Boris Johnson is among the politicians riding the localism wave. © David Fisher/Rex

Big ideas of 2015: politics goes local as economics goes global

The anti-politics sentiment now pervasive in large democracies has helped populists who assert the virtues of the local over the global
December 10, 2014

It has been a cold climate for mainstream politics: falling turnout, declining share of the vote, shrivelling party organisations and now a haemorraghing of support to populist insurgents on right and left. At the 1992 UK general election, voter turnout was 77.7 per cent—at the 2010 general election it was a mere 65.1 per cent. Similar patterns are found across Europe. In France, for example, turnout in parliamentary elections fell from 80 per cent in 1968 to a little over 55 per cent in 2012. Turnout in the 2013 legislative elections in Germany was 71.6 per cent, down from 91.1 per cent in 1972.

As for party membership, in 1964, 2.3 per cent of the electorate was a member of the Labour Party. In 2013, the equivalent number was 0.4 per cent. Conservative membership has fallen from 3.1 per cent in 1970 to 0.3 per cent in 2013. The great European parties of both right and left have been similarly hollowed out.

The anti-politics sentiment now pervasive in large democracies has helped populists who assert the virtues of the local over the global. They claim to defend the nation and the state against international institutions—the EU, say, the European Central Bank or the money markets—and then defend the region or city against the nation’s central government. Political elites, they argue, have failed, as they say the economic crisis and the flood of immigration has showed; those elites have failed to shelter ordinary voters from the worst of globalisation and have ceded power (especially economic policy) to undemocratic, unelected bodies. Think of the UK Independence Party, or the Front National in France, as well as left-wing populist parties such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain.

As the political theorist David Runciman has observed, the “largest political figures of the age”—those about whom voters seem most enthusiastic—“are often the ones operating where the real power isn’t,” below the national level. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and Alex Salmond, until recently Scotland’s First Minister, are just two.

There is a lesson in Salmond’s success in persuading 45 per cent in the September referendum to endorse independence and in the subsequent growth of the Scottish National Party. In September, the SNP had 25,000 members. By November, that had jumped to over 92,000. Populism is not just “a-plague-on-all-your-houses” anger but also an expression of a desire for self-government. Devolving more power not only to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also to England’s cities and regions might begin to sate it. (In his Autumn Statement speech in the House of Commons on December 3, George Osborne said: “The sheer scale of the devolution to Scotland now makes the case for English Votes for English Laws unanswerable.”) Triggered by these promises of new powers for Scotland, more devolution is beginning to happen. Cities and regions which are thriving will be keenest on grabbing this offer—and taking advantage of the lack of clarity about how it will work.