Rory Stewart’s right. Local issues are what politics should be about

Comment National Issues

When reading the latest political headlines, do you find yourself asking: when did it all become a game? All the hectoring and sniping about niche problems, petty rivalries and personal attacks seem more designed to put down one’s opposition than about actual issues that people care about. And not just as a paean to “voter’s concerns” but to actual, everyday life as we live it. Is the bus going to be on time today? When’s my rubbish collected? And am I going to be able to pay my bills this week?

This may be an overdone point, but it is ultimately true that the way to reinvigorate democracy is to show people that they matter in deciding on the important issues of statecraft. Democracy necessitates or even assumes disagreement, but the important bit is that it really is the only political system that promises that everybody has a say, that their say counts and that the best way to decide is to listen and compromise. Reclaiming this spirit, however, means that democracy cannot simply be a system that asks people to vote, vote and vote again: is it honestly surprising to see only 60% of young Americans care about living in a democracy when it feels so removed from their daily concerns? Rory Stewart, in explaining why he chose to run for London’s Mayorship, argues that democracy is most robust when it is local, because that is where people feel they have a stake, and more importantly, a voice to change things. For a common national community or society to truly exist, there needs to be a shift away for from a political language of rights to a language of duties – the most important of which is a duty to engage in discussion, debate and thought about where we are collectively headed. Of course, this seems overwhelming and demanding, when we’ve got our lives to live. Yet the magic of starting from the local is seeing how what we care about in our everyday lives is political, and this duty to care becomes an urgent, unavoidable one.

Yet the magic of starting from the local is seeing how what we care about in our everyday lives is political, and this duty to care becomes an urgent, unavoidable one.

This is not to discount the fact that there are people who care deeply about their role in a democracy, and act as such. The problem lies in our political system as it currently exists. Stewart argues that politics needs to be more local, because while MPs purport to represent their constituents, they are unable to solve the “ninety percent” of issues that constituents need help with, which have been devolved to local authorities. Furthermore, distant political elites and the rise of populism are the flipside of the same coin: both are in actuality far removed from people’s daily concerns. If our political leaders don’t know what it feels like to be threatened to have your electricity cut off, to have too little in your bank account, to be evicted from your home, then it becomes acceptable to spin rhetoric about political ideals and unachievable promises. Completely lacking a grasp of reality frees them into irresponsibility. As such, saying that populists understand what people really care about is laughable at best – they’ve got the rage down, but not the reasons or solutions for how to address it. When Rory Stewart makes the case that politics should focus more on the “how”, it points to our situation where politics as a vocation has successfully detached itself from solving real problems and dissolved into partisan rage. Grounding politics in the “how” and the local is to put it in a place where it can no longer escape from these real concerns.

Of course, there is an argument to be made that while focusing on the local is all well and good, dragging ourselves into considering how to deliver our newspapers is just inane technocracy at best and at worst ignoring the political leanings that underpin our beliefs. This is by no means wrong. To the first, however, it is precisely a sensitive, democratic technocracy attuned to public sentiment and open to resident’s opinions that will ultimately deliver on promises and make life more livable. To the second, grounding arguments into concrete issues that affect people is arguably the best way to achieve compromise because it limits how extreme one can be before seeming faintly ridiculous.

Grounding politics in the “how” and the local is to put it in a place where it can no longer escape from these real concerns.

As Edouard Louis, a French working class author writes: “For the ruling class, in general, politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing…the world. For us it was life or death.” Making our politics more local can simultaneously help to address partisan anger, political extremism and inspire people to have a greater personal stake in maintaining our democracy. Politics is something far too personal, important and urgent to leave to others. Going local is the way to reclaim it.

Image credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office