How the global became personal

The big issues of today are "intermestic"

There is nothing like an international gathering of social democratic leaders to remind us how insular British day-to-day political debate can be. The Progressive Governance conference and summit, organised by Policy Network - new Labour's answer to the Socialist International - was held in Watford this month to discuss the global challenges of the 21st century (www.progressive-governance.net). These ranged from the Chilean president talking about a vast chunk of the Wilkins ice shelf breaking away in the Antarctic, to the Turkish delegate describing the latest twist in the battle between Islam and secularism in his country. They made the world feel smaller and our neighbours closer.

A relaxed Gordon Brown, without notes, spoke on climate change, financial crisis and global poverty, calling for a World Bank that puts the environment on an equal footing with development; an International Monetary Fund geared to crisis prevention; and a UN peacekeeping force properly resourced to provide stability and reconstruction in failed states.

His evident gravitas on the world stage has yet to be matched at home. Yet the impact of global change is ever more apparent in our own backyard - whether because of the credit crunch, the impact of migrant labour, or more extreme weather patterns due to climate change. Today's big issues are "intermestic", as David Held of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics has argued - they cross international and domestic domains.

Take migration. All industrialised nations are engaged in a delicate balancing act that recognises the economic and cultural benefits of open economies, but at the same time has to respond to the fears of host communities about increased competition for jobs and housing. Yet it is rare to think about migration from the perspective of the country of origin: remittances earned abroad, amounting to some $200bn, reduce poverty in developing countries much more than total aid flows.

In the case of climate change, action by one country, while significant, will only be truly effective as part of an international treaty. So, too, with security. Whether it is nuclear fissile material, energy supplies or pandemics, our safety is more dependent than ever on the actions of other states.

What is glaringly apparent is that our international institutions are not up to the job.

While the space for politics has widened on the international stage, it has - paradoxically - narrowed at home. As Wouter Bos, the Dutch finance minister, argued, globalisation has made it harder to achieve progressive change at home. If politicians of the centre left are to bridge the gap between the political elite and the public, they have to respond to people's fears by discussing issues of religion, identity, morality and trust.

Interestingly, these issues are bubbling to the surface in Britain. Despite improvements in living standards, employment, longevity and qualifications, there is a preoccupation with the quality of life at home: how to build stable relationships that give adults and children autonomy and security; and how to sustain cohesive neighbourhoods and tackle urban violence. These are now as key to progressive politics as social justice.

This is the territory into which David Cameron (not unusually for the Conservatives) has leapt, tapping in to the anxieties of modern life but offering little by way of specific or robust solutions. Such issues are shaped but not determined by inequalities.

The clearest manifestation of the gap between those in power and the electorate is the rapid fall in public trust of politicians and parliament and, with it, a sharp drop in voter turnout. More worrying, turnout divides sharply along the lines of income and age.

The seats with the lowest turnout (with just 30-40 per cent voting) are in the most deprived areas. The problem is underestimated, as these figures take no account of those not registered to vote - a virtual disenfranchisement of the poor. And younger people are much less likely to vote than the old. This has its roots in our electoral system, but it is also the case that the language of politics bypasses the everyday lives of many, and people are fatalistic about the possibility of change.

Many of the uncertainties that people confront on their doorsteps stem from things they cannot control or which lie outside their sphere of influence. Such issues can often be solved only through action on an international stage.

So, more than ever before, achieving progressive change at home requires effective multilateral agreements far away from home. Watford, momentarily, stood at the intersection of the global and the local; in a small way, it symbolises how we will have to do politics in the 21st century.

Carey Oppenheim is co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back