Cop Out!

The national media are fixed upon the incredible contortions over Brexit being performed by the political parties at Westminster. Until recent months, the political elite within the United Kingdom could console themselves with a rather patronising view of the antics of the oddball sitting across the pond in the White House. However, surely the truly objective observer would look on both parties with equal exasperation.  In both cases, the leading politicians appear to be completely detached from the priorities of the mass of people, allowing ego to supersede service.

Yet there is a similar situation occurring here in Liverpool.  Nearly two-thirds of Labour Party members in the city want to be rid of the post of elected mayor, reverting to a leader and cabinet model.  By a series of procedural manoeuvres, it appears that the Liverpool labour Party has kicked a decision into the long grass, with a possible delay of up to three years before a decision is made on the local party’s final decision.

Four of five local constituency Labour parties wanted the post abolished.  The fifth – Garston and Halewood – was against change (one wonders if Halewood members had a say, given that they do not live in Liverpool but in Knowsley).  Then the members of West Derby CLP were told their vote was invalid, as the “indicative” meeting to decide upon their view, was inquorate.

One should not be too surprised given the massive – and expensive – campaign to keep the post, featuring the present incumbent (Joe Anderson), the regional Labour Party office, and a couple of trade union regional secretaries.  Most important was the support of the Liverpool Echo, which appears to be more concerned with keeping Joe Anderson in position, rather than with the continued existence of the post itself.

This does not mean that the post will continue, or that, if it does, Joe Anderson will fill it.  Firstly, there are local people trying to organise a people’s petition to rid the city of the post.  Such a petition requires the signatures of just over 16100 registered electors in the city, for there to be a referendum on the question.  Thus, as the wider Labour Party in Liverpool resolves its collective view – important given its domination of city politics – it could well be left at the starting gate if the proposed petition gets off the ground.  Many electors are still fuming that, unlike in other cities, Liverpool electors were not given a vote on whether or not they would have an elected mayor.

Even if the post is retained, Mayor Anderson is not the shoo-in suggested, either as the Labour candidate or in the ballot for mayor itself.  Despite the barrage of false news about the city under his stewardship, there is widespread distaste for the current mayor, and a belief that he has done little to commend himself to voters. Of course, his friends in the Echo and in the business community will do all that they can to support him, in return for the slavish way in which he has met their demands.

Speaking of the Echo, I noted that its parent paper – the Mirror – published a survey on deprivation this week, based on official government figures.  According to the Mirror, none of the six boroughs in our city-region made it into the top forty of deprived boroughs.  Hull, Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Leicester and Newcastle were all up there, but the highest ranking in the LCR was Liverpool at forty-two!  I have always thought the Mirror to be sympathetic to our area, so make of their survey what you will.

One final point needs to be made.  Halton has always been a generally sensible borough, so I was mystified by a decision it made last week.  It gave up twenty-one hectares of green belt for a Runway End Safety Area abutting Speke Airport.  Now, I am no expert but this appears to be an extraordinarily large amount of land for this purpose, especially given that the airport remains in difficulties.  I am told there is no need for this extension, but, if there is, a much smaller area would suffice.


Fit For Purpose?

In recent days, we have seen locally, two very different approaches to campaigning. One has been led by the metromayor, Steve Rotheram, and the other by Liverpool city mayor, Joe Anderson. Both of these are hoping to keep their respective positions, but they each have the same initial hurdle to overcome. That is, reselection by their political party. An added complication for Joe Anderson is whether or not the council chooses to retain the post of elected city mayor.

Steve Rotheram has been setting out his stall for those areas for which he is responsible, especially transport and strategic economic planning. After a challenging start, he is now settling into the post, with a commitment to two new rail stations, plans which have been widely welcomed. He and his colleagues on the Combined Authority have also allocated substantial sums for ten “town centre” renewal schemes, spread across the city-region. These have obviously been agreed with the six borough councils within his bailiwick.

This cannot have been an easy task politically. He cannot do immediately all that he might wish; but he is making a fair fist of fulfilling his promise to look out for all communities across the city-region. As the saying goes, “all politics are local”, to such a degree that there will be competing claims on his limited funds within boroughs, never mind between them. Thus while few Wirral voters, for example, will deny the merit of investment in hard-pressed New Ferry, there may well be a reaction in Knowsley by the Kirkby Residents Action Group to investment in Huyton, given their long-standing complaints of council bias. I do not know. Still, there must be recognition of the attempt to spread economic assistance around the city-region as widely as is feasible. This suggests strategic thinking.

The other type of campaigning to which I alluded is that favoured by Joe Anderson. It began with an email to Labour Party members (who may well decide his future) in which Joe sings his own praises in a Trumpian way. He claims to be the unions’ best friend, citing the work he tells us he has done involving disputes at Cammell Laird’s and at Colloids. One of the problems here is that the former is based in the Wirral, and the latter in Knowsley. Now, I do not know what he did in either case, but his job is to run the city of Liverpool, not the city-region.

Moreover, citing the support of the Unite and Unison trade unions for keeping his job is all very well and good, but it is Labour Party members, not trade union officials (who may not be Labour Party members), who are currently being consulted on the mayoralty. Why should any vested interest be seen as better informed or more important than rank and file members when it comes to the governance of the city? That is why we should beware of the Echo’s blatant bias over the role of city-mayor, whether it is fit for purpose; and who, if anyone, should fill that post. Despite its present posturing, the Echo has never been a friend of the Labour Party. Nor did it show care for the city when it took its printing jobs to Oldham. Its business is to maximise its profits, which goes some way to explaining their extraordinary cri-de-coeur today about the mayoralty.

Wholly supportive of the post, the Echo says that “we believe the mayoralty keeps Liverpool in the Premier league of UK cities”. If that is so, why, when given a vote, did all of the other major English cities, with the sole exception of Bristol, reject the city mayor model? Why is neighbouring  Manchester doing so well without a mayor, for example? How is it that those refusenik cities received the same much vaunted financial package used to justify Liverpool Council’s lone ranger agreement to a Tory scam? “We are not Stoke, Coventry, Sunderland or Norwich”, the Echo cries. Indeed we are not; but Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle – all top drawer cities – said “no thanks” to city mayors.

In its anxiety to promote the candidacy of a compliant city mayor, the Echo has deliberately conflated the roles of metromayor and city mayor, as if they were interdependent. They are not. The roles are entirely separate with different responsibilities (although Joe Anderson seems not to understand this). As we see in other major conurbations, metromayors function very well without the encumbrance of an interfering city mayor. Undaunted, the Echo describes the internal Labour Party review on governance as being “about political manoeuvring by the anti-Anderson lobby”. Nothing there about accountability, transparency or effectiveness. Perhaps the Echo is more concerned with its own manoeuvring on behalf of the business and developers’ lobby, strong supporters of Joe. The Echo’s trump card is to claim that the Labour Party review of governance is about putting “control freakery and decision making in the hands of a tiny minority”. Funny – I thought that was the traditional prerogative of the self-regarding local great-and-good, who have never had any time for local democracy. Perhaps that is why they are so supportive of the present arrangements.

Selection Manoeuvres?

When Stephen Twigg announced his intention to retire as the member of parliament for Liverpool West Derby, as a member of that constituency’s Labour Party, I took more than a passing interest. In my time, I have observed many selections of parliamentary candidates, officiating at a fair few, and participating in one as a candidate myself. It seems as if little has really changed down the years to make the whole process more transparent to the average party member, or to free that process of nomination and selection from the traditional back room deals so often detested by the party’s rank and file.

Most of their concerns have centred on what they see as “fixing” of matters by their local party establishment, and, particularly, trade unions (or rather, their officials). Sadly, too many Labour Party members remain ignorant as to how candidates succeed in being selected, often imputing to the successful, every political fiddle under the sun. There is nothing new in this, nor is it necessarily true in many cases. However, it is as well for the novice to recognise that there are always networks of narrow interest at play in selections, sometimes successful and sometimes not.

The most obvious are the fraternal deals done between trade unions to ensure that their man or woman is selected. This partiality towards the favoured trade union nominee is as old as the Labour Party itself, originally designed to ensure that the interests of a given union were represented in parliament. Historically, the National Union of Mineworkers decided who would represent Labour wherever there was a pit. It has evolved into something far removed from the original good  intentions on behalf of the wider membership and local community, generally having little to do with ordinary trade union members. Nowadays, it is often more about the personal ambition of union nominees, or about the very narrow – and personal – interests of trade union bosses. It will be a surprise to many that Frank Field was originally listed  as a docker with the old TGWU (now Unite), or that lawyer John Smith, former leader of the Labour Party, was registered as a boilermaker with the GMB.

Yet there are always other, less obvious networks at play in parliamentary selections, sometimes ideological, sometimes religious, sometimes cultural, and sometimes downright venal. These can have a huge impact in a parliamentary selection. Let us look at West Derby as just one example. In that constituency, there is a tightly knit group of influential councillors spread across two wards, Norris Green and Croxteth. There is nothing wrong or even unusual in that; but it is well worth looking at what binds them and how that can influence a selection.

The councillors concerned are George Knibb, Anthony Lavelle, Sharon Ross, Joann Kushner, and the latter’s husband, Barry Kushner. The sixth councillor, Peter Mitchell, appears to be somewhat apart from the others. The glue which binds the first five is the ubiquitous Alt Valley Partnership (AVP), which is described as a community initiative. All five are, in one way or another, connected to this body. It is run by Phil Knibb, and Barry Kushner is a paid consultant for it. Sharon Ross works for it, and Councillors Lavelle and Joann Kushner are strong supporters of the AVP. That is understandable, I suppose, given the high profile of the AVP in the area.

Councillor Knibb, brother of AVP boss Phil, is a paid consultant for the North Liverpool Regeneration Company (NLRC) as is Councillor Barry Kushner. This organisation was George Knibb’s “baby” until he decided on a return to the council. It is interesting to look at the directors of the NLRC past and present, and at the fourteen companies associated with brother Phil. It is a roll call of formerly expelled Liverpool councillors and their political supporters of yesteryear, including Tony Jennings, Dominic Brady and Tony Rimmer, now rehabilitated in the New Model Labour Party. Many are now potential votes in a West Derby selection.

Local scuttlebutt suggests that Barry Kushner is pushing – and being pushed – to succeed Stephen Twigg. He is perfectly entitled to do so, but he may find that his ownership of multiple rental properties will not go down too well in West Derby. It may seem fanciful to those both inside and outside of the constituency, but they should not be surprised if there is a concerted effort by the AVP in aid of Cllr Kushner, or someone else equally acceptable to them, for what is arguably a safe Labour seat.

Naturally, there is a process to be followed, however flawed that process might be, beginning with a shortlist of potential candidates. Yet it is as well to be aware of the influence which these powerful lobbies can bring to bear, especially in safe Labour seats. There is a long way to go in achieving true Labour Party democracy.

Stating the Obvious

About four years late, the Echo has at long last stated the blindingly obvious – that the International Garden Festival (IGF) site is largely unsuitable for housing development. You may recall that Mayor Anderson paid the previous owners – the Langtree development company – the princely sum of £6 million for this derelict land fronting the River Mersey. A smart move for Langtree; a bad deal for the city of Liverpool. Anyone local over the age of fifty knows that the land had been the city’s major waste tip before the IGF of the mid-eighties. Equally, anyone with half a brain knew that the site was a toxic waste land, and would need a hugely expensive programme of decontamination before it could be used for housing.

I do not blame Langtree for off-loading this unviable site. However, I do hold responsible our self-styled “entrepreneurial” mayor for buying it. He should have been wide awake to what lay ahead, taking a lead from the ill-fated Housing Market Renewal Initiative of the Blair government. On Merseyside, this well-intentioned scheme embraced Wirral, Liverpool, and Sefton. The allocation for the latter was wholly used up on the decontamination of a single site, illustrating how expensive that process can be, and acting as a warning to those who make precipitate and grandiose commitments of council funds, to white elephant developments.

This brings me to the vexed question of the proposed new stadium for Everton Football Club. There are many questions to be resolved about the commercial viability of the scheme, but these are matters for the club, a privately-owned company. I do maintain, however, that it is not for the mayor or anyone else to involve the city’s funds in it. Already, the case for that position is being underlined by the increasing costs of the project. An initial estimate of £300 million has already escalated to £500 million, and is bound to rise much further.

Way back, on the 17/5/16, the mayor boasted that such a stadium might be built within three years, and “may boost Liverpool’s Commonwealth Games bid”. Here we are in 2019 with no start in sight and no games on offer. Undaunted, the mayor tweeted on the 19/7/16 that “a stadium within two years is achievable”. A month later, on the 17/8/16, an Evertonian website quoted the mayor that “EFC have the cash ……and could be in their new home within three years”. Promises, promises – all built on sand.

On the financing of the new stadium, the mayor said on the 10/1/18 that Liverpool City Council was close to agreeing to provide two-thirds of the funding required. By the 29/3/18, he insisted that “the city and people of Liverpool won’t spend a penny on the deal”. However, three weeks earlier, on the 6/3/19, the Echo reported that “the LCC paid out over £700,000 on consulting fees over the EFC stadium plans”.

This led an assiduous battler for council transparency to seek information on these fees. What were they exactly? To whom were they paid and what was the purpose of the consultancy? Needless to say, she was ignored. The next step was to formally request information under Freedom of Information legislation. She was then told she could not have it because release of such information might damage “dialogue” between the council and the club. This is utter rubbish, and a direct repudiation of the people’s right to know. The owner of EFC has already publicly stated that the funding of a new stadium will come from private sources, whilst the mayor has claimed that the club will reimburse the city for its expenses. Why not confirm, therefore, the details of this public expenditure?

The city is being run like a privately-owned venture capital company. Little wonder, then, that an old school friend – resident in the Far East for fifty years – tells me that the word is spreading in financial circles there, to avoid investment in Liverpool. If we are not careful, the ripple effects of this weakened reputation will spread like wildfire. Merseyside Police have already launched an investigation into fraud within Knowsley Council, involving a council officer. Who knows, for goodness sake, where it will end?

Governance Debate

Mayor Anderson’s campaign to be re-selected as Labour mayoral candidate for Liverpool is in full swing. The latest missive to members sets out how he has single-handedly saved the shipbuilding and repair industry from closure on Merseyside. I am not at all sure as to his locus in involving himself in a Wirral business when he is mayor for Liverpool. I know that he wanted to be Merseyside’s metromayor, but we have one – and he has already been re-selected to stand again on behalf of the Labour Party.

More importantly, the pace is hotting up on the Liverpool Labour group’s decision as to whether or not to retain the post of elected mayor in Liverpool. Liverpool constituency Labour parties are currently debating this issue; and to this end, the council’s Labour group’s working party – set up to look at this – has disseminated a series of papers intended to better inform discussion. Essentially, Liverpool Labour is to decide on its preferred governance model – a leader and cabinet model (the overwhelming choice across the country); the committee model (which gives councillors greater involvement in decision making); or the existing mayoral model.

It is a good idea for the working party to make as much information available to rank-and-file members as possible, and to bury some of the myths which have been propagated by both sides of this thorny issue. However, I am not moved by self-serving internal council reports. Nor do I buy into ambiguous peer group reviews, where councillors comment on councillors. These tend at best to be jargon-filled and uninformative. So what do we have left to supplement members gut instincts?

Included are two academic reports, presumably meant to give an authoritative flavour to the debate. The first was written last month by Stuart Wilkes-Heeg, of Liverpool University. It is very non-committal. It tries to sum up the little research which has been done on the subject, without drawing any conclusions. The second paper was written in 2016 by Michael Parkinson, also of Liverpool University. It is worth looking a little closer at this one.

Parkinson makes no attempt to be impartial. He tells us that, amongst the council’s partners, “there is huge goodwill and support for the office of elected mayor…..and for the individual himself”. Intrigued by this unsubstantiated assertion from three years ago, I turned to the appendix listing the fifty one “partners” he had interviewed, and upon whom he based this comment. Four politicians were on the list – Richard Kemp, Steve Munby, Nick Small, and Joe Anderson. Others included were disgraced former council CEO, Ged Fitzgerald, and party promoter and Joe crony, Frank McKenna. The rest consisted of bureaucrats and quangocrats with a sprinkling of businessmen – a cross section of the self-selecting local “great and good”. Nowhere do I see a reference to what ordinary people think – that is, those who pay for all this nonsense and have no vested interest in the council.

I was neither surprised nor disappointed by the Parkinson report, having first read it back in 2016 on its first release. We should note that it was published in the name of the Heseltine Institute, the eponymous little group dedicated to the promotion of the Tory peer’s views. These include the advocacy of the establishment of elected mayors, although truly objective evidence shows that, given a say in the matter, most people reject the mayoral model.

Still, one can but hope. London’s experience – with Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson – has shown how the mayoral model inflates already massive egos. Liverpool has shown, to date, how accountability and transparency nose dive, as do probity and competence. Let the people decide.

Testing Time

There is little which I can add to the reaction to the racist tweet by former Lord Mayor, Cllr Brennan. All racism is to be condemned and those responsible called to account.  Yet I did note that Cllr Brennan made reference to “my friend Mayor Joe Anderson”, going on to say that “I have decided I cannot continue (as Lord Mayor)”. He also said that “I am also referring the matter to the Labour Party”. So far, so good – having been caught out, he finally did the right thing in such circumstances. Then along comes Mayor Anderson with his own statement. “I have referred the matter to the Labour Party regionally and nationally” as, he went on, “the action I have taken needed to be taken immediately”.

Firstly, I would point out that presumably, they did not both refer the matter to the Labour Party. Secondly, this surely would anyway initially be a matter for the city council and for the Labour group on that council. I do not know what “action” it was to which Mayor Anderson was himself referring. It does indicate, however, just how he views himself and his role within city politics. It is a sign of how he sees all matters as being for him to consider and to decide. This is extremely important as we rapidly approach the scheduled election of a mayor in 2020.

For what it is worth, I would remind those interested in the mechanics of politics to measure the worth of the office itself. The Echo and the current mayor have already embarked on a campaign to ensure in the first instance, the re-selection of Mayor Anderson as the Labour candidate. Part of this is a list of claims – some real, many inflated, and some downright bogus – as evidence of the merits of the post. Naturally, there is little mention of the disasters which have beset the city and its good standing in recent years, no reference to the many failed promises made by the mayor. The first question ought to be whether or not the post is worth keeping.

You will recall that of all cities, Liverpool was the only one never given a referendum on an elected mayor. Other cities turned it down flat and have prospered (generally more than Liverpool) under more traditional models of governance. Even if the post was to be retained, there is no guarantee that a different person at the helm would be any improvement on the present incumbent. On the contrary, there is much evidence to suggest the administration of the city would be just as lacking in transparency and accountability. It is no accident that so many public posts – from American president down! – are time limited with regard to the post holder.

I believe that, under Labour Party processes, Steve Rotheram has already been confirmed as the Labour candidate for metromayor. There is yet to be a selection of the Labour candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). Merseyside’s experience of this Tory novelty has been an abject failure. The post holder since its inception has been former MP Jane Kennedy. She has been totally invisible in the role, despite a salary in excess of £80,000 pa and the backup of a bloated and expensive bureaucracy. To date, I have been contacted by two aspiring Labour candidates for the job, both of whom are Liverpool-based. I find it surprising that there has been no declared candidate from one of the other boroughs to date. I had expected Knowsley veteran, Bill Weightman, to go for it, given his experience and knowledge of police matters.

Speaking of Knowsley, I am told that two Knowsley council Health and Safety inspectors have been sacked after directing clients to a cheaper service elsewhere. This is another example of how councils are trying every way to increase income from in-house services, whilst the same service can be provided via external approved firms at a lower price. The opportunity for corrupt practice is glaringly obvious for all to see. I have certainly pointed out questionable  arrangements in Wirral in the past which suggests that the basis of such problems is systemic, rather than the odd bad apple.

Mention of Wirral brings the new Tory government to mind. The appointment of Esther McVey to the housing, communities and local government brief must be of concern in Wirral. I am told that she has never forgiven the voters of Wirral West for chucking her out as their MP. One must wonder whether she will be more or less supportive than her predecessors in, for example, helping to resolve the long standing difficulties in New Ferry since the gas explosion, or the ongoing dispute over the proposed Hoylake golfing development. Time will tell.

Tough Times

The past week has shown what difficult political waters we are now in. For most people on Merseyside, the fact that the diminishing number of people who subscribe to the Conservative Party should foist Boris Johnson on us as their leader and our Prime Minister was a blow, if a predictable one. Remember that this is the man who set out –“with malice aforethought” – to insult all of the people of Liverpool with a callous article related to Hillsborough and the city’s reaction to that miscarriage of justice. So tendentious was his article that he was compelled by his then party leader to come up to Liverpool to apologise in person.

Making for an even gloomier prospect for local government across the city region was the appointment of Esther McVey to his front bench in charge of housing, communities and local government. Normally, the appointment of a local person in such a key role would be welcomed. Unfortunately, Ms McVey is generally reviled across the city-region because of her record. Her attacks on those in receipt of benefits are well known, as are her views on food banks. Her support for the deeply disliked “bedroom tax” was followed by comments which offended the LGBT community. Our local government representatives will not feel confident of a sympathetic hearing from her.

One who might feel differently, however, is Mayor Anderson. The Liverpool mayor is fond of projecting himself as the friend and defender of all sections of the Liverpool populace, including the aforementioned LGBT community. However, he obviously saw it as a greater priority to go scurrying to Manchester this weekend to curry favour with Boris Johnson rather than show up at Liverpool Pride. We should not be too surprised by this. After all, was it not Mayor Anderson who made much play of his support for Prime Minister Cameron and his failed “Big Society” initiative?  Was it not Mayor Anderson who became great pals with discredited chancellor, George Osborne, the champion of austerity?

As Labour Party members receive a flurry of missives from the Labour Party, all promoting Anderson personally, they will surely see these for what they are – the early shots in his campaign to be reselected for the role from which he tried so hard to escape! They will be scrutinising the claims being made with extra care and noting the systematic exaggeration of many, and the downright misrepresentation of others. The Liverpool Labour Party has been down this road of fake news before, with bloated or invented figures; but as they choose – if they get that far – a candidate for the post of mayor in the 2020 elections, one has to hope that they will be far more circumspect than they were in the past.

As an example of the nonsense we were fed in the last few years, one needs look no further than the proposed new stadium for Everton FC. I seem to recall being told that it would (a) cost about £300 million, and (b) be financed through the city acquiring a loan from the Public Works Loan Board. Now the club is clarifying matters. The real cost is to be £500 million (and upwards?), financed through normal business channels, according to the club’s recent presentation. That, of course, is a matter for the club. It is most certainly NOT a matter for the city’s council tax payers.

Meanwhile, the city-region’s other councils appear to be getting on with their core business – not without difficulty, as all councils still face the burdens of austerity. Regardless of what the new prime minister may, or may not, say, austerity will continue. Like the proverbial super tanker, it takes a long time to turn things around (on the assumption that there is any genuine intention to do so). However, there are some items which might well come to pass as they seem to have a degree of cross-party support.

The first is the notion of a Mersey Barrage revived by metromayor, Steve Rotheram, and publicly agreed last week with current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Incidentally, I note that mayor Anderson again attempted to claim credit for the whole idea of a Mersey Barrage. However, I first recall this being tabled back in the 1980s, by David Alton, when Mayor Anderson was a junior deckhand. The other major project important to us all is the Johnson commitment (for what it is worth!) to a high-speed trans-Pennine rail route. My reservation is the statement that its first stage is the Manchester-Leeds permanent way. Too often, that has indicated that we on Merseyside will be left behind. Let us hope not. The only acceptable link is all the way from Liverpool to Hull.