Step 2: Understanding politics & democracy

Diagram demonstrating the different levels of government in England and Scotland. On the top, under an English flag, progressively shows parish/town councils, district/borough/city councils, county councils, unitary authorities (as an alternate to the latter two); on the bottom, over a Scottish flag, progressively shows community councils, local councils, and Scottish Parliament. Each of these progressions are met with a Union Jack demonstrating Westminster, followed by a European Union flag to represent the European Parliament.

Diagram demonstrating the different levels of government in England and Scotland. On the top, under an English flag, progressively shows parish/town councils, district/borough/city councils, county councils, unitary authorities (as an alternate to the latter two); on the bottom, over a Scottish flag, progressively shows community councils, local councils, and Scottish Parliament. Each of these progressions are met with a Union Jack demonstrating Westminster, followed by a European Union flag to represent the European Parliament.

You’re registered and ready to cast your vote - now what? In both England and Scotland’s political systems, there are several spheres of representation where decision making takes place. Understanding what these spheres mean - who makes them up, what their responsibilities are, and how you might get involved - is a great next step. The diagram to the right gives an overview of the different levels of government in England and Scotland - let’s go over these in more detail.


PARISH/TOWN COUNCILS (England)

A young woman, smiling, stands at a podium while speaking into a microphone.

A young woman, smiling, stands at a podium while speaking into a microphone.

Representing the first tier of government in England, there are over 10,000 parish and town councils, and 100,000 councillors. Responsibilities of these councils include (but are not limited to!) bus shelters, community transport schemes, local safety, events and festivals, leisure and sports facilities, litter bins, public toilets, street cleaning and lighting, and tourism.

Despite this, parish and town council seats often go unfilled or uncontested. For many women, this represents a huge opportunity: quoting Joanie Willett, “Parish Councils have an enormous potential for helping to create vibrant communities, where individuals can share information and get involved in shaping the places they live in. They are the most accessible point of democratic engagement in the UK.”

DISTRICT/BOROUGH/CITY COUNCILS (England)

A Milton Keynes city councillor speaks on a panel at a Parliament Project workshop.

A Milton Keynes city councillor speaks on a panel at a Parliament Project workshop.

With 192 district, borough, or city councils in England, this level of government is responsible for housing, Council Tax collection, rubbish collection and recycling, planning applications, and leisure and recreation. Councillors represent their wards, develop and review council policy, and scutinise cabinet decisions. These councils are funded through a combination of central government grants along with locally-raised funding (for instance, through local taxes).

District/borough/city council elections run at varying intervals (but always happen in May). You have the option of running as part of a political party or as an independent. In any case, standing at this level offers the chance to make a major difference in the lives of those in your local area.

COUNTY COUNCILS (England)

County councillors are seated for a session in an England county council,

County councillors are seated for a session in an England county council,

At a level above district, borough, and city councils are the 26 county councils across England. County councils are responsible for services across the entirety of a county, including education, transport, planning, fire and public safety, social care, libraries, waste management, and trading standards, in addition to leading on county-wide policy and strategy. County councils cover larger areas, and provide an estimated 80% of services for that area.

After the 2017 elections, only 511 of 1,787 county councillors - or 28.6% - were women. Could you be the next county councillor to help bump that percentage up to 50%?

UNITARY AUTHORITIES (England)

Image of the London Assembly, with members seated in a circle around the chamber.

Image of the London Assembly, with members seated in a circle around the chamber.

In some parts of England, a single tier of government provides all the local services, combining a district, borough, or city council and county councils into one authority. These bodies include 55 unitary authorities (mainly in cities, but also a number of county councils with no district councils beneath them), 32 London boroughs providing nearly all services in their area (in addition to London-wide governance from the Greater London Authority), and 36 metropolitan district councils.


COMMUNITY COUNCILS (Scotland)

Two women engage in conversation, one facing forward, smiling, and the other with her back to the camera.

Two women engage in conversation, one facing forward, smiling, and the other with her back to the camera.

With around 1,200 active community councils across Scotland, these are the most local tier of statutory representation in Scotland, bridging the gap between local authorities and communities. In terms of responsibilities, along with representing communities to local authorities, community councils may also organise community events, campaign on particular issues, conduct local surveys, or distribute community newsletters - among other things.

Getting involved in your local community council is a fantastic way to play a role in decision making, as well as a powerful first step towards further involvement in different areas of representation. Click here to learn more about community councils - and find yours.


LOCAL COUNCILS (Scotland)

A group of women, sitting together at a series of tables, are laughing.

A group of women, sitting together at a series of tables, are laughing.

There are 32 elected local councils across Scotland, some with a geographical coverage of 26 square miles (Dundee) and others serving over 600,000 residents (Glasgow). Across Scotland, over 1,200 local councillors are responsible for delivering vital public services, including education, social work, roads and transportation, cultural services, leisure and library services, housing, waste management, economic development, and more.

Councils operate independently of central government. They co-operate through and are represented by COSLA - the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Learn more about Scotland’s local authorities on COSLA’s website, or through the Government of Scotland.


SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT (Scotland)

Image of the debating chamber at the Scottish Parliament.

Image of the debating chamber at the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Parliament was founded on the 12th of May, 1999, and is a devolved legislature of Scotland in the capital city of Edinburgh. At this level of government, decisions can be made about devolved matters - those mainly affecting day-to-day life in Scotland - while reserved matters of UK or international importance are dealt with at UK Parliament. Devolved matters include agriculture, forestry and fisheries, education and training, environment, health and social services, housing, law and order, sport and the arts, tourism and economic development, and more.

129 elected representatives - Members of the Scottish Parliament, or MSPs - debate issues and make laws for Scotland. At the time of writing, 47 of these MSPs - 36.4% - were women. Perhaps you’ll be the next?

WESTMINSTER (England & Scotland)

The top of Big Ben stands in front of a blue sky.

The top of Big Ben stands in front of a blue sky.

UK Parliament comprises the elected House of Commons and the appointed House of Lords. In the former, elected MPs represent constituents and (usually) political parties, with many responsibilities. In London, MPs attend debates, raise issues affecting constituents, take part in committees, and vote on policy. In their areas, MPs often hold “surgeries” in their offices to address concerns from local residents, attend functions, and generally get to know the area and its people better.

The Government - those with political power - manage the country on a day-to-day basis, setting taxes, choosing how to spend public money, and dealing with service delivery. Parliament monitors government actions, aiming to hold them accountable.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT (England & Scotland)

The chamber of the European Parliament

The chamber of the European Parliament

The European Parliament is the European Union's law-making body, with 73 MEPs - Members of European Parliament - currently representing the UK. European Parliament establishes the EU budget, supervises EU institutions, oversees national elections, decides on international laws, and passes EU policy, among other responsibilities.

MEPs - who are either part of political groups or “non-attached” - the interests of the city or area in which they were elected. MEPs might listen to people, interest groups, or businesses with concerns, question and lobby the European Commission and the Council of Ministers, and pass laws, for instance on pesticides, telecommunications, or environmental regulations.


While there is inevitably more to learn about all the levels of government outlined here, hopefully this has provided a brief overview about the different areas in which you might be able to stand. We’re moving on now to Step #3 - Defining your political purpose and allegiances.