Aims and Values

Throughout a lifetime of interest and involvement in what we call politics, I have always believed that, in the broadest sense, politics was about a set of values, and their application via a series of aims, for the good of all. In a wider context, politics have evolved into the relatively modern phenomenon of political parties which people join to advance their beliefs. Those parties have usually been defined rather loosely – left, right or centrist – although each is normally a coalition of interests.

The Conservatives have been viewed as the party of the status quo, defending the rights and privileges of those who have, resistant to demands for change which regularly bubble up within the body politic. Labour, meanwhile has historically presented itself as the party of the have nots – the disaffected, the deprived, and the socially marginalised. The Liberal Democrats has sought to bridge the divide between these two. Other parties are more narrow. The Greens pride themselves as the party of the environment, whilst the nationalist parties are, by definition, circumscribed geographically. Oddities like the Brexit party and UKIP are single issue vehicles with one self-evident aim.

Approaching the general election, the major parties as we have known them, appear to be cracking at the seams – at least at a national level. It is not just a consequence of Brexit, although that is a massive catalyst in the internal crises facing the major parties. The glue which has bound these “broad coalitions” together for many years appears to be rapidly dissolving, like the planetary ice caps. More and more, the broad coalitions are becoming redundant, superseded by special interests without the wider allegiances of yesteryear. However, in musing on these matters, I recall the sage advice given to his colleagues by the former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, that” All politics is local”.

Within our city-region, there has always been an extra edge to party politics. On the surface, some things may seem to have changed, but that would be a superficial appreciation of the current state of affairs. Thus, while Sefton looks politically quiescent, the same north-south tensions obtain which have hindered it for forty five years. Across the Mersey in Wirral, there remains an obsession with the outdated issues and sectarianism of the 1980s. Knowsley may be judged by the recent challenge to sitting MP, George Howarth, killed off by the central Labour diktat to constituency Labour parties, that all sitting MPs be reselected for the forthcoming general election.

However, as the saying goes, God – and the electorate – moves in mysterious ways. Two of our local boroughs face serious problems which illustrate why Labour as the local governing party need to rediscover why they are in public life. They are Liverpool and St Helens. Given the Labour hegemony in the two boroughs, it is not too fanciful to believe that both could face melt down in their different ways.

I wrote recently about the toxicity within St Helens Labour. I was not to know then that two female councillors would depart Labour, including the chief whip, in exasperation at life in the Labour group. These losses have nothing to do with Brexit, but they do reflect a real breakdown in internal discipline, with the council leader caught in the middle of continuous faction fighting. This situation speaks volumes to me about those who are plotting and scheming within St Helens Labour. They display little understanding of how essential collectivity is, preferring that their own petty ambitions predominate.

Liverpool is no stranger to the adoption of an exceptionalist pose; and it remains bogged down in the usual morass of unenlightened self-interest. Two months ago, the Labour group on the council had an away day to discuss the mayoralty. It was obviously designed to head off the widespread dissatisfaction with the role and its incumbent, and also as a reaction to a Liberal Democrat motion due to go before the council. What was clear from the minutes of the meeting was that there was a great deal of unhappiness within the group on the matter. They recognised that both the rank-and-file Labour membership and the electorate were at odds with the council over the mayoralty.

Despite some spurious assertions “from the floor” (according to the minutes), many councillors are concerned by the many gaps between the official mayor/council position and the views of both the electorate and Labour Party members. Curiously, the minutes refer to different agenda items, one entitled “Political and Economic Environment”. This in turn was headed by the bald statement that “Len McCluskey in favour of elected City Mayors”. So who gives a toss what Len McCluskey thinks? He is not in any elected office in Liverpool, and I doubt whether he is still on the electoral role in the city. Obviously, the council cares what the union boss thinks, if not the electorate or lay party members.

The indicative vote which had been held across the city constituency by constituency voted 2 to 1 against an elected mayor. The highest body for lay members (the Local Campaign Forum) also voted against the role of elected Mayor. The Labour group’s answer was to kick the issue into the long grass until 2022. So much for Labour party democracy. You might say that a job creation programme has been reinforced for the sole benefit of Joe Anderson. Is it any wonder that people lose faith??

Odds and Sods

Between the incompetent liar in the White House and the lying crackpot in 10, Downing Street, it would seem as if that politics across the globe has gone mad. Yet it is not just at that level that politics appears to have detached itself from the real world, and the concerns of a wider public. It is well worth while devoting attention to our local political organisations to appreciate how the electorate becomes disillusioned. Nor is it simply elected representatives who are at fault, although responsibility ultimately rests in their hands.

A practical example relies in Knowsley. I am told that a relative of a former senior council officer is involved in a £280,000 fraud in the council. Apparently, the scam in question ran for over ten years, but was only discovered when a double payment was mistakenly sent to an honest person, who promptly returned it to the council. The obvious question is: how was this missed for so long on the audit trail? If the auditors are so inept, how often do such corrupt practices occur?

Across the river in Wirral, the mysterious activities of former councillor and former chair of the Merseyside Pension Fund – Paul Doughty – remain a puzzle. Merseyside Police were given extensive evidence regarding allegations made against Mr Doughty, but they decided not to prosecute. To date, the council has made no comment on his case to my knowledge. Whilst a councillor, Mr Doughty was alleged, amongst other things, to have shown favours to senior officers of the council and the pension fund. He is now believed to be involved in plans for a community savings bank.

Meanwhile, Halton Borough Council’s planning department has taken another beating, having been taken to court successfully for the third time. Its plans for a waste facility in Hale Bank were successfully challenged in the High Court by the local parish council. The chair of the latter declared (with some justification!!) that the borough’s planning department was “not fit for purpose”. This follows hard on the heels of the department’s roll over to Peel’s John Lennon Airport in the unnecessary surrender of 21 hectares of green space at Hale, for Peel’s commercial interests.

Speaking of Peel, it is now ten months since “The Times” first flagged up in detail the big financial problems facing Peel owner, John Whittaker, and his flagship “Intu” company. These were part of the reason for the car boot sale by Peel and Deutsche Bank, of shares in the John Lennon Airport. They were joined in this by Liverpool City Council, courtesy of self-declared financial whizz-kid, Mayor Anderson. Despite the latter’s claims, the airport continues to operate at a loss. Incidentally, the mayor’s lamentations over the recent hike of interest rates from 1.8% to 2.8% by the Public Works Loan Board, has a hollow ring. When he was rambling on about financing Everton’s new stadium with a PWLB loan, he blithely ignored the reality that interest rates fluctuate up and down. Plainly, he did not understand what “risk” means when it comes to such financial deals.

The mayor should be more aware of such matters – his developer friends certainly do. One correspondent has pointed out that the ubiquitous Elliot Lawless has an entry in the infamous Panama Papers. These list those using tax havens to stow their profits and their legal responsibilities. Thus, my correspondent insists that Mr Lawless registered Baltic Developments in the Seychelles, enabling him to avoid litigation by investors who have not been paid their “guaranteed” rental return on their investments.

Back in Blighty – or rather Bootle – I was dismayed to hear a Seaforth resident on the radio this week. A former docker and a grandfather, he was expressing his own desperation over traffic pollution problems he claimed were endemic in one of the poorest neighbourhood in Sefton. As we all know, there have been continuous protests about the volume of traffic passing through the town to access the motorway network; and we have heard Sefton Council’s responses to those protests. There does not seem to be an obvious solution acceptable to all concerned.

Finally, I am being told that there is a degree of toxicity between individual councillors in St Helens not seen since the days of Gerry Caughey, Brian Green et al. It would be a tragedy if that was the case, as it took a long time and a concentrated effort to lance the boil of those venomous times. Let us hope that such enmities can be overcome for the sake of the borough.

Postscript:

If any of you are interested in a case study of the interface between the worlds of politics and criminality, you may like to look at my book “The Gangster, the Judge, and the Politician” available on Amazon. It is wholly factual, and gives an insight as to why it ill behoves any of us to ignore wrongdoing in public life.

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.