England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Election fever and engagement


Image by John Mounsey from Pixabay

When it comes to politics, it is fair to assume the readership of The MJ tends further towards the interested end of the spectrum. But even MJ readers may be feeling a touch of momentary election fatigue.

Local elections take place today in counties and in the new metro mayoralties. There is probably not much more to be said about those until we know the results.

As you read this, the LGiU team are gearing up to pull an all-nighter to bring you the quickest and most comprehensive coverage of those results as part of our #outforthecount campaign.

Attention inexorably turns towards the General Election in five weeks’ time. Before we get that far, there is the matter of the French presidential election this weekend.

Although we have enough elections of our own to be getting on with, the French election merits our attention, both for what is at stake – an avowedly far right, nationalist party has a real, if small, chance of taking control of a major world power – and for the nature of the run-off campaign and what it tells us about contemporary politics. Marine Le Pen of the Front National is facing off against centrist Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche movement.

As things stand, polls predict a comfortable Macron victory, although it looks like it will fall short of the 80% plus by which Jacques Chirac trounced Le Pen père in 2002. And of course it has not been a great couple of years for pollsters.

But even assuming a comfortable Macron victory, this is still a political earthquake. Neither the Parti Socialiste nor Les Républicains, the two parties which have dominated post-war French politics, have even made the run-off. It is like trying to imagine an election in the UK without Labour or Conservatives.

The one thing Le Pen and Macron have in common is they both seek to position themselves as outside of the conventional political establishment. Both portray themselves as an alternative to a failed ‘politics as usual’. We see this in the UK, too. Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron all seek in different ways to ride populist waves generated by dissatisfaction with the political status quo.

Where once there was competition to be seen as the natural party of government, now parties compete to be seen as insurgent outsiders. We may still want pilots to fly our planes and surgeons to operate on us but we seemingly do not want to be lead by politicians or by politicians who present themselves conventionally as such. This is despite the fact that none of the leaders we are talking about are by any normal measure outside the political mainstream.

In time, we should expect to see these alternative political dynamics playing out at a local level. Some of the mayoral candidates are already talking in these terms. And while we may not see this sort of discourse making a huge difference to political control in the counties, it will be worth watching the margins of the county elections to see gains by independents and residents’ parties.

Dissatisfaction with ‘politics as usual’ can be a positive force if it drives real change, but if nothing changes, it drives only further disaffection and division. The chances of things changing dramatically are slim if we continue, as citizens and as public servants, to treat elections as a transactional function of democracy whereby we grant our vote every four years (more frequently apparently in the case of General Elections) and expect in return that politicians will deliver a programme which meets our needs and aspirations.

Trips to the polling station are a vital part of the political process but they can also distract attention from the important and difficult work of continual dialogue.

What we really need, perhaps, is more politics and fewer elections.

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


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