LGiU’s Chief Executive Jonathan Carr-West looks at the futures for local government in this rapidly changing political landscape
Are we living through a crisis of representative democracy? Around the world it is, at least, under pressure from various sorts of populism. This takes many different forms. In places as far apart as Hungary and Colombia we have seen the people defying the leaders of their governments in national referenda. In Europe we see populism of the left and the right. This is reflected, for example, in the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France or Podemas in Spain, parties from different ends of the political spectrum but which are similarly defined by their rejection of the ‘compromises’ of mainstream politics.
In the United States Donald Trump’s victorious campaign has defied over and over again the usual rules of politics and demonstrated the resilience of a political proposition that seeks to pit the people against a corrupt political establishment. In the UK these dynamics have been played out most obviously (though not exclusively) around Brexit. In Italy it has cost Matteo Renzi his job.
In Ireland there is limited impact from migration pressures, possibly for historical reasons, but also indeed due to the work of defence forces in the Mediterranean and other unstable parts of the globe which has rightly been a source of considerable pride. More significantly the impact of the austerity programme of the past decade has had a very real impact on the political environment. The splintering of the traditional left of centre is now entrenched with the successes of Sinn Fein, the Anti Austerity Alliance/People before Profit while the right of centre is also seeing the rise of independent perspectives.
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 to focus on the local. But that is where politics always begins.