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Dan Hind
Dan Hind
Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.
All politics is local. Except in Britain
The low turnout in last week's local elections in Britain points to wider disillusionment with representative politics.
Last Modified: 09 May 2012 12:13
Disillusionment with the political process in the UK has contributed to the extremely low voter turnout [Getty Images]

London, United Kingdom - Last week the British people went to the polls to decide who would run local councils in much of the country. The headline result was an impressive victory for the opposition Labour party. They gained 823 councillors while the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives lost 741 between them.

For the most part the political nation drew the customary conclusion. Though formally a contest to determine the composition of local government, the elections were in fact a chance for voters to send messages to Westminster that national politicians could then interpret pretty much as they wished.

For the leader of the Labour party Ed Miliband the result showed that his party was "winning back trust", although he was quick to add that 'there is more work to do'. By the way, has anyone else noticed how keen Miliband is on a five-year coalition? It is almost as though he knows his colleagues won't tolerate a radical departure from austerity, much less a programme of social democratic reform. Be that as it may, Miliband also heard a rebuke to the governing coalition in the results: "People are hurting. People are suffering from this recession, people are suffering from a government that raises taxes for them and cuts taxes for millionaires. I think that's what we saw last night."

"More than two thirds of the political nation has ceased to vote in local elections."

Meanwhile, the prime minister talked of the "difficult national backdrop".  While he was "sorry for all the hard-working Conservative councillors who lost their seats", he insisted that his government would continue to "do the right thing for our country". The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne assured voters that "the government understands your message. We take it on the chin and we have got to learn from what you are saying."

Again, the public weren't saying anything about local government, according to Osborne. They were telling him and his government to "focus on the things which really matter like the economy, welfare, education, crime and the NHS... and not get distracted by too many other issues." Miliband heard the public rejecting Osborne's economic policies. Osborne heard them rejecting plans for reform of the House of Lords. Both of them felt the electorate were talking to them, about matters of national concern.

Voter apathy

But there was another message, one that was much less subject to creative interpretation by national politicians. Average turnout last week was around 32 per cent. More than two thirds of the political nation has ceased to vote in local elections. They can't be bothered to send any kind of message, however ambiguous, to the national political establishment. More to the point, they don't seem to care much who runs the government in the places where they live.

This is hardly surprising. Since its heyday in the late 19th century local government has declined greatly in importance and prestige. For a while the midlands, the industrial north and Scotland seemed capable of developing civic cultures and economic powers that would balance and challenge the dominance of London. But industrial decline has run in parallel with a hollowing out of politics outside Westminster. London has become London and the South East, an economic zone without serious rival in the British Isles that still aspires to be the capital of global capitalism. Westminster and Whitehall are its guardians.

Nowadays, councils everywhere appear helpless to do more than implement cuts imposed by central government, and acquiesce to the demands of big box retailers and purveyors of overpriced, cramped and poorly built housing. The supermarkets and the house builders have the resources and the patience to impose their model of development on town after town, in the face of fierce opposition from citizens. The power that matters is elsewhere, and the voters know it.

Municipal architecture records aspirations to city-state glory that are now scarcely comprehensible. Birmingham's swagger as the workshop of the world, as a new, electric Rome, is a distant memory. Even in London most of the institutions of local government have less autonomy now than they enjoyed in the mid-20th century. The Corporation of the City of London is the exception that proves - and partially explains - the general rule.

"We have trusted too much, challenged too little, been too distant from one another... the first thing we must break is our conviction that someone far away knows what they are doing, and wishes us well. Such faith would be touching in a child. In citizens it is shameful."

Efforts to revive local government from the centre have had only limited success. The idea of city mayors - popular with national politicians - has at best lukewarm support in the wider world, as Anthony Zacharzewski has pointed out. The mayoralty in London does little to inspire confidence. The recent election campaign played out in the details of administration and the personal qualities of the mayor Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, his main challenger. The natives were expected to concern themselves with the price of public transport and the foibles of their monarch-in-miniature. The grand sweep of the city's future was not up for discussion.

Challenge and reform

London's destiny is in other hands. The national political class, the globally oriented managers and owners of the financial sector and the administrative elite want the city to continue to develop as a key player in the offshore world. And they are determined to ensure that everyone else pays the necessary price. The consequences are all around us. Inequality is bad and getting worse. The economy is once again in recession. The rich increasingly live in a sacrosanct, untaxable elsewhere, touching down occasionally to dictate policy and berate the rest of us for our lack of enterprise. Politics becomes ever more mysterious.

Having secured so much power, our effectual rulers cannot be expected to encourage a democratic renaissance that can only succeed at their expense. Instead, those who have no place in the grand metropolitan project are offered the consolations of charismatic leadership - a Boris for every town! At best this is a lighthouse in the besetting fog of constitutional obscurity, economic stagnation and public lassitude. At worst it is an attempt to give a human face to another round of disastrous speculative development dressed up as regeneration.

The solution is so obvious that it cannot be stated in respectable circles. Local and national political institutions alike must now be reformed in the light of a general understanding. We can only hope to secure the necessary changes if we meet as equals, and acknowledge the sheer scale of the task. We have trusted too much, challenged too little, been too distant from one another. As Thomas Dewey once put it, "to form itself, the public has to break existing political forms". The first thing we must break is our conviction that someone far away knows what they are doing, and wishes us well. Such faith would be touching in a child. In citizens it is shameful.

If we must have faith, then let us believe that the occupations of last year were the first stirrings of a public finding itself in new forms of assembly and communication. If they were not then national politicians will continue to interpret the shrieks and sobs of an incoherent political nation as they see fit.

A more fully realised democracy is the only remedy for excessive centralisation. It is the only remedy for a complex of arrangements and understandings that steeps most of us in ignorance about the fundamentals of social and political organisation. Without it we have to satisfy ourselves with all the empty spectacles and humiliating distractions this coalition can contrive.

A Boris in every town, indeed.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.

Follow him on Twitter: @DanHind

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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