OF all the features of Scottish life not to have been touched since the dawn of devolution, local government surely cries out as the one in most desperate need of reform.

We have the same local authority boundaries now as we did when John Major was Prime Minister. Our local councils are responsible now for what they were responsible back then. The same powers. The same miserable lack of autonomy. The same battle-worn sense of exhaustion.

The only difference is that local government now faces the annual prospect of seeing the Scottish Government slash its budget, rather than of having to take its financial case to London to see what it can eke out of Whitehall.

If we can be forgiven for wondering why we bother with local government at all, we can certainly be excused for wondering why we bother with local government elections.

Most of electorate won’t bother at all. Turn-out is routinely poor for local elections—fewer than half us who are entitled to vote will exercise that right. Every time this happens, politicians bemoan the fact, bleat that something must be done to make our politics worth engaging in again, and disappear into the ether only to reappear, saying precisely the same thing all over again, the next time the circus comes to town.

It’s pathetic. And yet, when canvassing on the doorstep, candidates in any sort of election, whether local or national, will find that, when voters do want to talk to them, it is overwhelmingly about local issues.

In years of door-knocking in Glasgow the single biggest issue was always local cleanliness and the state of the roads and pavements. Whether it was the leaves not being swept up, the salt not being put down to melt the ice, the hedges not being trimmed or, of course, the potholes not being fixed, it was the stuff of local government that voters most care about.

If it wasn’t the physical state of the neighbourhood, it was the poor quality of the teaching at the local school but – again – that is a matter for the local authority, not for Holyrood (still less for Westminster).

And herein lies the puzzle. If the issues about which voters are most vocal on the doorstep are all matters for local government, why are so few of us actively engaged in any sort of local democracy? It’s not just that fewer than half of us will vote at all. It’s much worse than that: it’s that most of the votes cast next month will have nothing to do with the performance of the local council, still less of the local councillor(s).

How many of us could even name our local councillors? I can name you only one of mine, and even that is only because she happens to be the Leader of the City Council (and no, I won’t be voting for her).

It wasn’t Susan Aitken who launched the SNP’s local election campaign last week. Nor was it Adam McVeigh, the party’s leader of Edinburgh City Council. It was Nicola Sturgeon. The controversy was that Ms Sturgeon banned the press from attending and asking questions. That was, admittedly, remarkable. But why was she there at all? She is not a candidate.

One could ask the same question of the other parties, of course. Douglas Ross is not a candidate in this election; neither is Anas Sarwar. Yet each of them will be expected to lead their respective parties’ campaigns.

When national leaders are so prominent it is unsurprising that national political questions predominate. The Tory vote is expected to slump, say the pollsters, because of Boris Johnson’s (pre-war) performance and the lingering damage of Partygate.

Not a single vote cast for or against any local candidate can affect or change this matter in the slightest. Yet off they go again, the SNP exhorting its troops to vote to Stop Boris; and the Tories pleading with theirs to Stop IndyRef2. In a local government election, this is worse than pathetic. It’s grotesque. And yet, we have come to see it as par for the course.

That national questions so drown out local matters is incredibly dangerous for our democracy. We need vibrant local government, standing up for the rights and interests of the people it represents, and fighting for every penny of scarce public resource. Local elections should be a noisy, boisterous affair, in which the state of the local neighbourhood, the cleaning of the streets, and the quality of the local school are absolutely front and centre—in both the parties’ and the voters’ minds.

That it has been decades since we have had such a local election campaign in Scotland shows how urgent is the task of repairing the way we do local democracy in this country. It would be difficult to conceive of a system worse than the one we have now—where local authorities are responsible for the things that matter most to voters, but where local authority elections are about anything but local issues.

Somebody, somewhere, needs to start a conversation in Scotland about what we want of our local government. Do we want high-profile metro mayors who can drive the sort of powerhouse growth we see south of the border, in Manchester and Birmingham?

Do we want micro councils, that are genuinely local, where individual neighbourhoods really can take into their own hands the quality of the way they are cared for?

Or do we just want to abolish the whole thing, and transfer power to a single Scottish government that can govern the country direct, without all these pesky councillors getting in the way?

That’s not as far-fetched as you might think. Councils have lost any control over policing since the merger of the police forces. They will lose control over social care if the SNP get their way and establish a new national care service.

Some people are already asking, not only what local elections are for, but what local government is for? Do we need it? I think we do, but the case for it needs to be made. Just don’t expect anyone to make it at this election.

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