Throughout 2016, politicians and pundits have been caught off guard time and time again by the successes of populist politics – first Brexit, then Trump and the rise of far-right parties across Europe. Casting about for answers, advocates of the centre are trying to account for unexpected shifts in the allegiances of white, working-class and rural voters.
But instead trying to understand why particular demographic groups are attracted to anti-immigrant, anti-establishment rhetoric, perhaps it’s better to ask what can be done to bridge the social divides it creates.
We’ve been carrying out research into local responses to national economic and political crises. Our study compared charitable programmes and services, interfaith collaborations and economic initiatives across four capital cities of Europe: London, Rome, Paris and Berlin. We wanted to understand how local relationships change when people are faced with scarce resources, violence and a sudden influx of refugees.
Rather than becoming more hostile and divided under these circumstances, we actually found that individuals and groups of different ethnic, national, socio-economic and religious backgrounds build networks and cooperate, in order to protect the local community.
This can take the form of supporting a charity, or promoting small businesses and employment opportunities. One example is a food bank in London, which depends on donations from both Muslim and Christian supporters. Another is a Protestant refugee project in Berlin, which has reached out to the secular, and often militantly atheist, young population, who are seeking ways to support diversity and multicultural life in their city.
Religious leaders are also taking on a significant role in community activism. They are increasingly responsible for uniting individuals of different backgrounds, and espousing values of liberalism, universalism and tolerance.
For instance, the Italian state has struggled to deal with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants – particularly those who want to travel on to other European countries such as France or the UK. While the national government remains largely disinterested, Catholic charities have intervened to offer protection and basic hospitality.
The assumption of responsibility has become politicised – yet, rather than seeking the protection of a particular demographic, local activists criticise policies that discriminate against migrants and increase poverty. In Rome, makeshift camps hosting refugees have become spaces for collective political action. We witnessed refugees and volunteers routinely venturing from their temporary shelters into the city centre, to protest and demand representation and protection.
A broader view
The initiatives that do work with the state – such as the Paris-based organisation Mozaik RH, which helps young people from minority and low-income backgrounds find jobs – point to failures to live up to national values such as “egalité”. They call for public and private sector employers to hire more applicants from diverse origins to promote equal life opportunities.
The aim of all of these initiatives is to build and sustain a local infrastructure for collective agency that demonstrates power and control. Faith can inspire individual motivation, but the local community and its initiatives are represented as being inclusive – and progress is associated with cooperation between diverse actors.
As one Church of England vicar put it: “We need to broaden our scope” to bring in groups with different affiliations, or none at all – “we need to broaden our view of what religion is”. In other words, religion is about expressing values and public solidarity as much as professing a particular faith.
But can these very local, urban examples be scaled up into a national political strategy? One problem is that these initiatives are typically “quiet”. They may attract local or even national media attention – such as the Muslim-Jewish café for low-income residents in Nottingham (funded by Near Neighbours). But they succeed because they are about everyday cooperation, rather than by expressing anger or discontent.
That said, there are a few lessons that national political parties can draw from local experience. For one thing, local activists trust government officials who enable and appreciate community cooperation – even when they have little influence over its processes and outcomes.
What’s more, the argument that cooperation can benefit everyone is persuasive and effective. Participants recognise the mutual benefits of sharing assets such as buildings. They also realise that cooperation offers an opportunity to make real changes – ultimately achieving greater control over their own lives.
Perhaps most importantly, local activism across countries and neighbourhoods evokes republican notions of citizenship and an understanding of a general public good – as opposed to competition for resources based on ethnic, racial, or economic grounds. However, it’s still important for state authorities to safeguard rights such as freedom of expression and access to public benefits. This kind of citizenship is always a work in progress, so people are motivated to continue helping throughout their lives.
This motivation transcends periods of crisis and changes in government, as well as transformations in the make-up of the local population. By recognising the cooperation across divisions that is already going on, it is possible for political parties – especially those on the left – to start rebuilding themselves for the future. They can argue for effective, collective engagement to confront the short- and long-term challenges facing us all.