The limits of ‘localism’

Politicians can't get closer to the electorate by talking about refuse collection.

Munira Mirza

Topics Politics

Making politics more ‘local’ has become a cliché among political parties. But rather than inspiring the electorate to vote, the forthcoming London-wide elections seem to have pushed them further away.

As the 10 June elections for the London mayor and assembly draw near, Londoners are being targeted by a major campaign to remind them of the importance of casting their vote. The ‘London Elects’ double-decker bus clad in the slogan ‘Londoners have their say’ has been winding its way through the 33 London boroughs, and adverts have been placed in the capital’s newspapers, radio and Tube stations.

All 10 mayoral candidates have been on the campaign trail, but media attention has focused mainly on the electoral promises of the two leading candidates – the Conservatives’ Steven Norris and Labour’s incumbent Ken Livingstone. Norris hopes to appeal to the middle-class vote by promising to abolish the controversial congestion charge, while Livingstone has adopted a ‘bread and circuses’ approach by promising Londoners more street parties.

The return to London-wide local government in 2001 was supposed to revive political participation in the city, after the numbers voting in general elections have dwindled over recent decades. Just as with devolution in Scotland and Wales, the idea was that if you give local communities more control over their own affairs, people will be more politically engaged.

Yet despite the colourful advertising and sophisticated PR strategy, localism has failed to rally the masses. Observers of the London elections are preparing for a disappointing turnout from the electorate on 10 June. Particularly low numbers voted in the 2000 contests, despite the introduction of the proportional representation system (PR) that was expected to increase turnout from marginal party supporters. Of the four devolution referendums, London’s turnout was the lowest, with only a third of voters going to the ballots. Ken Livingstone’s time as mayor doesn’t seem to have bolstered interest. According to research findings from the Electoral Commission, only 33 per cent of Londoners said that they are likely to vote this time around (1).

This challenges the idea that if the political process is made more ‘local’ and directly responsive to the needs of geographical communities, it will get people more engaged. Local election turnouts are poor compared to national rates, and most people could not name their councillor or identify the key responsibilities of their council. The drive for mayoral elections and regional assemblies does not seem to be built on popular demand.

Localism is better understood as a top-down crisis, rather than as a bottom-up phenomenon. As people have stopped voting, the policy-wonk world has perceived the problem as one of distance and disconnection between politicians and the electorate. The term ‘localism’ has recently become popular with think tanks, journalists and politicians who think that Whitehall has become too far removed from people’s lives, and that power should instead be shifted to locally oriented councils, regional assemblies, or mayors.

This view of politics is very different to that which went before. Politics that is reduced to local concerns and interests does not aim to inspire people with anything beyond their postcode. Instead, it resembles a style of corporate management, where technocrats must listen to their voters about the aches and pains of living in the local area and be sensitive about issues such as refuse, environmental issues or quality of life. While it is the important role of local councils to deliver such services, how they do so is now seen to be the sole point of politics. There is no sense that people might engage in politics because of a commitment to a political vision – an idea that encouraged the growth of national parties and organisations across the country in the past.

Localists frequently say that ‘old-style’ politics is over, and point to the fact that a greater proportion of people write to their local councillor than to their local MP (2). But rather than proving the strength of local politics, this shows that our expectations over the quality of engagement have diminished. Does the whinging of local residents about poor street lighting or cracked pavements really count as political engagement? Such action is more akin to complaining to a shop for selling faulty goods, rather than engaging in the major social issues of our time.

The ultimate problem with localism is that it dispels the notion of politics representing common ideas or interests. It suggests that people living in Manchester will have more in common with each other than with people in London. Similarly, we are expected to believe that the Scottish and Welsh are so different in their lifestyles that they need their own parliament or assembly, or that the south east of England should have its own regional assembly. Localised politics exists at the level of immediate and direct networks of people, whereas political ideas ought to transcend geographical boundaries. For example, it would be ludicrous to suggest that an issue such as freedom of speech is more relevant to the residents of Sheffield than Surbiton. Similarly, the building a new asylum centre in Kent is actually a political issue that is of relevance to everyone, not just the people on its doorstep.

The more politicians are accused of being ‘out of touch’, the more they seek to find the answers in the grassroots. But the problem is not how ‘close’ the elected and electors are in the geographical sense. Instead, political connection is based on being able to identify and work towards a shared agenda. In a world where the ideological divide between left and right has faded, politicians struggle to define their agenda and vision for society.

We may not know what genuine political interests look like at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but it should be the role of political debate and public life to work this out. The retreat to the local, unfortunately, threatens to extinguish ideas from the political process and make new social visions less likely to emerge.

Munira Mirza is a research student at the University of Kent, examining contemporary cultural policies in local government.

Read on:

Cranking up the cranks, by Josie Appleton

Postbox politics, by Dolan Cummings

(1) Public Opinion and the 2004 Elections (.pdf), The Electoral Commission, September 2003

(2) An Audit of Political Engagement, The Electoral Commission, March 2004

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Topics Politics


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