A way of doing politics differently

By Ann McGauran | 05 April 2022

Toxic Brexit debates, culture wars and a lack of faith in national politics are just some of the factors that risked turning the UK into a fractured and polarised place.

But the help being offered to refugees fleeing Ukraine provides grounds for optimism about a reviving spirit of generosity and open-heartedness that also made itself known during the pandemic.

And could the growing Community Power movement provide a strong foundation for better ways of doing politics? This was the issue put to a panel at New Local’s Stronger Things  Community Power: The Movement Grows event at London’s Guildhall last week.

The panel chair, New Local’s deputy chief executive Jessica Studdert, asked how people’s alienation from the culture of the Westminster bubble and the disillusion many feel with politics could be tackled.

Mayor of West Yorkshire and former Labour MP for Batley and Spen Tracy Brabin pointed to devolution as the key to moving power away from the centre and closer to communities. But she called for the process of empowering local communities to go much further.

In West Yorkshire, regional investments of ‘anything over £50m’ involve going back to the Government for sign off, she said. ‘So we have to go through ministers. It would be so much easier if we could deal as mayors directly with the Treasury. On the one had we have devolution, but on the other hand other powers are pulled back.’

So what needs to change if people are to really believe that devolution will make a difference and to reengage with politics? ‘Consultation is important, listening to the public and making sure that Westminster doesn’t get in the way. Because they are strangers, they don’t know us. There has to be that trust. 

‘I think it would be really important for ministers to get out and about, to get into communities, and to understand them, and to know that the identity of communities is so different. We’ve got a job of work to do to get ministers to come up to the North.’

Conservative MP for Devizes Danny Kruger agreed with Ms Brabin that there is an ‘appetite for meaningful devolution and for power to be properly placed with communities’.

Mr Kruger, who is co-founder of the New Social Covenant Unit, said that Government is ‘very committed to doing what it can from the centre, which is about handing power back and creating the structures of localism through a devolution agenda set out in the [Levelling Up} White Paper’.

He added: ‘I think we’re going to see something tremendous over the next ten years as these structures take hold in places.’

Praising New Local and the ‘whole [Community Power] movement that’s forming and strengthening across the country’, he said: ‘What you guys are really about, and what I’m inspired by, is the sort of pull not the push of Community Power, and the way that people in all our communities are taking back control. And that is the spirit of the age, and it’s the job of government to respond to it.’

He said that was partly what the White Paper was about, with its devolution and new deals for cities and towns. ‘But it’s also about enabling parishes to set up and assert power and responsibility locally. And beyond the formal structure of government, encouraging people to come together and to design their own bespoke local solutions outside the statutory systems but in partnership with the state.’

Director of centre right think tank Onward Will Tanner warned that ‘we shouldn’t underestimate the level of cynicism among voters’, and this had been seen during the Brexit process.

 But he said he disagreed that the response should be to ‘say we need to learn to fight less, that politics in this country is too tribal and everyone should learn to get along a bit better.’

‘I profoundly disagree with that. I think we have stopped disagreeing well and I think what we need to encourage in our politics is  good-natured but yes at times fiery debate between different interest groups about what the right pathway is.’

But he concluded that the way we do politics needs to change radically. ‘For a long time we’ve had top down centralised policy making … the fundamental reason [for changing] is actually an economic and efficiency argument. You get much better results when you involve local people in decision making.’

In his view, the way to get over some of people’s local opposition to policies ‘is actually to buy them in to policymaking to involve them in the process…. I think we need to do that much more systematically’.

Mr Tanner said he thinks it is time to ‘move away from a model of policy making that is not about doing things that include people and communities’.  He highlighted the Homes for Ukraine scheme, ‘where the Government has decided to use people’s homes, and people’s private generosity from an outpouring of support when previously they were resistant to councils taking up private rented accommodation to house refugees’.

He added: ‘We need to pay much more [attention] to using these lever institutions whether it’s a private house or a parish council or a civic organisation as the vehicle rather than assuming the state whether that’s national or local government is always the best deliverer of services.

‘I think if we can do that then we will not only build capacity within institutions but we could also start to foster a much more  innovative culture.’

  • Videos of the Stronger Things 2022 event - Community Power: The Movement Grows will be available soon on the New Local YouTube channel
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Politics Parish councils Devolution Refugees Brexit Communities Coronavirus New Local Levelling up
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