Stuck In Chickentown: Why Localism Doesn’t Work

Political junkies like me are sometimes troubled by an old question.

How come we are in a minority?

Why are most people not members of political parties?

Why do fewer and fewer people vote?

Why, when you even raise a political issue, do so many people back away or change the subject?

In short: our world is so interesting, so why aren’t people interested?

The Hansard Society recently published a report claiming that public attitudes to political engagement are now worse than at any time in the last ten years. Only 42% of its respondents said they were interested in politics, down 16 points and a nine-year low; all political parties have lost support and less than half the respondents said they would vote in the event of an immediate general election.

The Society’s Dr Ruth Fox concluded:

2011 was one of the most turbulent and momentous years in recent history. But it appears that the economic crisis, the summer riots and phone hacking did not lead to any greater interest in or knowledge of politics. The public seem to be disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged. Thus far, coalition politics does not appear to have been good for public engagement. Worryingly, only a quarter of the population are satisfied with our system of governing, which must raise questions about the long-term capacity of that system to command public support and confidence in the future.

The Telegraph’s Daniel Knowles had a similarly gloomy prognosis, and another gloomy study to support it:

But what’s struck me recently is that it’s not just these politicians that the public is disillusioned with – it’s politics generally. Asking around in Birmingham last week, it was remarkable how many people said: ‘I don’t care about politics’. That’s now not just acceptable, but common. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, only 56 per cent of people think that it’s a duty to vote, while the number of people who think it’s not worth voting has more than doubled since 1991, from 8 per cent to 18 per cent – reflecting the fact that turnout has collapsed since 1992.

Political apathy is a question to which everyone knows the answer. If you’re on the contemporary left, you know that politicians of all parties are part of the same neoliberal capitalist consensus. If you’re on the contemporary right, you know that politicians of all parties are part of the same liberal politically correct elite. If you’re in the BNP or PSC, you know that politicians of all parties are secretly controlled by Mossad.

Because of this, the public, who all truly want a socialist revolution/1950s communitarian monocultural utopia (delete according to ideological preference) have figured out that they are never going to be truly represented by any politician of The System, and have sunk into a paralysis of despair.

There are genuine reasons to blame national politicians. While tame compared to the intricate tax dodging strategies of Knightsbridge oligarchs and newspaper barons, the expenses scandal hit hard. People didn’t understand why MPs couldn’t just live on their salaries, which are far above the average wage of people in their constituencies. What’s coming out now about the complicity between News International, the Met and governments of both main parties just reinforces the impression that they are all in this together. The impression has an immediate visual image in David Cameron riding a horse given to Rebekah Brooks by the Metropolitan Police. It comes to something when Number Ten aides have to brief newspapers that it was ‘highly possible that he was on that horse’.

No doubt all of this carries weight in the Hansard Society’s bleak findings.

But I think there is a factor in the causes of political apathy that analysts may have overlooked.

If people want to get involved in politics, the next step beyond voting is to join a local branch of your political party and get involved with your local council.

And, if you think national politicians are bad, you can’t underestimate the arrogance, incompetence and stupidity of the local politician.

Local councillors and party bosses are, quite often, not very nice people. They are old hands with a colossal sense of entitlement and a truly inexplicable amount of free time. Unlike national politicians, they get into politics not to pursue ideals or help the local community, but to build up power bases and private fiefdoms. They take both voters and colleagues for granted, and pull campaign stunts that would disgrace a school playground. People do not turn to them for help. The Hansard Society found that many problems that could be resolved by local representatives are handled by MPs. There are some great councillors out there – but, in my opinion, they are in the minority.

The local apparatchik is not, by and large, ambitious for national office. For one thing, most people who hold local office would have no chance of getting past a PPC selection committee. The local politician doesn’t care about national politics. His one aspiration is to be the big fish in a small pond.

The local politician does not actually need that much public support to maintain this power base. Unlike in general elections – when despite all their cynicism most people realise deep down that this shit matters – local election turnouts tend to be low. Looking at last year’s Manchester results by ward, I’m seeing percentages of 22%, 30.7%, 21.54%. The local politician only really needs to get out his base, and he only needs a vote share of the low thousands – sometimes mere hundreds.

Given all this, does the local politician want all those non-voters out there to awake from their apathy and engage? Hell, no! A civilian represents at best an unpaid servant and at worst a political threat. The political outsider who walks into their first CLP meeting is apt to feel isolated and uncomfortable – especially if they are young or a woman or both. (Throughout this long analogy I’m using the male pronoun for a reason.)

This week Manchester votes on whether to have an elected mayor. The mayoral idea could potentially wrest power away from local big names. But the signs are not good. The Salford race is dominated by the same old local government faces, plus a number of joke extremists, one of whom is being investigated over allegations of money laundering. The process is further compromised by the fact that our own mayor would only represent central Manchester, not Greater Manchester, and that no one really knows what powers a Manchester mayor would have if elected.

Down in the capital, things are even worse. Of everyone in the party it could have picked to fight Boris, Labour picked Ken Livingstone, a machine politician of the authoritarian left who is unfit to be in our party, but is because no one has the guts to tell him to leave. Livingstone has been implicated in tax avoidance, he has obliterated London’s skyline for the City; he has endorsed an Islamic cleric who supports FGM, the killing of Israelis, gay people and ‘apostate’ Muslims, and the rehabilitation of Hitler; he has taken money from a hostile foreign power, which kills gay people, trade unionists and anyone else that gets in its way. He is no way fit to run a secular cosmopolitan city and this has been noticed.

Nationally, Labour lead the Tories in opinion polls; in London, we’re way behind. Many Labour voters say flat out that they will not vote for him. The response has been a last-minute drive from the far left. Labour left commentators Mehdi Hasan and Owen Jones have both written long pieces moaning about the ungrateful rank and file who won’t support the official Labour candidate just because of some Decentist stuff about him being a fascist sympathiser. Keep the Tories out, they bleat. Hold your nose and deliver the leaflets: bite the pillow and think of Venezuela. It is pathetic, and the reason why most people are not members of political parties.

Livingstone is the local government mentality personified. There has been no contrition, no reflection from him, even in the face of mounting criticism and dropping prospects. From his point of view, he’s been in the party since 1968, in local government since ’73, he’s done his time, he has earned the right to run the city and that’s all there is to it. I genuinely believe that is how Ken sees the race. The worst moment of a bad campaign was when Livingstone broke down while watching a party political broadcast, featuring endorsements from ordinary Londoners, who turned out to be actors hired by his campaign team. I have cried in public before. But then, I have a history of mental health problems. If I burst into tears while watching a broadcast, featuring people hired by my staff, saying things like ‘Max, we love you, we wish you were the king of the universe’ you would find the whole spectacle a little creepy, no?

Apart from the London mayoral race, no one is really scrutinising local politicians apart from a few independent regional journalists plus the Private Eye ‘Rotten Boroughs’ column. This is a shame, because local politicians matter. They set budgets, make decisions, and change our lives.

So, here is where I unleash my Great Public Service Reform, which will make conventional politics more accessible to civilians.

On the regional newspaper forums I sometimes read you often hear the proposition to cut the number of ward councillors from three to two. I’d go further – I’d slash them to one per ward, and I’d make the one councillorship a paid position, set at the national average wage. I would introduce a rigorous selection process, on a job interview format, that would select on merit, not on local connection and time served.

I predict that my Great Reform would attract serious, capable people from all sections of the community, and filter out the golf-club bores that so often gravitate towards local office.

Believe it or not, most MPs are good people. They get into politics for the right reasons, and if you have a problem they will do their best to help. People say ‘they’re all the same’. Bullshit. The next election will present voters with the clearest choice they have had for many years. Ed Miliband has taken over a divided, exhausted and clapped-out party and turned it around. He’ll be up against a Tory-led coalition government that offers nothing but worthless communitarian rhetoric and disastrous, ideologically motivated austerity economics. There has never been a more exciting time to get involved. Occupy’s success proves the problem isn’t lack of will and interest.

But all politics is local.

And that’s the problem.

The bloody cops are bloody keen/To bloody keep it bloody clean/The bloody chief’s a bloody swine/Who bloody draws a bloody line/At bloody fun and bloody games/The bloody kids he bloody blames/Are nowehere to be bloody found/Anywhere in chicken town

– John Cooper Clarke

‘Evidently Chickentown’

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