Will UKIP be local people's sole champion? Picture by Ian Roberts.
I thought I'd noticed a proliferation of UKIP campaign literature in my local area recently - the odd sign up in a window, a parliamentary candidate's car parked in a lay-by on a major road, clearly labelled with party symbols, and at least one small bill-board put up on a high garden fence so that everyone driving along that particular stretch of road can see it. Credit to the campaign organisers: they've gone all-out. It turns out that UKIP is leading the charge against plans to build almost a thousand new homes in the area. In doing so, it has potentially tapped into a wealth of public indignation: information about a meeting has already slipped through the letterbox and a public march has already been organised. The sight of that ubiqutious pound sign on a major local road stirred a thought in my head: is this where UKIP's future lies? It could be.
Over the past few years, local electorates have been divorced from their political representatives in Westminister. The imposition of top-down parliamentary candidates, shortlists, and the practice of 'parachuting in' friends and flatterers has all debased the local roots of government. Increasingly, 'local' MPs have little or no understanding of their constituencies. Many of them are from different parts of the country entirely. Local concerns are, unsurprisingly, not important to them: or, at least, not as important as the weekly routine of putting in an appearance at their London pad in order to conduct some parliamentary business - along party lines - and then going home again. In the absence of any meaningful political representation, local people are often having to take up the fight themselves.
Local issues are not a national concern, but they still apply to everyone. Everyone has something in their local area that they're not too happy with, which MPs just seem to ignore. In the absence of any way for local people to select who they want on the ballot box, with candidate choices being imposed from party head office, there is precious little that local communities can do about this. There is a gulf - between the parties, the politicians, and the people - and it is in this gulf that a localist party can thrive. UKIP should not make the same mistake. It should carpe diem, as they say in Rome. Returning power to the people to make decisions over the things that most directly impact them should not just be something that UKIP members trot out on auspicious occasions, such as winning their first local council: it should be a campaign mantra.
And there's never been a greater time to introduce it, either: the French Socialist Primaries in France have exposed to a European audience for the first time the practicalities of open primaries. The Tory Localism Bill has done little to alleviate the concerns of local communities. I'd be surprised if even half of the people on your local high street even know of its existence. It has been roundly criticised for having a 'presumption in favour of development.' And we must shake the image that the only people who care about this sort of thing are old men in tweed jackets. My village is not rural: it is less than ten miles from a major town. The people who care are families who fear that if development goes ahead there will not be places for their children at local schools. Commuters, worried about congestion. People who moved out for a more suburban lifestyle, only to see it destroyed overnight by a few 'investors.' These are the people that localism is important to: they are being ignored by the major parties precisely because of the 'pipe-smoking local historian in an anorak' stereotype.
People, ultimately, don't care about issues in the country at large - except, to some extent, the economy (although they care about the local economy far more). The parliamentary parties, in their pursuit of national glory, have all turned their backs on local electorates: there's little that people can do now about local issues, except a stern letter to the MP, who may or may not have any interested at all in the business of his constituency. There's sufficient wiggle room between the parties and their local supporters - i.e., their supporters - for an ambitious and charismatic localist party to drive a wedge between them. And, whatever people may think of UKIP, if they're the only ones - as they are in this case - offering you something that would really make a difference to your everyday life, they're at least going to be tempted, aren't they?