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What the rise of populism might mean for localism

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LGC’s essential daily commentary 

At the recent launch of the Localis report ‘Hitting reset – a case for local leadership’, the think-tank’s chief executive, Jonathan Werran joked that audience members should “go glue themselves to a the HM Treasury building in the name of fiscal freedom”.

The fact that so many audience members laughed at that notion hammers home the point that devolution to councils in England isn’t the sort of issue that crowds get fired up over.

But the recent surge of populism has brought people out onto the streets. Candidates for the European elections have been out in town centres rallying up public support – most notably of course Mr Farage and the milkshake-throwing antics of those who oppose Brexit. 

Elsewhere, we are seeing parties even further to the right finding a receptive audience, but also climate change protestors climbing trees in Parliament Square. Is it possible that those people with feelings of anger and frustration over Brexit, climate change and political incompetence could be persuaded that the answer lies in devolving more powers to local government?

“What we need now is a groundswell of public support to make the shift,” LGA’s principal policy adviser Rebecca Cox said at the report launch event, while Will Mapplebeck, the spokesman for Core Cities, declared that thanks to Brexit, “there is revolution in the air, and we can capitalise on it.”

These are spirited words. But, as one parish councillor stated in the Localis report, the problem is that “the opposition will always love localism, while central government will never want to relinquish too much power”.

The local election results show that support for the main parties is crumbling, and the fact that the Labour-Conservative Brexit talks have now collapsed will not inspire faith in the electorate that either party can be trusted to deliver positive change.

But the fierier populists currently filling the political vacuum on the national stage did not drum up much support at the recent local elections, and even if they had, it appears that populists are not as divisive when their power is exerted at a local level.

“Blaming foreign powers for the streets not being swept isn’t as easy as blaming them for the general malaise,” said director of LSE London Tony Travers. “UKIP councillors when they were in power actually were more interested in finding more money for adult social care and children’s care.”

Paul Dossett, head of local government at Grant Thornton UK LLP, pointed out that “unlike politicians”, when populist councillors are elected, they actually have to “do something” – “there is a whole set of regulations to stop them doing bad things,” he said.

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But not everyone shared Mr Travers’ optimism. Ms Cox argued that “the danger is if you bring that rhetoric to a local level, it becomes about real people in local boroughs, which becomes really divisive for communities”. She pointed to the example of when the BNP had footholds in local councils in London boroughs to illustrate her point. “Local leadership is the best way to tackle it,” she added.

One of the strongest arguments against localism is that it leads to unequalisation yet we have one of the most centralised countries in the world, and also some of the biggest imbalances between places. “If the NHS can deliver this postcode lottery in mental health care we are seeing, then centralisation also breeds local variation,” Mr Travers said.

Perhaps the reason why people aren’t gluing themselves to any buildings in the pursuit of localism is that they don’t feel adequately inspired by local councillors, who have a bit of a ‘male, pale and stale’ image problem.

It was somewhat alarming for me to note that in the two weeks running up to the local elections, eight candidates sadly passed away and elections in their wards had to be rescheduled. This might reflect the stresses involved in campaigning, or it could just be an unhappy coincidence. But it could have something to do with the fact that most councillors are a little past their prime.

According to the LGA’s 2018 census, 45% of councillors were retired, 63 % were male and their average age was 59; 15% were aged under-45 and 43% were aged 65 or over; 96% described their ethnic background as white.

“We are trying to look the male, pale and stale problem in the face,” said Ms Cox. “But the numbers are not getting better. Our recent survey shows it’s trending in the wrong direction. Parties have to address that issue before the next election.”

Mr Jenkins asserted his belief that that the best way to enhance diversity is not to make existing councillors feel unwelcome, or they will quit their positions – leaving democracy in a worse state than it was before. After all, just over a third of district councils did not have enough candidates to ensure all seats would be fully contested in the local elections. “If you want to reinvigorate councils, be nice to people,” Mr Jenkins advised. “And give parish councillors more power. If parish councillors don’t have power, they attract people who bellyache and who have the time to bellyache on.”

The rise of populism could be an omen of troubled times ahead, as we seem unlikely to emerge from the chaos of Brexit anytime soon. But the widening of the range of voices that can be heard in the political debate could lead to more diversity in the age and backgrounds of candidates standing for the next local elections. In this way, the discontent with those sitting in Parliament could even usher in a new age of localism.

Jessica Hill, senior reporter

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