What is remarkable about this emotion is that it has been accompanied by an intense excitement and a huge upwelling of hope whenever it looks like an individual or a movement provides something different. Only to be followed by almost equally strong disappointment from those who haven’t been completely taken in. The litany of examples is now getting very long, but it is not very distinguished. In Italy the 5 star movement grew from nothing to enter government. In France Marcron swept to power using a completely new political party. In the US Trump tapped into this desire and in Britain we had Brexit. Corbyn’s take over of the Labour Party and the huge numbers of primary votes Bernie Saunders got can easily be viewed as being driven by much the same emotional forces with some significantly different outcomes.
We have heard a lot of nonsense about what this all means. We are regularly told, for example, that it is only super rich billionaire who can connect with ordinary people. Yet we would be foolish to ignore the strength of the feeling and to think about how it might be addressed. The majority of people have now lost faith in the politicians that they used to elect and has become fickle in its short term enthusiasm for the next ones that let them down.
Part of the reason for this is that power has slowly been sucked up towards distant decision makers and little or no power has been left with local representatives who actually live amongst the people they try to speak for.
Back in the nineteenth century local government was a strong and proud feature of public life. You only have to look at the physical presence of some of the town hall that were built back then to see how important the local decision making process was. There are staggeringly substantial town halls that cost a lot of money and civic pride to create not only in places like Bradford and Manchester but even in smaller places like Halifax. The councillors who sat in those halls made decisions not just about things you might expect like education, bins and transport but also about services such as gas and electric supply. Local government became the major supplier of decent affordable housing and each council played a big role in trying to foster industry and commerce in their locality. That made those councillors very visible in their communities and the local scale of decision making made it relatively easy for someone with a concern to get hold of their councillor and let them know that they expected something to be done and done quickly.
Contrast that with the current situation. Local government controls very little and the money for what it does deliver comes from a distance and is constantly cut. Health is under the control of trusts that have no connection whatsoever with the local electoral process. Over half of all schools are academies and the local authority can do nothing meaningful to influence them. So in most of the country there’s no point in talking to your councillor about your health or your child’s education. Economic development is under the control of obscure organisations that keep changing their name. All the important and strategic decisions about transport are made either nationally or by bodies that were created by remote national politicians.
In these circumstances who can blame the majority of local voters for not bothering to turn out at election time. There is scarcely anything left for their elected representatives to control. The biggest things they still look after are the bins and social services and central government has stripped them of so much money for those that councillors spend most of their time apologising to local voters that it is necessary to close some or other local service that they value. Even something as basic as a planning committee is no longer allowed to make decisions about what local people want to have built. They are forced by national government to build houses or to accept fracking regardless of local need and saddled with ludicrously over bureaucratic requirements to produce “local plans” that are dominated by national guidelines. The sterile consultation processes on documents like Local Plans feed public cynicism as ordinary local people find it incredibly hard to get their views listened to whilst professional consultants gobble up time and money and make sure the views of their clients dominate.
It is incredibly hard for an MP to have the time to properly participate in local life and speak up for local views in Parliament. If that MP becomes a Minister then it is virtually impossible. For a Euro MP the situation is even harder. How can someone know personally 300,000 electors or be a visible presence to them other than through their television sets?
The modern world is international and global to an exceptional degree and that requires international decision making. Yet the need for global government must go hand in hand with respect for local decision making. People’s life experiences are usually very local. We therefore need serious conscious efforts to reverse the upward flow of decision making whenever that is remotely possible.
Voters in places like Stoke on Trent and Sunderland were utterly right during the referendum campaign to feel that their communities and their views had been neglected for decades and to turn out in droves to vote to “take back control”. What they were wrong about was how to do it. Placing your trust in spoiled rich kids like Boris Johnson and Rees Mogg isn’t exactly a reliable way of bringing power back to the streets of Hanley.
What does work is the oldest Green slogan of all. Think globally, act locally. Leaders need to understand that the place where people can properly engage with decision making and actually meet and interact with real decision makers is the local community. When you live in a world where issues like climate breakdown, tax avoidance and control of financial markets have to be decided multi-nationally it becomes more important not less to ensure that local communities feel some sense of significant control over decisions that impact on their lives.
If the only experience of politicians that ordinary people have is one of witnessing them being interviewed on the television it is little wonder that they get angry and disillusioned and keep trying to find someone different. If, by contrast, we can localise a lot more decision making then there is a chance that anyone who is cross and angry can actually get hold of their representative and get their problem resolved.
I am not arguing that restoring power to local government will quickly and easily remove the thirst amongst the public to find some wonderful new hero who will stand up to the establishment and solve all their problems. Nor am I arguing that on its own a revival of local government is an adequate fix for an enormous problem of lack of trust. What I am arguing is that one part of the solution is to try and reconnect the public by bringing back as much decision making as possible back to the local level. Let’s bring back control to local communities. Let’s drain the swamp not by putting swamp life in the White House but by putting a lot more power in the hands of local decision makers.
Late extra: Today an opinion poll showed that every political party in England has a negative approval rating with voters because more people dislike them than think they are doing a good job. With one exception: The Green Party