Citizens and the city

While national governments in Europe and beyond are succumbing to populism, cities remain resistant to the virus

Picture Alliance
Picture Alliance

As its newly elected populist government fought to reverse Poland’s pledge to take in just 7,600 Syrians, the city council in Gdansk - a port city in the north of the country - had just voted unanimously to welcome refugees.

“Today, only mayors of main Polish cities are the real opposition against [the Law and Justice party], because this autocratic government has destroyed public media, destroyed the constitutional tribunal, destroyed the civil service system,” said Paweł Adamowicz, mayor of Gdansk, at the mayors’ summit on the future of Europe held in Brussels in March.

Gdansk is not alone. From Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen, populist and nationalist agendas are tearing up the US and Europe, and it’s very often cities leading the battle to restore progressive values.

‘Mitigating populism’

Cities - open, diverse, multicultural - are far from the natural home of populism, which largely advocates protectionist policies.

One of the reasons behind the rise of populism is the challenge of integrating refugees and migrants into the economic mainstream, according to Bruce Katz, centennial scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank based in Washington. Cities, he argues, can be not only the opposition but the antidote to populism.

“Cities are engaged in activities that, if they’re successful, can mitigate the rise of populism,” says Katz, who co-authored The Metropolitan Revolution, which argues that cities are the vanguard of policy innovation. “[They] are the places where refugees will get the housing, skills, schools, language capacity they need to participate in the labour market.”

Cities can be not only the opposition but the antidote to populism.

National governments, by contrast, may determine the number of people allowed into a country, but they have little say over how they are integrated, he adds.

In the US, President Trump’s talk of deportations has pitted cities against central government: more than 60 US mayors took part in a “Cities Day of Immigration Action” on 21 March, pledging to defend their migrant populations.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio allows the city’s undocumented immigrants the right to apply for an ID card; he has made it clear he’ll block any attempts by Trump to get his hands on information about these people.

Rural frustrations

But the populist wave is also a response to growing inequality, which is in some ways exacerbated by cities. In the UK, often characterised by its north/south divide, a new split has emerged: between those who voted to leave the EU, and the largely urban populations who voted to remain.

The populist politicians campaigning for Brexit tapped into longstanding frustrations on the part of people from towns and rural areas, who had felt left behind as neoliberal globalisation sapped towns of their industries while enabling cities to thrive. This also led Trump to the White House on the back of protectionist policies.

But as national politicians squabble over the terms of the Brexit divorce, Britain’s biggest cities are trying to work out how to address that imbalance.

“Cities are especially important in tackling populism and euroscepticism because, put simply, we know our places and our people,” says Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council and chair of Core Cities UK, which represents 10 of the UK’s biggest cities. “That contrasts with remote national and European politics that appears disconnected and uninterested in the lives of citizens.”

Official statistics bear this out: just 31% of people have trust in the UK national government, according to the ONS, while local governments are trusted by 79% of British people to make important decisions.

There are also more opportunities for citizens to get involved at a local level. “Democracy locally is qualitatively different from democracy at the national level,” says Katz. “At the national level… you go to the ballot box every couple of years, you vote, and then you check out. At local level you tend to vote and participate.”

Networks and networked

He also argues that cities are more capable of taking action than central governments, where “national politicians live on rhetoric”.

“Central governments are just governments,” he says. “That’s all they are. And that means they can be captured by partisanship and they can move with the winds of popular opinion.”

But cities, he explains, are networks - of public, private, civic, community and university institutions. They are also networked. With a closer eye on the pragmatic than the political, they tend to be well equipped to form alliances with other cities, and what they cannot achieve alone, they can tackle together.

Last year saw the launch of the Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM), which promotes the voice of cities in global affairs and aims to stand up for the rights of cities if nation states try to limit their freedom to manoeuvre. It’s first major initiative, a Sanctuary Cities fund, aims to help cities protect undocumented migrants from the reactionary nationalism spreading across the US and Europe.

“The world has changed,” says Eileen Haring Woods, executive director of the GPM. “No one could have predicted that Trump would be the president of the United States. What mayors are realising is that a fundamental devolution of power is underway and so the responsibilities of the GPM are more urgent than ever before.”

Redistribution of power

Cities generate more than 80% of global GDP, according to the World Bank, yet they largely hand it over to central government and wait for their allocation. Britain, in particular, is a very centralised country. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has complained that despite having the same population as Wales and Scotland combined, London has far less control over its tax revenue.

A devolution process underway in the UK, and some cities will gain official powers via mayoral elections for the first time in May this year.

The battle against populism is about finding solutions to inequality - cities need greater freedoms and flexibilities to better respond to local need.

But Katz says that in US - where cities are stronger, having had to navigate years of partisan gridlock at national and state level - many mayors prize their “soft power” above all else. They have the power to convene, to pull the community together around a particular issue.

“I think that the new mayors in the UK will succeed or fail depending on whether they understand the soft power that they have and deploy it,” he says. “They’re not like a president or a prime minister. It’s a completely different job.”

For Blake, the battle against populism is about finding solutions to inequality - and she believes cities need greater freedoms and flexibilities to better respond to local need.

She says: “Until we can demonstrate a practical response to the realities facing many people in our communities, there will be a vacuum that populism and anti-establishment rhetoric will always seek to fill.”

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