"They walk different, they talk different, they think different." Democracy 21 conference.

You can't discuss a reboot of local democracy without discussing both the means to increase citizen participation, and the creation of conducive environments for deliberation. So it was natural for All Hands On to attend the Democracy 21 conference in Glasgow. The organisers also kindly let us screen When Citizens Assemble during the lunch break.

Scotland is a backward nation with respect to local democracy. This is in no way a slur on the attitude or aptitude of Scottish citizens. It is a statistical fact. Scotland has had democratic backwardness thrust upon it via the erosion and demolition of the institutions that make local democracy possible. Several speakers quoted from a litany of statistics demonstrating that, in terms of the number of local democratic entities per capita, and by geographic area, Scotland is "beyond weird", as Lesley Riddoch put it. Switzerland (population 8.5million) has 2,300 Communes. The Faroe Islands (population 49,000) has 34 local municipalities. Scotland (population 5.4 million) has just 32 local councils.

Lesley also made the valid point that the Scottish Government has a tendency to try to bulk itself up, to puff out its plumage to appear bigger to its neighbours and on the international scene. The idea of a more devolved, more granular local democracy is counter-intuitive to that mindset. But the risk of not reinvigorating democracy at a local level is that the nation loses its diversity and authenticity. A reboot is imperative.


Democracy 21 was organised by the Electoral Reform Society Scotland and supported by Common Weal, Nesta, Scottish Rural Parliament, and The Democratic Society, amongst others.

It was attended by roughly 500 concerned citizens and activists. We listened - in fact we mostly listened - but we also discussed ideas for what better local democracy would look like, and the process by which Scotland might get there. "How can power exist at the scale of the community which is affected?" was the overriding question with which we wrestled.

The conference also served as a launch platform for a declaration, co-created by attendees at a series of smaller events leading up to the conference, which is intended to shape the Scottish Government's forthcoming Local Democracy Bill.

This post is not intended as a comprehensive write-up of the Democracy 21 event, but we did want to record some conceptual highlights from the perspective of our project, which is concerned with all things relating to participatory democracy.

What does progress look like?

Democracy is about people having the power to make progress. At a local level it can be difficult to obtain the necessary power to make progress, and there may be debate over the prioritisation of options for progress, but progress itself tends to be practical, easy to identify, and unequivocally good. We citizens focus our efforts on securing the democratic means, but we seldom question the democratic ends.

Katherine Trebeck did just that.

She set the scene for the conference by arguing for a wellbeing economy. In so doing she railed against the narrow conceptual bandwidth that defines the economic progress that we seek to achieve through democratic means. Our slavish acceptance of the economic orthodoxy, and the "hegemonic common sense" of GDP growth and competitiveness are, in her view, as big a democratic failure as the Iraq War.

Whilst we're aiming for better democracy, we should also be aiming that democracy at better, more imaginative definitions of progress.

Bottom up and top down

Fixing the machinery of local democracy requires the striking of an appropriate balance between the bottom up and the top down. This applies to the flow of power, to the flow of money and other resources, and to the provision of services. At Democracy 21 several philosophies were espoused as to how this balance can be best achieved.

This included support for the principle of subsidiarity, whereby the top, or the centre, of the system plays a subsidiary role, only performing tasks and providing services that can not be delivered at a local level.

Willie Sullivan of Electoral Reform Society Scotland used a telephony metaphor. What local democracy in Scotland needs, he argued, is a bottom-up smartphone. What we have is a top-down, Bakelite, rotary-dial relic.

Elena Tarifa Herrero from Barcelona en Comú described the "unimaginable" political change that is being wrought in major Spanish cities via the bottom-up process of "municipalism". She talked about the citizens' platform that underpins the activism, she talked passionately about the feminisation of politics, and she described the resulting "democratic revolution from below". Of all the speakers and panelists she best epitomised the rallying call of the conference to "act as if we own the place".

The challenges, consequences and addictiveness of participation

Lots of good stuff under this heading. And lots of that good stuff from the mouth of Common Weal's Robin McAlpine.

There was a discussion about the practical challenges to participation in rural Scotland, arising from a lack of access to transport and/or a lack of access to appropriate technology.

Robin highlighted the need to manage the tension between, on the one hand, the intimacy and intensity required for good deliberation, and, on the other, the desire to be as inclusive as possible to as many people as possible.

He also floated the idea of getting comfortable with asymmetry. Getting comfortable with the notion that empowered Community A will make different decisions in similar circumstances to empowered Community B.

There was a comment from the audience to the effect that ordinary people, given political agency, tend to rise to the challenge of participation with the confidence and the innate skills to make good political decisions. Robin ran with this idea, drawing on his observation of participatory democratic processes and the effect of participation on the participants. "They walk different, they talk different, they think different."

From the perspective of All Hands On, that was a fitting conclusion. Radical, participatory democracy doesn't just transform politics, it transforms people.