Joyce McMillan: Democracy or celebrity: you choose

One election was won by H'Angus the monkey, a football mascot. Picture: PA
One election was won by H'Angus the monkey, a football mascot. Picture: PA
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IF we no longer care about real issues then we might as well vote in personality-based mayoral elections

ON MY desk lies the polling card for the coming local elections, due to take place on 3 May. The date is close, now; yet for some reason – or maybe a cluster of reasons – the level of political excitement in Scotland’s capital city remains close to zero.

There is, of course, a widespread public consensus that the current SNP-Liberal Democrat administration in the city has been a bit of an embarrassment. The streets are still in a disgusting mess, riddled with strange long-term roadworks and unfinished tram-lines; the whole tram saga seems destined to enter municipal history as one of those colossal project-management disasters for which no-one involved suffers the slightest loss of status or income, despite the squandering of a sum which already amounts to several thousands of pounds for every person in Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, in a pathetic gesture to the failed politics of the 1980s, the council has been involved in a feeble attempt to save money by farming out a whole range of vital services to the private sector; and there is even a burning topical issue, in the shape of Edinburgh City Council’s bafflingly bureaucratic response to the new legislation on Public Entertainment Licences, which has left every small pop-up arts event in this vibrant cultural capital operating technically outwith the law.

So there’s plenty to argue about in the municipal politics of Edinburgh; there’s also a local Labour Party that is showing unusual signs of political life, developing a new policy for a “Co-operative Capital”. Yet so far, there’s more coverage of the Burmese elections, in the mainstream media, than of anything connected with 3 May. And although the sight of London’s two leading mayoral candidates brawling on Newsnight over their personal income arrangements may be less than edifying, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that at least the people of London know there’s a local election on, whereas many of the people of Edinburgh are barely aware of it.

Certainly, cities all across England seem to be dashing to the conclusion that the direct election of mayors is the way forward, to revitalise local democracy. On 3 May, ten major cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle will probably vote “yes” to mayoral elections, and Leicester and Liverpool have already decided to take the step without referendums. Before Scotland’s cities begin to move in the same direction, though, it might be worth trying to grasp what this trend means; for in many ways, it looks like little more than another acknowledgment that party politics no longer holds any interest for voters, and that in order to win their attention, an election therefore has to look more like a presidential contest between two celebrity figures.

It’s worth remembering that one of the Britain’s first mayoral elections, in Hartlepool in 2002, was won by H’Angus the monkey, a man dressed as a football mascot. And the fact that the most high-profile element in the current London mayoral campaign so far has been a personalised barney about tax arrangements hardly bodes well for the idea of mayoral elections as a forum for serious policy discussion.

In fact, Ken and Boris, circling one another in the television studio, reminded me strangely of Edinburgh’s two giant pandas, those two other celebrities whose story dominated the media this week, like distraction therapy for people who have given up on politics.

It’s not, after all, that no political issue ever grabs the imagination. This week, the Scottish media has been full of highly-emotional exchanges about the possible wording of Scotland’s independence referendum, still probably two and a half years away. The idea of Scottish independence, and of a threat to the Union, is graphic and symbolically vivid enough to make itself understood to voters, even if they are not interested in the fine detail.

What is painfully absent, though, in the rest of mainstream British politics, is a set of political positions clear and vivid enough, in symbolic terms, to catch the imagination for themselves. The politics of the big personality is one thing when it is clearly associated with a strong political position – as in the case of George Galloway, who won a famous victory last week in Bradford.

When it becomes divorced from any coherent or legible political movement, though, the politics of personality becomes an empty shell, a sad and dumbed-down substitute for real democracy.

Look at the pathetic attempts of besuited mainstream parties, all over Europe, to find “charismatic” leaders who can, for the length of an election campaign, make something attractive to voters out of a routine claim to superior managerial competence, matched with a vague commitment to “change”. This is not politics, but the death of politics; and if we no longer care about real issues, or believe that much can be done about them, then I suppose we might as well vote in “celebrity” mayoral elections, much as we vote in Britain’s Got Talent.

If Britain’s local authorities today seem unglamorous and disempowered, though, it’s not primarily because they lack directly-elected leaders, or – in Scotland – because of an electoral system that now makes clear majority victories less likely. It’s because they raise hardly any of their own resources, because they are often little more than agents of central government, and because the political parties that dominate them are increasingly dead on their feet, often too similar to be worth distinguishing from one another.

If directly-elected mayors can use their clout, or their celebrity status, to start reversing those trends, then they might be worth having. But without dynamic parties behind them, presenting coherent and radical alternative programmes for the future, their influence will be limited, and their fame and influence as brief and shallow as that of any celebrity with no real creative base.

And if we, the people, want to remain citizens of something we can call a democracy, then we had better remember that government by the people is not finally about choosing between two competing pretty faces at the top, but about working from the grass roots upwards, to create political movements as radical – and as well worth caring about – as reality itself.