Can Cities Transcend National Politics?

On Thursday, I posted a blog entry about why local government was unrepresentative, uncreative, and dominated by national parties whose national policies are largely irrelevant on a local level. The same day (I was in la-la land and oblivious of the fact, otherwise I would have noted it) Londoners went to the polls to elect their new mayor, Boris Johnson.

Johnson has no shortage of outspoken foes, among them Martin O’Neill. But it’s quite clear that the London mayor (first Livingstone, now Johnson) is pretty much exactly what David Schleicher is calling for in his paper: someone who might have a nominal connection with a national party, but who runs very much on his own, specifically local, agenda. Johnson even has his own set of advisers:

When Johnson revealed his team of advisers, it included Bob Diamond, head of Barclays Capital and the FTSE 100’s highest paid boss; Sir Trevor Chinn, who works for private equity outfit CVC Capital Partners; and Goldman Sachs banker Richard Sharp. Johnson does not make much effort to hide his plan of government by the privileged, for the privileged.

Now Schleicher’s point is that while would-be mayors have the ability to publicize their policies, that’s not true of local legislators, who tend to get sucked unhelpfully into the maw of the national party machine. But if there’s a glimmer of hope here it comes from the fact that mayors around the world are extremely cognisant of the problem and are increasingly teaming up to push their agenda on a global level precisely because their national parties tend to ignore them on a local scale.

With more than half the world’s population now living in cities, it’s possible that the urban lobby might eventually get something approaching the political heft it deserves. If Schleicher’s dream comes true and local parties get founded with policies orthogonal to the national parties, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them grow into major international political organizations. And I, for one, would likely feel much more at home in an international Urban Party with enlightened views on things like congestion pricing and immigration than I would in either the Democrats or the Republicans, either Labour or the Conservatives.

Incidentally, the congestion charge has been much more warmly embraced by Republicans than by Democrats at the federal level, and it was the national Republicans who wanted to give New York City a $350 million grant to help implement it. Maybe Barack Obama should have pointed to the congestion charge, rather than a cap-and-trade system, as a hot-button issue where the Republicans have the better idea.

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