2016 was a fairly tumultuous year, which has created a lively public debate around the future of democracy. This will be one of LGiU’s core policy themes for the coming year.
Many people feel completely disengaged from politics and disempowered by the operation of governments national and local. Meanwhile the future of devolution, which appeared to be underway in 2016, is now in question.
Throughout 2017 LGiU will explore how devolution, localism, open local government and better public engagement can help to re-engage communities with local democracy and why it matters.
What next for devolution, localism and leadership?
This time last year it seemed that devolution was firmly on the agenda, and that, despite several problems in the process, we were on the road to widespread, radical change in the structure and function of English local government. LGiU helped to facilitate devolution discussions among local authorities across the country and we had published a road map, outlining how the best results could be achieved for communities and services.
A lot has changed since then, however. It seems that devolution is a much lower priority for Theresa May’s government, while Whitehall and the central government machine will have the great deal of its capacity taken up with the vote to leave the European Union.
In these circumstances it is more important than ever to ask what is next for devolution, leadership and local democracy? Several new combined authorities will choose their first directly elected mayors in May this year, which LGiU will cover with a detailed focus on open local government.
As well as our continuing PhD research on governance and local democracy in Greater Manchester with Queen Mary, University of London, LGiU is launching a Devolution Network, a series of four events between February and May 2017 focusing on the key questions of devolution and local government sovereignty. In partnership with the James Madison Trust, we will report back on these events as they happen and there will be a full publication in the Autumn.
How do we address problems in our political discourse?
Meanwhile, we have yet to develop the right forms of discourse suited to the social and political situation we find ourselves, and there is a real pressing need to understand the effects of social media on the ways we communicate politically.
Disagreement is at the heart of democracy. It is a form of government that institutionalises disagreement, in which the push and pull of different world-views is contained and played out. But this can be corrupted and become dominated by violent discourse and by developments such as post-truth argument. How does local government act, not only to mitigate some the adverse impact of these trends, but also to ensure that new tools can be used in the service of better discourse, in the sharing of ideas and the strengthening of democracy. As well as carrying out work on open local government, we will also host a conference on tackling hate crime at the local level later this year, and are looking for other ways to investigate how councils can have a positive impact in this area.
How can we make local democracy more representative and connect people with local democratic structures?
Finally, the events of the past year have thrown into sharp relief a number of social and political patterns, trends and divisions that were by no means new. It seems that social cleavages which had previously helped to bind communities and align them along party political lines have shifted quite significantly. There is also a widespread sense of antipathy towards mainstream politics, as well as growing support for populist parties and solutions to many of our current problems.
With that in mind, in 2017 we will investigate ways to make local democracy more representative, better connected to citizens and communities, more open and engaged. To kick this off we are working with the Fawcett Society on the Women in Local Government Commission, which will publish a full report in the summer.
So there is lots to come throughout 2017, and we’d like to work with you on these issues, so please do get in touch!