If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that the unthinkable is rapidly becoming the new normal.
Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections seems to consign to the dustbin of history most of what we thought we knew about politics. A candidate who had never held elected office, who committed gaffes that would have fatally damaged any conventional politician, who appeared to be behind in all of the polls, somehow found a route to victory.
As with Brexit, there will have been myriad reasons why people voted for Trump, some more noble than others, but in both cases at least part of what was going on was a rejection both of politics as usual and of the political establishment.
We are seeing a reaction from people who feel left behind by globalisation, excluded from its benefits and unable to control the ways in which it impacts on them and their communities.
Ultimately all politics begins with the local. If we can give people a sense that they can control what happens in their neighbourhood we can begin to mould their sense of agency in the wider world.
At the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) we have always argued that local government is the best forum we have for both more responsive representation and more participative democracy.
But in a world in which the rules are being rewritten what does this mean? We have been exploring how local government might evolve in a new publication, Future Local.
This imagines a major reset of the way local government might work in the future, but we also have an immediate pressure to respond to the challenges of populism and disaffection.
With that in mind, here are five ideas for how local government can respond positively to the populist impulse.
Ensure the governance and scrutiny arrangements of new devolved settlements and combined authorities do not repeat the errors of national governments. They must be transparent and accountable to local people and not recreate a sense of elite decision-making behind closed doors at local or sub-regional level.
The speed of the devolution process to date has prevented us engaging sufficiently with local people, so we are already playing catch-up on this.
New mayors will have a crucial role to play in making this work, both in the way they operate and, indeed, in the way they campaign.
Local government needs to ensure it is properly representative: that it looks more like the communities it represents.
At present the average age of councillors is 59, black and minority ethnic communities are under-represented and there are not enough women in leadership positions.
We have been working with the Fawcett Society on a Commission in Women in Local Government. That work has identified barriers to participation that are both logistical and cultural.
We will be bringing forward specific recommendations soon but one thing we know we can do is to more proactively spot talent and invite people to come forward. Party political structures have been unhelpful here.
Councils need to really engage with local communities. However, there are examples of councils doing a great job on this: some of the co-operative councils such as Lambeth and Oldham have piloted effective ways of involving communities in the delivery of services, while Liverpool’s proposal to create an online budget simulator and possibly a referendum on council tax raises, could be a radical exercise in democratic engagement.
Following the closure of the IDeA, and more recently the Public Service Transformation Network, there is less central support for local government to do this so it needs to more proactively use the networks it does have.
At LGiU we provide one such network but so does the Local Government Association, County Councils’ Network, District Councils’ Network, Core Cities, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, etc. The seven What Works Centres are also a useful resource in specific policy areas.
Most importantly of all, we need to ensure elected councillors are supported to do their job properly, They are a vital link between citizens and government but to do that they need to see themselves, not as decision- makers, but as facilitators, networkers and engagers.
Of course local government can’t fix the ills of a topsy-turvy world all by itself and these five steps cannot by themselves address all the challenges that local government has. But they are a start. And at a time when so many people on all sides of the political debate feel powerless, they are something we can actually do right now.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.