Jessica Studdert is the Deputy Director of the New Local Government Network.
For those of us on the outside, politics at Westminster has become a macabre spectator sport. We must watch from the sidelines while the different teams, no longer defined by party political colour, tear chunks out of each other and grapple for the upper hand. Dignified it is not. In the two years since the EU Referendum, there has been little attempt to build consensus amongst a heavily divided population. Instead we seem destined for deepening polarisation between two extremes, those in the middle held hostage to the dogmatic views of the boldest characters in Parliament.
With national politics distracted, the institutions of government have all but ground to a halt. Whitehall departments are in a frenzy planning for the wide range of Brexit scenarios that still exist. The deep challenges our country faces – stagnating productivity, lack of social care, and a prolonged housing crisis, to name a few – remain largely unaddressed. Personnel changes due to a steady stream of ministerial resignations make continuity and sustained attention to these problems impossible. Lacking the bandwidth for rigorous policy-making, new announcements are no longer written on the back of a fag packet, they are taken from the side of a bus. The £20 billion promised to the NHS came not from finely calibrated Treasury calculations but from numbers concocted by the Leave campaign in the heat of the referendum.
While there is national political division and policy inertia, there is an opening for local democracy to step into the void. Local politicians are used to being ridiculed and belittled by those in “high office” at Westminster, but the ongoing farce of our national politics means MPs can hardly sustain a claim to a virtuous high ground.
The EU referendum revealed a country divided geographically. Cosmopolitan urban areas tended towards Remain and former industrial and coastal areas voted in larger proportions to Leave. The implications of Brexit will also have a geographical dynamic – forecast by the Government’s own regional impact assessments – with the North East set to be hit hardest. Perversely there is a correlation between those areas that voted more strongly to Leave, and those who are predicted to be hardest hit economically by the fallout. This apparent anomaly can be met with a shrug and a “told you so” by the national policy establishment, but the risks of ignoring the clamour to take back control will only store up deeper discontent and volatility in the future.
While our national politics is proving incapable of a coherent response, it is from the local level that a renewed optimism for the future should take root. Just as lack of trust in international institutions drove the vote to Leave, so a renewed faith in the role of local institutions must be sustained if there is a serious chance of reconnecting with those who feel “left behind”.
The local democratic space – overseen by representatives drawn directly from the community themselves – has much more chance of credibility and legitimacy in an era of little of either in our national system. There are already many examples of local councils pioneering new approaches that seek to create local resilience for the future. Preston’s community wealth-building model involves shifting local public sector spend towards local supply chains. Hull has used blockchain technology to create a new local currency, HullCoin, which people can earn by volunteering. Cornwall is pioneering a twenty-first century rural economy with the UK’s first horizontal spaceport. And Westminster Council launched a voluntary “mansion tax” for its wealthiest residents to fund vital services for the wider local community.
These examples show how local government is pioneering its own solutions. There is certainly still a need for local government as a whole to evolve – to more explicitly recognise its role as a broker of dialogue within communities and seek deeper engagement from people in decisions than ‘tick box’ consultations. But nationally, policymakers should admit that in the absence of bandwidth from SW1 for the foreseeable future, devolving power and budgets directly to localities will have more chance of getting the tangible results that people seek. And an end to the extreme funding cuts for local government would help rebuild capacity to engage.
Ultimately, those who inhabit the institutions of government – at all levels – need to recognise that democracy is a process, not an event. It is not a one-off shock to the system, the fallout from which reverberates for ever more. It is a sustained process of ongoing dialogue and engagement that must be driven by the people. It is therefore all the more necessary to “do democracy” from the ground up – the sense that it can be imposed from the top down is what is leaving many feeling so alienated.
While our national politics is broken, local democracy needs to step in and begin the process of healing.