Jul 182013

I am pro-independence and an active supporter of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says Steve Boyle whose article, he states, is not intended to be political, rather a means of initiating discussion.

On 18 September next year Scotland will vote on independence, and although both sides are campaigning hard, some thought needs to be given to what may transpire after the vote.

Should the poll be in favour of an independent Scotland, then on 19 September 2014 we can start with a clean slate. We need to consider what steps we should take to turn Scotland in to a 21st century democracy.

Constitutionally speaking

There is no real UK constitution at the moment. Most people believe that they have freedom of speech and other protected rights, but the limited protections they do have come from European law (Article 10) which became the Human Rights Act 1998.

Independence is a chance to start again from scratch. To this end, a constitutional committee should be set up using resources from the UK and international organisations as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The committee outputs should then be voted on by the people, rather than politicians, before being passed into law.

This will be a chance to make Scotland one of the fairest countries in the world.

Electoral System

Is first-past-the-post the best voting system for a small country? There are many different voting systems and variations of the main three, each of which has its pros and cons:

–          majority rule

–          proportional representation

–          plurality voting

I’m no expert on these and have no specific favourite, but individual explanations of each can be found on the internet. A voting system utilised for 64 million people may not be the best system for a population of 5 million people. In Switzerland for example, where the population numbers just under 8 million, a system of half-direct democracy is used.

Under this system, the population has a more direct say on policy by voting directly on many topics. This does, however, mean that people have to turn out at the polls, or vote electronically, far more often.

The Parliament

I will not comment on the building here; we are stuck with it. However, we should review the set-up of the Parliament. Is the current system the right one for an independent Scotland or can we do better?

What Else?

Is the offer of independence on its own enough, or do we need to decide how to get the country’s future right and have plans in place to deliver this future, before 19 September next year? I don’t hear politicians from both side of the debate asking the questions I’m posing. We cannot afford to walk blindly into such an important decision for Scotland and the rest of the Union.

As this is a once-in-a-lifetime option, it is only right that there is a fair and frank discussion on what the future should hold and what shape this future should be. This discussion needs to be held at grassroots level and not left to self-serving politicians. Now is the correct time to look at the big changes and, if necessary, prepare for them.

We have the opportunity to live in one of the most egalitarian and democratic countries in the world. If we do not take this opportunity, we may have failed, regardless of the result.

It’s time to talk.

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Mar 152012

With thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

A new cloud covers the controversial Union Terrace Gardens Referendum today, as a care home worker came forward with concerns about postal votes sent to a residential home.

The worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, approached Aberdeen Voice to say that over a dozen postal vote envelopes arrived at one residential home – but when the worker went to retrieve them a short time later – they were not where they had been left. No one at the residence seemed to know precisely what became of them.   The concern is whether or not the residents’ votes were properly distributed and managed.  The matter is still being looked into, and no allegation of wrong-doing has been made at this stage.

Aberdeen Voice’s Suzanne Kelly is researching further, and contacted the elections officer, and the other recognised campaigning organisations on the issue.

Kelly asked the elections officer for the marked Register to be checked with a view to how many care home residents returned votes, and whether there are any unusual voting patterns.  However, the elections officer’s position is that “it would be illegal for me to provide this in terms of the Representation of the People(Scotland) Regulations 2001.”  In an election relevant parties would normally  be able to view the marked Register.

Crawford Langley, the Elections Officer for the Union Terrace Gardens referendum vote, previously contacted the police over potential postal vote fraud in May 2005 when he was elections officer and a small number (between 6 and 12) of anomalies arose, where people appeared not to have received their postal vote forms.

Langley was quoted at the time as saying:

“We are talking about a very small number but, given the publicity elsewhere and the tight ship we run in elections in Aberdeen, it was sufficiently unusual that I needed to do something about it.”

The controversial referendum, which was over the future of Aberdeen’s Victorian Union Terrace Gardens, gave residents a choice to either ‘retain’ the gardens, or to endorse a £140 million pound scheme called the Granite Web. This entails the city obtaining a £70 million pound TIF loan, which will be matched by Sir Ian Wood / The Wood Family Trust (£50 million), £5 million from an anonymous donor, and another £15 from as-yet unnamed private sources. The TIF scheme is still in trial stages in Scotland.

many feel the media bombardment influenced the vote

The referendum was dogged by controversy. Official campaigning groups were entitled to place a 300 word essay into the voting pack, and had to adhere to strict expenditure limits.

The Green Party’s statement was not printed in full. Also controversial were the actions of a ‘secretive’ group (as described by a BiG Partnership employee) known as ‘Vote for the City Gardens Project.’ This federation of businessmen and women, who prefer to remain anonymous, are thought to have spent tens of thousand of pounds to promote the City Garden Project Granite Web.

Their glossy, A3 full colour brochure went to households in Aberdeenshire which were not eligible to vote as well as to City residents. The group also issued a four-page newspaper format item, and had several full-page spreads in the local press. Local radio stations broadcast pro City Garden Project commercials. None of the officially recognised campaigning groups would have been able to afford such a campaign, and many feel the media bombardment influenced the vote.

The materials produced by the group used projections by PriceWaterhouse Coopers to claim the scheme would create over 6,500 permanent jobs and mean £122 million to the local economy every year until 2023. Those who tried to contest these projections being used as fact found that the Vote for the City Gardens Project group was not accountable either to the elections officer or the Advertising Standards Agency. Other points of contention have been brought to the election officer’s notice as well.

Willie Young of the Labour Party, who were an official campaigning organisation, had this to say:

“We really do need to see the mark register so we can prove to ourselves that the referendum was run correctly. In a democracy we need checks and balances and the Electoral Commission is clear that those involved in an election should be given access to the mark register. I am not suggesting anything is untoward, but it is our right to make sure that it isn’t. We are baffled by the stance taken by the counting officer”.

Suzanne Kelly commented:

“It is abundantly clear to me why my source wishes to stay anonymous. They are keen to continue in the job they love, and are all too aware of what can happen to a whistle-blower. This issue is still being investigated, but I thought bringing it to the election officer’s attention immediately was the right thing to do.  This is why we need to check the votes sent to all of our residential care homes – we must ensure no one has been exploited and no votes have gone astray. Were all the votes sent to the homes used, and if not, what percentage went unused? Did the vote split at the residential homes echo the nearly 50–50 split the total vote saw? If not, then further research will be needed.

There is at present no allegation of any wrong doing by any individual – but it is clear that we need to have the transparency we were always promised concerning Union Terrace Gardens, but which we so sadly lacked. We’ve seen redacted minutes – minutes where lines of text have been ‘blacked out’ to keep the public in the dark. Why should there be any secrecy over what is common good land?”

Kelly was chair of one of the recognised campaigning organisations (‘Democracy Watch’) and has been liaising with other campaigners; a number of issues remain over the referendum, and these will be reviewed soon.

Dec 152011

By Mike Shepherd. 

On Wednesday, Councillors approved to proceed with a referendum on the fate of Union Terrace Gardens.
After the heated negotiations over the referendum question, as reported in last week’s Aberdeen Voice, the question suggested by the Friends of UTG was eventually considered as appropriate.

The poll is to be completed by March 1st 2012, and the result is expected on March 2nd. 

The question to be asked is as follows:

“You are being asked to choose between retaining Union Terrace Gardens or replacing them with the proposed City Garden Project design. (Please read the voter information pack before you vote to make sure that you understand what is meant by “retaining Union Terrace Gardens” and “the proposed City Garden Project design”.)

Which option do you support?  (Please mark a cross in the box beside your choice.)

Retaining Union Terrace Gardens.

The City Garden Project design.

The referendum will involve a postal ballot, although the possibility of internet voting is being looked at. Voting packs will be issued around Thursday 16th February 2012 and ballot papers must be returned not later than 5.00 pm on Thursday 1st March 2012.

Those entitled to vote at this referendum will be those listed in the Electoral Register as local government electors at a qualifying address within the Aberdeen area, and who will have attained the age of 18 on or before 30th November 2012.

This means that those currently under the age of 18 but who are entitled to be included in the register in force until November 2012 with a qualifying date against their names will be entitled to vote in the referendum.

Qualified voters who are not yet on the register and who wish to vote in the referendum must apply to the Electoral Registration Officer at Woodhill House, Westburn Road,Aberdeen AB16 5GE.  Applications must arrive not later than 5.00 pm on Tuesday 10th January 2012.

The poll will be organised by an independent administrator, Crawford Langley.  Crawford comes highly recommended by those who have worked with him before. He will be responsible for the content of the voting packs to be sent to the electors, including the ballot paper, the counting officer’s statement relating to the referendum, the voter identifier, and statements from any campaigning organisations.

Councillors discussed whether the referendum should be binding or not. There are legal issues that mean the referendum strictly can’t be binding. However, in practice it will be effectively binding, as Sir Ian Wood has stated that he will withdraw funding for the project if the public reject it. The Scottish Government have also stated that they will not lend money to the Council if the public do not support it.

On March 2nd 2012 the fate of Union Terrace Gardens will be known. The people will at last be allowed to decide what they want their city centre to look like.

Dec 092011

The Council will be voting on Wednesday on proceeding with either a referendum or an opinion poll in an attempt to resolve the controversy over the fate of Union Terrace Gardens. Mike Shepherd reports that the outcome of the issue on a referendum question has already turned into a total mess.

One of the issues that has been recognised is the need to ensure that the wording of any question asked is fair and acceptable to both sides.

On this basis, both the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens and the Aberdeen City Garden Trust were asked to concur on a suitable question for councillors to agree on at the full Council meeting on the 14th of December.

In practice, this would involve a council officials acting as a mediator.

In good faith, I submitted a group suggestion for the question to the Council as follows:

You are being to ask to choose between either retaining Union Terrace Gardens or replacing them with the proposed City Garden Project design

Which option do you support?

A) Retaining Union Terrace Gardens
B) Building the City Garden Project

Very simple, clear and nothing controversial, you would have thought.

The Council Officer replied with this:

“For your information, based on the responses I have received, the proposed question that I will now be recommending to Council on 14 December (subject to final, last minute consultation with other Council Officers), is as follows:

You are being to ask to choose between either retaining Union Terrace Gardens or replacing them with the proposed City Garden Project design (please read the voter information pack to make sure you understand what is meant by “retaining Union Terrace Gardens ” and “the proposed City Garden Project”).

Which option do you support? (please place a cross in the appropriate box)

A) Retaining Union Terrace Gardens
B) Building the City Garden Project

“I feel that this is a reasonable compromise and trust the FOUTG agree that this represents a fair and balanced position. Kind regards, Gerry Brough.”

I agreed to this. So what happens next?

The Aberdeen City Garden Trust left it to the last possible moment to object to this, allowing no time to be made for any compromise. This was at about 5pm on Monday night this week, when the final wording was needed for the Council report first thing Tuesday.

“Dear Mike,

“Further to my earlier note, I can confirm that ACGT have replied this afternoon asking for some changes to be made to the proposed question, so that it reads as follows:

You are being asked to choose between either retaining Union Terrace Gardens or replacing them with the proposed City Garden Project design which includes Union Terrace Gardens and the covering of the adjacent dual carriageway and railway line.
[please read the voter information pack to make sure you understand what is meant by retaining Union Terrace Gardens and the proposed City Garden Project]

Which option do you support ? (please place a cross in the appropriate box)

A) The proposed City Garden Project
B) Retaining Union Terrace Gardens

“ACGT feel that the previous suggested compromise question makes it appear that the City Garden Project is restricted to Union Terrace gardens, when in fact UTG is only part of the City Garden Project development area.

“They also feel that since retention of the gardens is placed at the beginning of the introductory paragraph, it is only fair that the option for supporting the proposed City Garden project should be the first option on the ballot paper.

“Can you please indicate whether these changes are acceptable to FOUTG.

“Regards, Gerry Brough”

I replied that the proposed wording was highly ambiguous, confusing and gives far more wordage to one side than the other. The Council official then decided that as the two sides could not agree on the referendum question, the councillors should decide at the full Council meeting next Wednesday instead.

“Since it was not possible to obtain complete agreement prior to the submission of this Council paper, Council are therefore asked to take a view as to whether they would prefer to endorse the question in 5.3 d), 5.3 e) or 5.3 f) or, indeed, whether they wish to propose a further compromise between these three positions.”

I complained bitterly about this as what had happened here was highly irregular.


“We participated in good faith last week. The ACGT only replied last night, too late. This has stalled the process of mediation as recommended by councillors. This is unacceptable.

“We are not at fault and should not be penalised for this. We insist that our question should stand. This does not bode well for a fairly conducted referendum and we may have to reconsider our options. – Mike”

I received this reply from Mr Brough (this is the last bit of the email):

“Nobody is being penalised.

“As you can see from the attached 5.3 that I sent to you, the process for determining the question is set out clearly up to the final submission received before the paper needed to be submitted. Council members are then being asked to either choose between these latest proposals, or come up with an alternative of their own that they consider to be fair and balanced for both parties.

“I understand your desire to undermine process, as a means of campaigning against any development of UTG. However, in this case, I believe that you are stretching a point to suggest that you have been in any way treated unfairly

“Also, although you “insist” that the FOUTG question should stand, FOUTG need to accept the fact that any referendum will be run by the City Council and that it is ultimately for the Counting Officer to decide, after consultation with Campaign Groups, on a suggested question.

“At a statutory referendum, the question is set by parliament, through consultation and, although there are no rules for the Council to follow, best practice suggests this should be done by the Counting Officer. This is the view expressed by the Electoral Commission.

“The Council are therefore putting in place a process to test various proposed options in advance of the Council Meeting, so that both Council and the Counting Officer can have some comfort concerning the appropriateness of the question.

“Regards, Gerry”

I now have a series of meetings with Councillors and the Council Executive to discuss what has happened. I will make it clear that the ongoing participation in a referendum depends on both sides being treated fairly. However, this is not a good start.

STOP PRESS – Council seeks views of the public re referendum question.
Consultation closes Monday 12th December.


Feb 042011

By  Rhonda Reekie.

The Aberdeen launch of the “Yes to Fairer Votes” campaign took place on Monday 31st January. This is the Yes campaign in favour of the Alternative Vote Referendum on the 5th May.

The launch meeting was held in the Kings Street Art Centre.  It started at six and typically I was late after heading straight from work in Dyce and sitting for three quarters of an hour in the usual rush hour traffic.

Still, it was a decent turnout given that it was a dark, rainy, Monday night in January in Aberdeen!

I found my seat and picked up the bright purple speech bubble with their ‘YES’ campaign slogan.
In attendance was roughly twelve to fifteen people, comprising of students, a couple of well known independent Aberdeenshire councillors and a mix of assorted interested others – myself included.

The Alternative Vote (AV) is very much like First Past The Post (FPTP). It is used to elect representatives for single-member constituencies, except that rather than simply marking your choice on the ballot paper with a single ‘X’ , you, the voter will have the chance to rank the candidates on offer.

The voter marks a ‘1’  beside their first-preference candidate, and continue onward, should they so wish, to put a ‘2’ by their second-preference, and so on, until there are no more candidates or they do not want to rank any more candidates. A candidate is elected if they receive a majority of first-preference votes i.e. more people put them as number one than all the rest combined. If no candidate has a majority on first votes, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. This process is repeated until one candidate gets over 50 per cent to win the seat.

The two presenters; Neil and Kristian were sitting at the front with an overhead display and proceeded to inform us what it was all about, how the campaign had progressed so far and their campaign plans for Aberdeen and Shire. They told us they now have an office at 35 Union Street as their Aberdeen headquarters from which they will execute their campaign, including the use of volunteer telephone canvassers to generate votes.

Their main reason for the meeting seems to have been in order to gather ideas from the audience on new ways of getting the message across and recruiting willing volunteers between now and the referendum to man the phones and spread the word. We were advised about various events ranging from University hustings, book and jumble sales to street stalls and press articles.

So it seems that perhaps ‘AV’ is the first step in a natural progression to a fairer system

They also took the opportunity to advise us of the NO campaign headed by Margaret Beckett MP, whose slogan they summarised as nothing more than “If You Don’t Know say NO ” This appeared to me to exploit people’s ignorance.

They informed us that the “No” camp  had been challenged to present an argument as to why ‘FPTP’ is a better system, but all they appear to have offered is why not to vote ‘AV’.

Personally, I am all for proportional representation and I had already joined up to the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign on Facebook without looking at it too closely. I knew, vaguely, it was about replacing the traditional Westminster voting system with ‘AV’, but frankly I was not entirely impressed with ‘AV’ initially. It just did not seem very proportional to me. Perhaps we can’t change things too quickly in the rest of Britain.

So it seems that perhaps ‘AV’ is the first step in a natural progression to a fairer system. At least with ‘AV’ each elected representative has the majority of the votes and everybody who voted has had a chance to rate them. This means the MPs need to work harder for us to get these rated votes and can’t just rest on their laurels or in some cases do just enough for what we pay them.

This is just the start of the campaign here in the Northeast but it is surprising how many of my friends, family and work colleagues have no idea that there is to be a referendum, nor what ‘FPTP’ or ‘AV’ actually stands for. It is often difficult to persuade people it is their right and duty to vote in a general election, which at the very least gives them a mechanism to deselect poorly performing representatives. In any event, I offered to help with the campaign, offered some ideas, agreed to put up a poster on the side of my house and will cross my fingers that the populace will take an active and positive role in the referendum.

For further info on Yes to Fairer Votes and to find out what is happening near you – Click Here.

The next event is a Street Stall 5th Feb, at midday St Nicholas Square, Aberdeen