England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Looking ahead with hope…

Photo Credit: cuellar via Compfight cc

Ding dong merrily on high, Christmas is saved. Sort of. The Government’s decision to ease coronavirus restrictions over Christmas reminds us that although policy may aspire to be rational and evidence-driven, it is always subordinate to politics and politics is human.

The whole debate around the tier system and about the response to Covid-19 more generally, while presented as being about balancing clinical and economic priorities, is in fact about competing aspects of our shared humanity: the desire to live our lives without restriction versus our wish to stay healthy; our drive to prosper versus our longing to keep our loved ones safe; the need to provide versus the instinct to protect.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant famously noted that ‘from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made’, and this insight will be crucial in the next stages of our fight against the virus.

Will people comply with the restrictions? Will they abandon all caution over Christmas? Will they take the vaccine when it is available?

Both local and central Government will need to engage with the realities of human behaviour as they formulate policy in the coming weeks and months.

These issues of trust and misinformation are central to some of the work we have been exploring at LGIU in our Post-Covid Councils framework.

We must remember that while councils are institutions of power – when central Government allows them to be – and institutions of place, they are also institutions of people.

One of the key ways in which the human factor takes organisational form is through the role of councillors.

Representational democracy gets a tough ride at the moment: recent research from the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy showed a sharp decline in satisfaction with democracy across the world, particularly in young people and, of course, we have seen this reflected in the rise of political populism since 2015.

Among its other virtues, representative democracy provides a human dimension to what would otherwise be faceless institutions. Nowhere is this more obvious than among the 20,000 councillors representing their communities across the country.

At LGIU we are reminded of this every year through our Cllr Awards which take place at the end of November.

This year, more than ever, we see the need for a human connection between communities and institutions.

The stories have been amazing. We have seen individual councillors delivering literally thousands of food parcels, councillors organising community support at scale, befriending vulnerable people and sourcing (and in one case sewing) PPE for health and care workers. And, as well as helping communities cope with an unprecedented public health emergency, we have heard about councillors developing grassroots sport, putting in place support for traumatised children and making sure that under-represented parts of the community have a voice.

We saw councillors across the country putting a human face to politics while ensuring politics encompasses the human needs and aspirations of their constituents.

This is my last viewpoint column before Christmas and the last of 2020. It has been a hell of a year, but I want to close with a little festive cheer.

As we look ahead to 2021, it is clear we have huge challenges ahead as a country and as a local government sector. You would be mad not to feel some trepidation. But while we have so many amazing people doing such incredible things for their community, I think we can also feel some hope.

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of LGIU.

This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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