Friday, March 9, 2012

Why is localism such a tough sell?

OK, I jest. I'm grossly ignoring all the solid, nuanced research studying senses of community, local identity, civic pride, etc. And the research studying the conflicted nature of many people's sense of Britishness. And the research studying the complex interplay between different kinds of identity.

Aside from all the evidence then (!) my instincts are that many people tend to perceive "local politics" as more fragmented, opaque, ambiguous, tenuous, and petty than "national politics".

This is not to say that such people's local political identity is necessarily like that. For many folks, local issues are more personal, relevant and important than (for them) the remote, alienating, argy-bargy of national politics. "Local political identity" is bound up with the street, the family and friends, the job, the pub, the chippy. It's about popping in on elderly neighbours, helping out at the school, doing a sponsored marathon. It's about campaigning for or against the bypass, defending the post office and the playgroup. It's about here.

Moreover, the jokey comparison pictures above don't make any sense for people who engage with councils on policy, who write to papers, attend public meetings as a matter of course, reply to consultations, and the like. The comparisons would look very different. That's fine. I'm not talking here about these folks here.

What do the people with negative perceptions of local politics think about local politicians? My instincts (again, blithely ignoring all evidence) are...
  • People who are wary of the competence of national politicians tend to be wary of local politicians more. After all, Westminster draws its talent from the whole country; whereas the local councils are just full of busy-bodies from hereabouts. So if you think MPs are bad, what must the councillors be like?! Please remember I'm talking about common perceptions that might explain why localism is a hard sell. These are not my views. I don't believe anything of the sort about councillors! Well, most councillors anyway... ;-)
  • People who are wary of the trustworthiness of national politicians tend to be wary of local politicians just as much. After all, (goes the belief) "They're all as bad as each other".
  • People who want national politicians to get a grip in a particular policy area don't want local politicians getting in the way of that. A "postcode lottery" is a bad thing, they might say, and at least if national politicians introduce something daft, every area of the country suffers, and it's not just our particular backwater.
  • People who want national politicians to stop trying to control everything don't want local politicians interfering either. It's "political correctness" gone mad", after all, and the more "bosses" the greater the chance of stupid ideas getting imposed on us.
It would be nice to test whether many people do actually think these things. Maybe someone has.

And if all this didn't make it hard enough to sell localism as a good idea, the identities of councils themselves (at least in England) are far from uniform. The parish, the district, the borough, the town, the city, the county... Who knows what the term "region" refers to, let alone a "Regional Development Agency"? And "district": it might have a million people in it or just 35,000. And even if your particular councils turn out to be ones with clear identities, don't let's get started on the boundaries of neighbouring councils... Moreover, terms like "municipal", "borough", "civil", "principal authorities", "unitary", "metropolitan" and "non-metropolitan" do not trip off the tongues of ordinary folk: they sound like words from the 1950s, spoken by grey men in glasses with black plastic frames.

Most importantly, which council does what? Do they look after the schools and hospitals and police too? And how well are they doing? And who scrutinises them? And what's the difference between an officer and a councillor? And between a Chief Executive and a Leader and a Mayor and a Lord Mayor? And how much do they get paid? And why do they make so many stupid decisions? And who do I talk to about...? And why do you only see councillors at election time? And can you believe anything they say in their leaflets? And... And... And... And what are they after? Who are these strange people who want to be councillors anyway?

For people associated with local government, this is probably nothing new. They come across such bewilderment very often. So they have no problem understanding why localism is a tough sell. And every bright innovation from Cabinets to Unitary Authorities to Directly Elected Mayors to Directly Elected Police Commissioners is, I'm sure, a well-intentioned attempt to help deal with this bewilderment.

And I don't have a solution.

But I want to flag up this problem, because I'm going to argue in a later blogpost that right now we need localism more than ever.


1 comment:

  1. Once, on a cycle, I saw a better local news heading than the one you cite:

    It wasn't even in that town that I saw the billboard, it was in another town 10 miles away. That's how little was happening in the area!

    Local issues are certainly important. I've never understood why "NIMBY" is seen as such an insult, for example when I recently saw it levelled at opponents of a wind farm in their village. Would they rather people not give a turd about their local environment, or should they somehow be obliged to sacrifice themselves for the greater good? No thanks.

    Some are bigoted against outsiders, but more usually a strong and confident local community welcomes the world and goes out to meet it. Here in Stoke there isn't anything like enough genuine pride in the city, and that's one of the reasons we suffer so much, because people just accept second best and don't fight to improve their community and get decent treatment from local and national pols.