Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

If we want diversity, we need to pay for it

Photo by Amy Elting on Unsplash

Earlier this year I did something many politicians have talked of privately but avoided publicly, I called for councillors across Scotland to be paid a full-time wage. We have several problems in local government, one of them is a lack of local representation that truly reflects our communities. Our local authorities are overwhelmingly male, older and white.

The basic salary of a councillor in Scotland is the part-time wage of £17,854 per year. In order to widen participation in local politics to people from working-class, minority backgrounds, and to Scotland’s younger population, we need to treat this job as a full-time occupation. Here’s why…

Local government cannot continue to be the almost exclusive preserve of the retired, wealthy or MP and MSP staff. We need to remove the barriers to political participation. The new Scottish Government and Parliament can, and must, address this by looking at what the role entails, the increasing strain on local public services, and the pressure on average wages, that the pandemic has only exacerbated.

Statistics from 2018 show that 45 per cent of councillors were retired, 96 per cent white and only 14.8 per cent were under 45 years old. In one Scottish local authority, the entire council is male.

How do we help change this?

The first is to recognise that a part-time wage will not attract people who need a full-time wage to live on. This means people with caring responsibilities and those in already insecure jobs will be less able to devote themselves to public service. This deprives local governments of the lived experiences of those most likely to use local services. As a result, it often means that many councillors can seem out of touch with the reality of ordinary people’s lives when making decisions that impact them.

Our best councillors already work full-time hours despite being paid as part-timers. I know that many politicians are scared to go near this issue because they think the public reaction will automatically be negative. However, politics should be about being honest with people and leading our communities to find solutions to problems. Ultimately, we need to offer a better representation of people in politics.

It is important to acknowledge the local scandals that arise from part-time wage earners claiming expenses as well and the impact that this has had on representation. With black politicians like Diane Abbott MP racially abused for drinking a mojito, anti-LGBT+ hate crimes on the rise, and our Gypsy/Traveller communities routinely discriminated against, would people from these communities risk being pilloried for claiming expenses for lunch at a local government summit in Greenock? Looking at the statistics, and having discussed this amongst my non-political friends, the answer is a resounding no.

Paying councillors a full-time wage would begin to address the concerns many people have about going into local politics. It would begin to remove the insecurity around income, it would remove the temptation and fear of claiming expenses, and it would begin to remove the imbalances between high paid full-time senior staff and the ‘part-time’ councillors scrutinising and directing their work. It would be the first step in increasing diversity of participation by empowering ordinary people to get involved in local politics.

The time for this change is now. Let’s make this change before the Local Elections next May.

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