Trust in national politics appears to be tanking across the board – both blurring and eroding traditional allegiances to the left or right.
63% of people now believe politicians are mainly in it for themselves. Most strikingly, only 5% (one in 20) believe they are in it for their country’s best interests.
Does the answer lie locally? Some polling and focus group research from New Local seems to indicate so:
Polling found trust in national politicians at a catastrophic low, with a lack of faith in Westminster to help solve the cost of living crisis, deliver Levelling Up, or address issues in the NHS.
But we also found a warmth and appetite for community-led solutions, with large proportions in favour of devolving power away from central government and towards the people living with the impact of these crises.
It’s no surprise that the idea that good decisions are made closest to the people they affect attracts broad support. Three-quarters of people polled judged community-led decisions as both better and more cost-efficient.
But can we trust this kind of research? Do people just say that they’d like more local control, that they’d like to take over the local green space, that they’d help run the school given the opportunity, because it sounds like the right, virtuous, thing to do?
What people say in focus groups is often markedly different from how they behave in practice.
For instance it’s common for people to opine in group settings that the media don’t share positive news. What sort of person would say they want more bad news? However research has shown that negative news content, in comparison with positive news content, tends to increase both arousal and attentiveness. Newsstand magazine sales increase by 30% when the cover is negative rather than positive – the death of Princess Diana and the 9/11 attacks were fantastic days for newspaper sales. In comparison, one “good news day” resulted in a 66% decrease in readership in an online newspaper.
Contributing to the local community is indeed a popular idea , upwards of 90% of people express an intention to do it but statistically less than a third of us actually do. Like physical exercise or eating your five a day, everyone knows volunteering is good for them, but a high proportion of us show a degree of inertia in walking the talk.
And when we do finally get an opportunity to exercise our democratic right locally – the results are underwhelming. Only half the people who vote in a General Election bother to vote for the local equivalent.
So, on the face of it, it could be that the ‘warmth and appetite for community solutions’ that New Local talk about is wishful thinking.
I’m not so sure.
People don’t vote in local elections precisely because they don’t see sufficient local impact. The mechanisms we employ are from the 19th Century never mind the 21st.
One of the issues with Big Government is that it very quickly moves from Big Problems to Silver Bullet Solutions in a way that local networks would not be able to. Locally, everything has to be more specific, more contextual, more nuanced.
- There is a growing movement of asset based thinking and the rise of a community of connected care.
- There is a role for social technologies in helping us have more open and transparent conversations with communities about local decision making.
- There is opportunity for hyperlocal journalism to help residents reinterpret their communities instead of relying on external, unaccountable forces.
- There is a desire for a move away from a system where ‘professionals’ cast themselves as a superhero capable of solving all of society’s problems.
It’s no surprise there is such pessimism at national level. As Matt Ridley observed, we are less pessimistic about our own lives and communities than we are about larger units. We’re not very pessimistic about our village, we are not pessimistic about our town – but we are very pessimistic about our country, and even more pessimistic about the future of our planet. The bigger the unit you look at the more pessimistic people are about it.
Our politicians at national level have shown themselves to be uniquely unqualified to prepare for a number of eminently predictable crises (pandemic, energy, health, the list goes on).
Maybe it’s time to hand over the baton?
Indeed, in periods of crisis the best way to get traction behind a new idea or alternative solution is to make it as local as possible.
Your own community is the best unit of change.