England & Wales, Global Brexit, Democracy, devolution and governance

A funny old world

Photo by Mathilda Khoo on Unsplash

Sometimes it feels as though the world has turned upside down.

One of the most sobering moments of party conference for me was when, taking a step outside my normal local government beat, I heard a former secretary of state for international development argue that we were living through the most dangerous moment in international affairs since the 1930s.

Some aspects of this are obvious. Russia, a member of the UN security council, continues to dump tonnes of high explosives on civilians in Aleppo, oblivious to criticism and without any restraint from the international community.

In the US, the Trump circus rumbles on and on. At the time of writing it looks as though the wheels are coming off his campaign but who knows what will have happened by the time you read this.

It’s worth reflecting on the absurdity of a week in which a candidate for the most powerful elected office in the world attempts to brush off boasts of sexual assault while on the other side of the planet the All Blacks scrum half (a man presumably more familiar with actual locker rooms than Mr Trump) gave a tearful apology for a completely consensual, if somewhat tacky, encounter in an airport toilet. It comes to something when 29-year-old sportsmen are held up to more moral scrutiny than presidential candidates.

Other aspects of our world turned upside down are less commented upon. In France, latest opinion polls suggest Marine Le Pen of the Front National would top the first round of next year’s presidential election.

Traditionally, in this scenario, left of centre voters put their preferences aside and vote for the centre right candidate but does this still hold true in today’s febrile politics? You’d be brave to put a lot of money on it.

In this context, the UK’s recent political upheavals almost seem modest. But, for better or worse, Brexit will shape our political and economic future for a generation.

Meanwhile in the more immediate term the upending of the Parliamentary Labour Party (again) by Jeremy Corbyn and his growing army of supporters and the rise and rise of Theresa May gives domestic politics a fundamentally different shape to the terms on which the 2015 General Election was contested.

The Conservative Party conference was notable both for the increasing sense that we were heading towards ‘hard’ Brexit and for the complete overhaul of George Osborne’s economic strategy as the chancellor abandoned his predecessor’s signature deficit reduction target and promised increased fiscal stimulation and infrastructure investment.

It’s probably overstating things to say that Mr Osborne is being erased from history, but one couldn’t help thinking of those pictures of the politburo with Trotsky erased from them.

Local government too, has its share of uncertainty, with both the ongoing devaluation agenda and the reform of local government finance – both closely associated with Mr Osborne – now seeming to have less energy behind them.

All of these very different phenomena have complex and multifarious causes, but at least part of what drives all of them is the differential impact of globalisation across the developed world and a sense that many people have both that they are missing out on the economic benefits of it and that they are excluded from decision making by an unaccountable elite.

The populist urge to turn this order upside down is a powerful one, but it can also be a dangerous one that strays too easily into a ‘burn it all down’ nihilism.

This is where local government must come in. Amidst the tidal flow of these major global political challenges it can seem perverse or pooterish to focus on the local. But that is where politics always begins.

At the Local Government Infromation Unit we have long argued for the benefits of localism: more informed choices, money better spent, a positive principle of decisions made as close as possible to the people they most effect.

Recently, however, it feels like that principle’s negative twin has been in the ascendant as people become more and more angry and disconnected.

If people don’t feel they can control what happens in their neighbourhood they will never feel that they have any agency in the world and we make it all too easy for people to look inwards and backwards rather than forwards and outwards.

But local government can give people exactly that sense of control. Local democracy gives us the levers to begin shaping the world around us. Of course, that requires a transfer of power from the centre to the local, but it also requires local government to keep devolving power down to communities and nurture local political dialogues.

In a world turned upside down this is the constant. Local government doing what it does best. Engaging local people, redesigning local services, giving communities more control over the places they live in, the services they use and the lives they lead.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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