Explainer: What are you voting for in the council elections?

Local elections often suffer from lower status and confusion about their place in democratic life

ON THURSDAY 4 May, Scotland will go to the polls to vote in local council elections.

Public votes have come thick and fast in recent years. The General Election on 8 June will be the seventh vote in just three years.

So what is at stake in the council elections, and what makes them different to other types of election in the UK?

CommonSpace explains the key features of the 2017 council elections

What are you voting to change?

There are 32 local council areas in Scotland – meaning Scotland has one of the smallest numbers of local authorities per head of population in Europe.

The difference between some of Scotland’s local authorities are vast. The 32 include, for instance, Glasgow City Council, the large council area by population, and Highlands Council, covering a smaller population over a much larger area.

But all share certain responsibilities.

Local authorities receive funding from the Scottish Government and from their ability to raise local taxes, including the council tax.

What policies are you voting on?

When you vote in the local elections, you are voting only on how the powers controlled by local councils are used.

This is sometimes obscured by the way political parties and the media use local elections as a measure of how parties are performing, and how this might impact on General Elections.

The picture is further confused by the fact that parties often include national General Election policies in their campaigning for local elections. This is sometimes considered poor practise, but since parties are being judged for their national performance by the local elections, it arguably makes sense to include headline policies.

Powers exercised from a local level include:

Tax and local services: Local authorities provide a huge array of services, from road maintenance and street lighting to sanitation services, economic planning, and the control of recreational services. And, now, a slightly greater degree of flexibility when setting the council tax.

Education: The provision of school education through local councils, which operate as local education authorities, is a key part of the Scottish model of comprehensive education. 

Transport: Scotland’s transport systems have become a hot topic in recent years, with rising prices and industrial disputes over safety matters. There are increasing calls for public control or even nationalisation of all or parts of bus and rail services.

Housing: Local authorities have the power to build council houses, and some influence to encourage the building of other types of housing. The UK’s housing crisis has seen calls by campaigners for a large scale increase in the building of council housing for rent.

Parties, and independent candidates who are far more common in local than in general elections, won’t gain control over general taxation, economic policy, legislation and other matters organised at a Holyrood or Westminster level.

How do you vote?

Scottish council elections use the single transferable vote (STV) method.

This is a form of proportional representation that allows you to vote for more than one party, and list your preference. Voters place a 1 beside their first preference, followed by 2, 3, 4 and so on through declining preference.

Contrary to some misleading online viral claims, voters do not need to place a preference next to every party.

General elections use the first past the post system – where one victor in any given constituency takes the seat. Though this has become the benchmark for other voting systems in the UK, it is a highly unrepresentative style of voting that has few equivalents in Europe, where various forms of proportional representation are more common.

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