I’d like an extra pint of local democracy tomorrow please milkman

I went to see Milk yesterday. I shall try not to ruin the film by giving too much away, but if you are one of those people who prefer to see a film having no previous information about the plot, and haven’t seen it yet, please look away now! Anyway, I thought it was a very good film, but I found the experience rather depressing.

I didn’t find it depressing because of a dash across town when it emerged that our chosen cinema did not take part in the Orange Wednesday promotion. Seriously, I’m not paying £24 for two cinema tickets, and this is a widespread enough thing that some notice on their website or door warning you before you queue up for 15 minutes would surely be in order?

I didn’t find it depressing because of the uncommonly rude man who sat in our seats and then attempted to blame us when he was incapable of working out how to move from one seat to another without getting trapped, though that was depressing. I didn’t even find it depressing because of the liberties taken with the history and the simplification of some characters – I recognise that a film needs to have narrative and to entertain – a film is not an academic biography.

Instead I found it depressing because despite working at the heart of local politics, and having the privilege to have worked with many dedicated, talented and inspiring elected Councillors, my experience of local government in England is nothing like the picture portrayed in the film of local government. Indeed I find it hard to imagine that a film about local government in England would be played for anything other than laughs.

There were some similarities – the importance to the media and local voters of focusing on ‘pavement politics’ issues as well as wider political ideology, and the necessity of compromise – but overall there was also a picture of a politics where individuals take office with the hopes of their communities, rather than their grudging acceptance, where local decisions are the expression of political will rather than least-worst options to stave off financial crisis, and where local government is truly local government, rather than merely local administration.

That said, I wouldn’t trade a place in the public sector in Britain for one in California right now, and on balance I’m glad that laws about racial, gender, sexual discrimination are set in Parliament for the whole country, rather than determined in each Council area in a battle between referendums and the courts. Equally, it would be wrong to go from one example, and a dramatised one at that, to an assessment of a whole system.

Nonetheless, the US, overall and seen from a distance, does appear to me to afford more opportunities for political involvement, more respect for those who become involved at a local level, and a greater freedom for local government to act in a way that reflects the local area it serves. I hope to return to this  theme shortly, and look at a few simple differences, and what impact they may have.

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