With the stalemate issue of Brexit holding ransom all political life in the UK, we have seen growing distrust in the established parties. This has been since implementing austerity in 2010, and further back the MPs expenses scandal back in 2009.
Recently several people from Labour and the Conservatives split off to form Change UK as they said politics is broken. They have not fared well in Westminster or on a local level as they are part of the establishment problem: Plastic career politicians. Although they are right, we need to change politics.
Populism is the politics of the day, and a bit of a buzzword around political literature. It literally means to speak out for the everyday person (the Populous) against the establishment. We saw this in the early rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and Donald Trump in the US. Its most recent incarnation is in the form of the Brexit party, the issue many people feel despondent over. Populism can be left, and right wing and it is taking the political world by storm.
Brexit has taken over all forms of elections as we saw in the May local elections, the rejection of the Conservative party where they lost over 1330 council seats and Labour lost 84 seats. Many say this was a win for the Liberal Democrats, they would be right, they gained 1351 seats, but they were just reclaiming seats they had already lost as they got into bed with the Tories back in 2010. It’s clear this was a protest vote against the main parties for either backing or not delivering Brexit. The curious thing was the rise of independent candidates which has never really taken off in the UK. 1,045 seats were taken by independents, an increase of 606.
In Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, a group of independents took the district council winning 30 seats out of 35. They mainly ran an anti-establishment campaign, but with more of a local feel over issues like dog poo, fly-tipping and by talking about local facilities. Obviously, this worked well as I’m sure the local residents are as sick of Brexit as the rest of us.
This is not just something that has taken hold in Brexit riddled Britain. In Spain, many residents have grown weary of corruption from the two major parties. New populist parties have appeared, on a national level, in the form of the left, Podemos, and right, Vox, since 2015. However, they are not the success stories, as they failed to make gains in this years General Election.
The real success stories were in the councils of Madrid and Barcelona. Manuela Carmena is a 75-year-old woman from a working class family in Madrid. She had a successful career as a Judge. She aimed to fight corruption in the courts, that was until she decided to be on the other side of the gavel. She become Mayor of Madrid in 2015 with 63% of the vote. Her politics are what you might call financially responsible but left leaning. She won the town hall on co-operative platform Ahora Madrid (Now Madrid) with left wing popularist party Podemos; they brought together residents that wanted to improve the city that had been under the control of the conservative government for over 20 years. Ahora Madrid was considered a municipalist group or citizens platform.
The Municipalist movement has gained traction since its first conference in Barcelona back in 2017. It is based around the idea that cities, or regions should have more autonomy from the nation state. To allow them to fix their problems and build a community, where local people can get involved and run it. They are proactive and solution focussed without all the weight of a political institution. They are local and for everyone. The idea is to build a collective feeing in a time of authoritarian states and rising xenophobia.
From 2015, Ahora Madrid cut the deficit that spiralled following the finical crisis and overspending by the previous administration. They implemented Madrid Central, which is an initiative to improve air quality by restricting certain vehicles to the city centre. They also introduced a local direct democracy scheme where citizens can propose changes to the city, if they get support then they will hold a referendum on the issue. So far this has led to the restoration of Plaza de España and the partial pedestrianisation of Gran Via, the main high street in Spain’s capital.
Due to ongoing disagreements in Ahora Madrid, they decided to part ways for the 2019 local elections, with Carmena teaming up with Íñigo Errejón, one of the founders of Podemos. He decided to give up his position as an MP, splitting from the party he helped found.
Between them, with the new group Mas Madrid (More Madrid), they campaigned based around the message that Madrid is for everyone, old and young. Pictures depicting the youthful looking Errejon and older Carmena looked like something from a Werther’s Originals advertisement. The electorate haven’t brought it though as they were 2 seats short of a majority the local elections at the end of May. Despite being popular and being the biggest party they will not be in charge. However, their vote share reflects approval that has echoed around the city: Madrid has changed for the better.
A coalition of the three right wing parties are likely to undo Carmena’s work. Yet they cannot decide who will run the City Hall. Mas Madrid will still have influence. The same story has happened in Barcelona, progressive left wing Mayor Ada Colau, failed to gain a majority by a slim margin. She has gained international praise for her management of the property crisis, welcoming refugees to the city and her feminist activism.
Whilst Europe may be different when it comes to this sort of politics, the scene is changing in the UK. The Brexit Party have achieved what no others have been able to, a mass movement formed in 6 weeks taking on the governing class. Whatever your view on Brexit it is obvious politics is broken. I’d like to see it changing more on a local level as it has in Ashfield and Madrid, however this has only happened because of the frozen situation in Westminster.
Local Citizens platforms, using the municipalist approach, could use their inside knowledge of the city and pulling power of local well-liked people to win local elections. Populism isn’t only for Farage it can speak to local people to. With a more pragmatic and simple approach local groups could give the big parties a scare. Maybe that would even shake up sleeping Westminster. The possibility is there for change, they just need to take it into their own hands. Municipalism and populism can work well on a small scale, local issues for local people. It would get results too.
No matter what happens with Brexit, people are politically charged and looking for change, whilst for now they may find it in the old parties. They may not feel satisfied as many Labour and Conservative voters have proven in recent elections. Local groups of independents know their areas well and are not held back by party machines and national manifestos. Local people can take back control of their own towns.
Democracy is about people not parties.