The national political system is not working. Its performance has prompted almost virtual universal despair from Cabinet member to Corbynista, from Brexiteer to Remainer, from business leader to social activist.
MPs as a collective unit are almost universally pilloried. While the quality of argument expressed by many of them is poor, and there is a widespread absence of realism among parliamentarians, some of the criticism of the Commons has missed the mark. Parliament, like Britain as a whole, is divided and during a period in which the governing party has no majority, its lack of cohesion is a fair reflection of the country.
The criticism should be borne more by the Conservative and Labour national leaderships. Neither has had the courage to openly debate the dilemmas that arise with Brexit, having largely hidden behind vacuous pledges such as a “jobs-first Brexit” or a “red, white and blue Brexit”. Jeremy Corbyn has hitherto placed a higher premium on being all things to all people and upon playing partisan politics than being constructive. Theresa May has given no indication she is capable of creative thought and failed to reach out beyond narrow groupings of Tory MPs, at least until the point of crisis. It defies belief that she did not involve other parties immediately when the Conservatives lost their majority.
Only in recent days, when Parliament itself has seized more of the initiative, has it seemed conceivable the logjam could shift. Such is the volume of dammed-up matter – the word ‘matter’ is being used to protect reader sensibility – that the logjam’s collapse will release a torrent of unhappiness. Most of the narrow tribes into which we have allowed the nation to be divided will be dissatisfied.
This should provide a rare opportunity for local leaders to step into the breach
Engagement should be an ongoing process, featuring the general population as well as politicians, and reflect our biggest dilemmas. It now seems ridiculous that we were not collectively discussing the ‘right issues’ before the EU referendum. This is not to back Remain or Leave, but to query why we were preoccupied with the minutiae of Project Fear or bus slogans and weren’t sufficiently asking “what type of country do we want to be?”. As a nation we brought the current misery on ourselves.
The government is doing nothing to facilitate the national debate we now need. (It is equally true that most of those behind the former pro-EU liberal consensus failed to sufficiently articulate how high living standards and opportunity could withstand globalisation.) Our MPs are currently too engulfed in the here and now of Brexit to look ahead.
This should provide a rare opportunity for local leaders to step into the breach. While local government has a record of uniting against centralism, opposing powers ‘repatriated’ from Brussels being hoarded in Westminster, as a sector it has made too little ground in articulating a positive vision. Some council leaders have strongly discussed the difficulties Brexit is causing in their area and some metro mayors have looked further ahead but we need to ask whether the sector is making the headway it should in shaping the national debate. OK, national politicians navel-gaze and the national media often fails to look beyond Westminster, but local government needs to be listened to in its case for the role of local empowerment in bringing about a fairer, more cohesive country.
Of course, it is not just British councils struggling in the era of populism. We should seek inspiration from the US – a federation of course – where mayors in the sanctuary city movement are resisting President Trump’s destruction of fair immigration rules, and others are committing to the Paris climate change accord. Here, councils such as Wigan MBC, Barking & Dagenham LBC and Wandsworth LBC have articulated a clear local vision, while the sector’s collective campaigns have raised awareness of social care’s funding crisis and austerity more broadly, but it needs to cut through more. It needs to be asked whether our councils, deprived of power and money, can be collectively accused of losing their confidence. Local government must not let this crisis of the centralised state go to waste.