WHAT a motley crew of local council candidates the Tory party in Scotland has scraped together for the May elections. One has described Nicola Sturgeon as a drooling hag. Another was a Ukip candidate and retains an interest in far-right commentators – including the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. There’s no way these people would be elected if they stood in their true colours.

Meanwhile, a leaked email to Scottish Labour party members in Aberdeenshire reveals the party is struggling to get any candidates at all.

It promises that anyone willing to put their name forward will have done their bit; “doing anything additional as a candidate will not be a requirement”. So, no canvassing, door-knocking, leaflet writing, hustings – no nothing.

The email continues. “Every vote counts. It could be the difference between Labour coming third or second nationally.”

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Of course, it’s naïve to suggest that national vote tallies will be irrelevant. But these are local elections – yet reluctant candidates are being encouraged to stand for the good of the Scottish Labour Party – not their local community.

And it gets worse.

Labour got themselves into a pickle in Aberdeen by forming an administration with the Tories, stopping the SNP from taking office in 2017. The nine councillors involved were suspended from Scottish Labour – but party leader Anas Sarwar was among those who voted to allow them back in last year.

Now, though, he’s insisting that Labour shouldn’t form any coalition deals with rivals after this year’s council elections. Er what?

The STV voting system creates coalitions. It’s (partly) what it’s for – forcing every shade of local opinion to work together. You know, the way thriving, European democracies have done for the best part of a century. And while Britain’s bullish, winner-takes-all, he-man approach to politics demands the pretence of going for world domination at every election, voters know that doesn’t happen and fondly imagined Scotland was a bit more mature.

Because Labour HAVE ruling coalitions with the SNP in Dumfries and Galloway, East Renfrewshire, Falkirk, Fife, Stirling and South Ayrshire and with Lib Dems and independent candidates on Highland Council. Is this not okay in the Scottish Labour leader’s barmy book?

Now the plot thickens.

Days after his shock coalition ban – which would have handed control of South Ayrshire to the Tories – it emerged Scottish Labour won’t ban Labour councillors there from joint working with the SNP after May 5. Scottish Labour say any decision to ban coalitions “can only be taken by its Scottish executive committee”.

So, Anas Sarwar has apparently spoken out of turn. Why can’t he just call a spade a spade?

The only council where Labour politicians are working with Conservatives is Aberdeen. But instead of opposing council deals with Tories, Anas Sarwar has made a nonsensical stand against ALL council coalitions. Why? Because indyref2 means Labour might have to cosy up to the Tories all over again.

It’s beyond pathetic. Sarwar’s opposition to the co-operative tendencies implicit in an STV voting system introduced by his Labour predecessor Jack McConnell, is anti-democratic. And just plain daft.

What a sorry spectacle from Labour and the Tories as we approach the local elections.

But it’s too easy for SNP and Green supporters to scoff.

Privately, party activists concede they’re having trouble recruiting candidates too.

The SNP leadership has spent so many years micromanaging the candidate selection process of local branches, that keen, talented activists have been deterred from standing as council candidates. Why?

Because anyone with their heids screwed on would have a lot to say about the Scottish Government’s woeful treatment of local government. And that’s no way to win friends and influence selection committees.

SO, I’d guess that behind the scenes, despite the presence of many exceptionally good SNP candidates and the inevitability of winning seats coming from the Tories after their “high water” showing under Ruth Davidson – I’d guess the SNP is also struggling to get the best local members standing as councillors.

That’s a lot to do with disillusionment over the lack of preparations for indyref2. And a bit to do with the parlous state of local government – according to Professor James Mitchell writing in the latest Scottish Left Review: “A Scottish variant of the [topdown] system we supposedly rejected.”

Council tax reform – whatever happened to that? It is the most regressive tax in the UK – and the SNP committed to their reform five years ago. Nothing happened. Instead, the SNP with the Conservatives voted down Andy Wightman’s proposal to include a land tax component in a new, fairer local government funding system.

So, Scotland soldiers on with the largest local government units in the developed world, also the most dependent on central (Scottish) government hand-outs for their existence. Our system of local democracy is Westminster writ small. And that matters for independence.

A quick scan of countries that have become independent in the last century shows most had a powerful footprint of local empowerment – a strong sense of ownership at the community level that was easy to extend to the national dimension.

Ultra-local Norway has actually reduced its council tally from 428 to “just” 356.

They also have 11 county councils and more than 11,000 councillors as well as a fully independent, sovereign national parliament.

Scotland (with much the same population) has just 32 unitary councils and 1226 councillors – a 10th of Norway’s total. Who’s got it right?

Well, Norwegian councils manage the “problem” of small scale by co-operating with one another, especially in childcare – whilst keeping political control at community level. Councillors are only paid expenses – but since councils are so local, meetings are generally held at night so councillors can get home easily afterwards and hold down day jobs. Small municipalities don’t pay an arm and a leg on a large roster of expensive officials. Often the local education director is also the planning director, housing director and even roads director. It works.

Norway is ranked top of the World Democracy Index and top for citizen trust and confidence – precious commodities. As a result, one in 88 Norwegians stands for election compared with one in 2071 Scots.

Ukraine restored its ultra-local democracy straight after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and independence. The country failed to consider the federal structure demanded by the folk of the disputed Donbass region. But perhaps the incredible courage of Ukrainians in the face of Russian aggression has something to do with their powerful sense of place – or rather their powerful local places.

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ESTONIA also restored its local democracy in 1991 – today it has a quarter of Scotland’s population but more than twice as many local councils.

And when independence was first gained in 1919, the Estonian government’s first move was land reform. According to veteran politician Marju Lauristin: “Lands were confiscated from German landowners and redistributed to Estonian men fighting for freedom. It was the basis of prosperity for the new Estonian state – people would fight for that state because they were fighting also for their own land.”

The case for national Home Rule is strongly related to the experience of local power.

The shame for Scots is that we’ve had to campaign for our country’s independence without the slightest whiff of that very thing in our own local lives. That won’t change on May 5.

But voting is the only way to get real self-government back on the political agenda.