Post Brexit, post Trump is politics broken? For politics as we know it, the short answer is yes, politics is broken.
I believe in democracy, but I am not foolish enough to believe that it always delivers the right outcome or even that it delivers the least worst. I don’t quite subscribe to Churchill’s notion that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” but I understand the point he was making.
There are people in the UK who voted to leave the European Union because they genuinely believe that it is an undemocratic institution and that national decision-making is better than supra-national decision-making. This is a legitimate point of view and one that I personally cannot wholly reject. There are people who voted to leave because they hate foreigners and are racist. I personally believe that faction to be small, dangerous and vile, but small. However, there is a more dangerous faction who are people who voted to leave the EU because much of the ‘establishment’ – corporate and political – favoured remaining and they wanted to give the experts, the establishment and the elite a thorough kicking.
Trump’s victory in America is the same. While I do not subscribe to the politics of tiny government, corporatism and the Christian right, I grew up in the rural South so I know plenty of people who do and who voted for Trump accordingly. There is a faction of avowed racists and misogynists and homophobes who voted for Trump to roll back the advances of women and minorities. But the electorate who really delivered for Trump are those who want to give the establishment a kicking. White people in America were prepared to sacrifice gender equality and protections for minorities as part of that process.
The kicking may well be deserved. The establishment, our traditional forms of government, business and social institutions are no longer delivering. We can point to the unequal recovery from The Great Recession, but it’s more than that. In both the US and the UK and perhaps around the world, there are vast swathes of people who once felt they had a stake in their nations, but now feel it crumbling away. They’re right to feel this way. The rise of automation, globalisation and service over industry has meant that blue collar families no longer can assure themselves a good life. Increasing immigration hasn’t helped. It’s not the fault of the people who come, but a system which relies on cheap labour and the opportunity to exploit people whose few choices mean they will accept low wages and poor conditions.
While I believe I have benefited from white privilege, such talk makes people who live from paycheck to shrunken paycheck angry and wary. They know very well that the truly privileged whites won’t give up their way of life easily and will be happy to sacrifice them in the name of equality. White working class boys in the UK have the lowest educational attainment of any group. White working class women in the US are starting to die young at alarming rates, worn out by work, poor health care, stress and substance abuse. To dismiss the anger as simply racism or xenophobia, misses a more nuanced point even though there is plenty of racism, misogyny and xenophobia to be found.
I fear for the future. I honestly believe that we are on the brink of a huge shift away from open democracy — though of course I hope I’m wrong. Both sides of the Brexit and presidential campaigns have been quick to abandon democratic principles in the face of finely balanced outcomes. Trump promised to accept the outcome of the election only if he won. Remainers are still looking for a way to scupper Article 50 triggers. Protesters in America petitioned electors to vote for Hillary Clinton despite the outcome of the statewide contests in respect of the popular vote. I cling to some hope in the US that the Constitution and its traditional interpretation will protect citizens and institutions. I have argued in LGiU’s recent series of essays Future Local for a written constitution in the UK to protect us if sweeping nationalism and toxic popularism rises. Do not believe for a moment that it cannot happen here. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
What can we in local government do? We can be fearless in protecting everyone on our patch. We can listen to hard messages, even if they seem to be wrapped in unpleasant language. It is shameful that for a long time, the strongest advocates for the girls who were sexually exploited in some our cities were white nationalists.
We must share power, too. If people feel they cannot be heard, they will shout above the din. If they feel powerless, they may lash out in the only way they can. At the local level, it does no good now to say that Hillary Clinton was the only politician running who had genuinely helped my people — the folk of the rural South with some of her groundbreaking health and education work in Arkansas. But we must be the people who continue to fight for better education and public health, housing and real democratic engagement in the communities where we live. Only local government can build strong communities, and local government must be emboldened and empowered to do so.
Local government must embrace six key principles to keep people engaged with an effective democracy and to combat radicalisation on the right and on the left.
Ambition: Local leaders need to articulate a clear ambition for their areas which are based on sustainable growth. But they must also inspire their communities to ambition and aspiration. If people do not feel they have a future stake in a prosperous area, they will disengage from democracy.
Engagement: We have often been guilty of doing lip service democracy. Real democracy is about giving people power in choices beyond the electoral cycle. At the national level, it’s hard to experiment with new forms of decision-making, but at the local level we can do so.
Responsiveness: Where we cannot engage people in providing services or where decisions have already been made by communities, we must show that we are listening to people’s concerns about quality and fairness. In straightened times, we must be particularly honest about resources and alternatives. We must never ignore the feeble pleas of those who struggle to articulate their needs.
Transparency: Local government has made huge strides in delivering more transparency as open data. But our Out for the Count programme during the local elections in 2016 shows there is still a long way to go in terms making both candidate and results data open, accessible and reusable. Without greater transparency, there can be little accountability.
Accountability: The public must be able to hold politicians to account for their decisions and for performance. Local politicians and officers must be able to give an account, too of what is happening on a local level without fear of career-ending blame.
Civility: Politics is a rough old game and when you want the power to achieve your vision for the community, sometimes people behave less well than they should. Local government should be a model for civil, pragmatic engagement within parties and across party lines. If this means taking a stand against bad behaviour among our own colleagues, we must be statesmanlike enough to do it.
None of these things are easy, but the stakes are far too high to do otherwise.
This essay is published in the December issue of C’llr the magazine for councillors .