley. So voters would be confronted not just with the two votes for the constituency and regional list MSPs, but also another voting system for the local councils.
The third issue is the counting of votes. In 1999, because of the Scottish Office's refusal to listen and because of their palpable disdain for local government elections, the poster and TV campaign talked about having only two votes - when, in fact, there were three - and insisted upon the Scottish Parliament votes being counted first.
Election staff rounded off their normal 15-hour day by a night shift that carried on, in most cases, for another six to eight hours, most of which was spent on counting the regional list votes and collating them across constituencies.
The reality is that election staff and enumerators do not perform at their best after dawn has broken - no matter how many bacon rolls you give them. And while people will stay up until 3am as they did for Portillo, by 7am only the insomniac anoraks will be left. Four or five hours later we returned to count the local government votes. It was a huge anticlimax.
The focus was on the Scottish Parliament and local government was lost in the melee. Is this the sort of local democracy we want in the 21st century?
-Keith Yates, chief executive, Stirling council.
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