Local Government and the Referendum

Originally posted on the RIC Aberdeen blogSpeech from 5 April event

Everyone will have received their Council Tax letters by now, telling them that Aberdeen is better as part of the UK.

Some people say, what’s the big deal? It was just one line in a letter. Some people didn’t even notice it. Who reads their Council Tax letters, anyway? Some people roll their eyes. They say the Council are useless. Are we just figuring that out now?

These responses worry me. Have we become so disengaged, so cut off from our local government that we don’t even read a letter once a year? Have we become so used to disappointment that we think incompetence is inevitable? Is democracy just voting once in awhile – or not at all – and letting the politicians do whatever they want?

This is not the system I want to live in.

Yes, the anti-independence message was just a line or two. But it shows where the Council’s priorities lie. From a letter boasting about investment and stability, stuffed with buzzwords, you’d think that everything is rosy in Aberdeen. But there are areas of this city where 1 in 3 children grow up in poverty. Hundreds of people are dependent on food banks, and hundreds more suffer with fuel poverty and substandard housing. In the oil capital of Europe.

And the Council wastes its time deciding whether to take a stance in a national referendum. Discussing the letters was considered ‘urgent business.’

They’re breaching their Code of Conduct, which doesn’t allow campaigning on public money, but this goes deeper. It’s only the latest incident in a long history of divisive party politics and infighting, which distracts the Council from its real job of providing services.

It shows the Council’s contempt, not only towards the Scottish Government, which they slag off in the letter, but towards the people of Aberdeen. They assume we need to be told how to vote. They assume they’re the ones to tell us. They’ve forgotten that they should be working in our best interest – not their own.

I’m happy to say that the people haven’t forgotten, and it’s not just the people here today. These letters are from over 120 ordinary people who think the Council should be paying attention to the problems they face, not wasting time meddling in national affairs.

And it’s not just Yes voters. Even committed No voters have signed complaints – they don’t think it’s the Council’s place to interfere in the referendum, either.

But what do the Council say? We’ve received replies to some of our earlier messages.

Some councillors claimed that the letter was not intended to influence voters – then why put the message there in the first place?

Some councillors complained that the Scottish Government produced the White Paper with taxpayer money. But they were elected on a manifesto to hold a referendum. They had a responsibility to set out their vision for independence.

Some councillors claimed that the Scottish Government’s pro-independence stance gives local councils the right to take a position themselves. But councils are elected to focus on local issues – and in Aberdeen, they’re not even doing a very good job at that.

So what do we do about it?

It’s ironic. The most powerful tool we have at the moment is the very referendum they want us to vote No in. Of course they want us to vote No. The current system preserves their power and supports corruption and self-interest, from Westminster all the way down.

Local government needs massive reform, and that’s not going to happen under Westminster. The whole system is set up around the interests of politicians, not the people.

I’m not going to tell anyone how to vote. But I am going to tell you my vision.

Independence is a chance to shake up our whole political culture, change the way we think about government from the top down. If we can change national government, why not local?

Independence isn’t a cure-all, but it’s a chance for ordinary people to put pressure on politicians, come up with new structures and hold politicians accountable.

There’s strength in numbers – that’s why we’re here today. If we can collect 120 letters in just a few hours of standing outside in St Nicholas Square, imagine what we can do if we really join together.

I’d like to say a quick word on the Radical Independence Campaign. A lot of people ask what’s radical about us, and to be honest, I don’t think we’re very radical at all. It’s not particularly radical to think that people should be able to live decent lives and that millionaires and corporations should pay their fair share. It’s not radical to protect the environment and stay out of illegal wars. It’s not radical to want government that’s accountable to the people. But in the Westminster status quo, these basic things are becoming impossible to achieve.

That’s why we’re campaigning for independence. We’ve been out canvassing in the regeneration areas, talking to people who are suffering directly from Westminster’s austerity cuts. We believe that everyone will benefit from independence (except maybe the millionaires) but working class people will benefit the most.

I hope you’ll join me in posting these letters through the letterbox, and showing the Council that they can’t get away with telling people how to vote. And if you agree that ordinary people would be better off under independence, then I hope you’ll get involved with us!

Thank you.

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