Spend, Spend, Spend

The Labour Party has been consistently lambasted in the Tory press as a party which simply wishes to spend the taxpayers’ hard-earned cash. Hence, the label of being the “tax-and-spend” party. Whilst I have little faith in the press (yesterday’s Echo politics online page led with a story on the celebrity  line-up for the forthcoming “Strictly Come Dancing “!!!), it ill behoves Labour councils to give them a free ride.

I mention this having seen the latest figures on council spend, published by the Office of National Statistics. They are for the year 2016/17, and refer to current expenditure by service, listing every council in the country. The figures sometimes vary between councils – and ought to – reflecting local priorities; sometimes they do not. Comparing Liverpool to Leeds, for example, both have committed about 20% of their total spend to adult social care. There are minor fluctuations between the two cities in other categories of expenditure.

There is, however, one striking variation in spend – on central services. Leeds spends 1% of its spend here – about £6.7 million. Liverpool, on the other hand, spends 6.7% of its money here – a massive £53,767,000! There may be an explanation of sorts for this, but the immediate suggestion is of a bloated, centralised bureaucracy. It throws fresh light on the Anderson/Fitzgerald proposal of a £7 million bureaucracy for the metromayor/combined authority. Steve Rotheram was wise to state that, if elected, he would veto this extravagance.

It is not as if Liverpool’s neighbouring authorities are seen as profligate with central services. In fact, Liverpool‘s spend exceeds by over £7 million, the total of the other five councils put together. They obviously recognise that there are other priority calls upon their hard-pressed funding.

This imbalance in Liverpool’s expenditure reflects the centralisation of power in the hands of the mayor and the chief executive. Other expenditure categories largely demand fixed amounts of expenditure (areas like education, social care and environmental services) on a year-on-year basis. The accumulation of such a large amount under the nebulous heading of central services, allows the mayor and his chief executive huge discretion when it comes to spending.

The crucial point is that this is simply not transparent, not effectively scrutinised, nor, to a great degree, politically accountable. This is not the hallmark of a healthy, democratic process, and it would be appropriate for the council to explain why it is so out of kilter in this area. Except, that is, for the fact that there is no objective forum wherein that demand might be made, and satisfied.

Déjà Vu –Again

One would imagine that lessons would always be learned by politicians each time there is a wider consultation of interested parties – the best example of this being an election. So, when Labour lost seats at the last election due to ill-considered plans to concrete over green space, Liverpool council seemed to be rethinking its proposals. Indeed, Mayor Anderson boldly repositioned himself as the defender of parks and open spaces – at least, in his press releases.

However, it is as well to remind councillors of past consequences of a profound disconnect between grandiose council projects and public opinion. I thought of this as I gauged a generally angry reaction to the council’s plans for traffic management at the Strand and in Lime Street. In the early seventies, despite massive opposition from local communities, the council persisted with its intention to build an inner-city motorway “box”. This would have had an appalling effect on tightly-knit communities. The then Liberal Party capitalised on this local anger, and went from a miniscule third party to council control as a result.

I am not suggesting that there should be no attempts to deal with the ever-increasing volumes of traffic snarling up the city centre. I am merely pointing out the political dangers of radical change without real public consent and support. The only way to secure this is genuine consultation, and the willingness and flexibility to adapt proposals to meet public concerns.

Likewise, I was a little concerned by the spin in the “Liverpool Express” over the local plan. Mayor Anderson quotes one year’s (favourable) figures of economic growth in support of his economic claims. It is politically dangerous to extrapolate too much from one year’s results. After all, one swallow does not make a summer; and the electorate is not ready to swallow spin. Too many are now aware of the Office of National Statistics authoritative view of Liverpool’s comparative economic performance.

To maintain electoral support, Liverpool Labour needs to maintain the trust of the people.  In turn, trust demands honesty; and that has not always been evident these last few years.  However, there will be an opportunity to strengthen the bond between Labour and the electorate in the near future, with the election of a metromayor.

The actual election will be a test of the mettle of the Labour candidate and of the wider party, and will also measure the impact of the huge increase in Labour membership. Critically, it will be a test of the constituent parts of the Labour Party throughout the city-region. In each local authority district, there will need to be a demonstrable commitment to, and enthusiasm for, the Labour candidate, Steve Rotheram, and an open and cooperative resolve to recognise his leadership in those areas in which he will speak for all of the Liverpool City Region.

The Times, They are a’Changing

They say that the show is not over until the fat lady (or gent!) sings. Well, that is certainly the case with current local politics. To listen to many people in the local media, the Labour Party, and the general public, is to hear too often a view that Steve Rotheram is now metromayor, Joe Anderson has been dethroned, and that once more, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (aka Liverpool).

Of course, all of this is utter nonsense. All that has happened is that Steve Rotheram has been selected as Labour candidate for next year’s metromayoral election. Joe Anderson remains executive mayor of Liverpool, and the city still faces bankruptcy over the next two years. The challenges facing the city, and the wider city-region, remain enormous. To coin a phrase, what is to be done?

The first thing is to unite as a region around Steve, as the leaders of St Helens, Halton, Wirral and Knowsley have now done. Labour Party members must recognise that Steve will need to maximise support in the run-up to next year’s election, and –God willing – in doing the job afterwards. There can be no room for complacency or indifference about that election. Steve is not metromayor yet, and, as Harold Wilson once famously remarked:”A week is a long time in politics”. There are about eight months before Steve faces the ballot box.

There is also the not insignificant point of Liverpool’s office of elected mayor. As things stand, the city will have three mayors post 2017. Do we need them? Most people, I believe, do not think so. Moreover, Joe declared that after he was adopted as metromayoral candidate (of course, he did not win the nomination), the council would abolish the role of executive mayor, and revert to a “leader“ model. Is that still his view? Will he keep to his word? After all, highly paid council offices are not meant to be job creation projects. We have a traditional Lord Mayor to represent the city on ceremonial occasions, and will soon have a Metromayor to speak for and represent the Liverpool City Region, including Liverpool. The current role of executive mayor is surely superfluous, especially since it never had demonstrable public support?

The politics of the city may, initially, carry on much as before, but there is a train coming down the tracks. There is no effective scrutiny, little accountability, and limited transparency. These failings will cost Labour dearly in future elections. Internally, the nature and the size of the local party is changing. A new approach will be demanded on both levels. Seats put at risk by a failure to meet new circumstances will be matched by challenges for those seats where current councillors fail to raise their game. If existing councillors are wise, they will recognise the changing times and act accordingly.

Every Child Matters

Special needs education has far too often been the Cinderella of pubic provision. So I was happy to read of Liverpool Council’s plans to build two new special needs facilities on the old Dyson Hall site in Fazakerley. A gold star for the council, I thought.

I note that one facility is being transferred from Netherley; the other is a new partnership with an outside provider (from Bolton). Of course, when it comes to special needs provision – for very good reasons – it is often necessary for children to be ferried across the city to where their particular needs might be catered for.

Then I noticed that yet another planning application has been lodged for a third facility. This is another new build alongside Aigburth High School, with a capacity of one hundred and twenty pupils. Recognising the positive angle to this obvious commitment to children who most need educational investment, I did, however, wonder about the empty but new school of Parklands in Speke. This failed project is currently costing the council tax payer £4.3 million each year, and is lying empty. Now, I am neither an accountant nor an architect, but I cannot help but ask if that school cannot be converted in some way, to meet a combination of special needs provision and local community use. Does Liverpool Council have the flexibility and innovative thinking required? We might just save on the extra cost of these new builds.

Incidentally, in planning, there is an application for hundreds more new flats at Queens Dock. There are two partners listed for this project. One is a company only set up at the end of last October (the plans were submitted in April); the other is a company registered in Luxembourg with no registered officers or executives. Interesting.

Eternal Vigilance

Roberto Saviano is a household name in Italy.  An exceptionally brave and honest journalist, he exposed the squalid criminal underside of Naples and the surrounding area in his fascinating book ‘Gomorrah’.  As a result, he is given personal permanent protection as the Neapolitan mafia – the Camorra – seeks to kill him.

He illustrates how a whole society became corrupted by, and almost immune to, the vicious and intensive illegality of gangsters determined to have their way.  Both the private and public sectors were infected by this plague, so that Naples – beaten and bowed –became a byword for a broken city and a cowed community.

Yet Saviano, in his inimitably honest style, made one comment which struck me forcibly.  He has pointed out that the United Kingdom is the most corrupt of countries.  I believe that he was thinking of London as the most sophisticated money laundering city on the planet, but his comment had a wider resonance. After all, we do have our own history of glaring malfeasance.

Nevertheless, we in this country pride ourselves that we have a democracy which, with all of its imperfections, is superior to that of other countries.  This jars with regular headlines about ‘corrupt’ British politics where, for example, peerages are said to be up for sale; or controversy surrounds donations made to political parties and politicians.  Now and then, there are causes celebres in the wider domain where regular accusations are made. Think of Philip Green and BHS, or British bankers fixing LIBOR rates.  Still, we still insist ‘they’ – that is, everyone else – are worse off in the corruption league.

This is a wholly false assumption on behalf of the British people.  How often do British companies bribe clients overseas, on the basis of ‘if we don’t, our rivals will’?  Think of Mark Thatcher and Saudi arms deals.  Think of BP in Nigeria.  The reality is that we have an ambivalent view on corruption (some would call it hypocrisy).  It is acceptable abroad because ‘they’ remain the lesser breed without the law.  Here in Britain, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, we proudly delude ourselves.

Such thinking could not be further from the truth.  This sceptred isle has a long history of corruption.  To select just a few examples – in the last century, peerages were sold off for cash by Maundy Gregory on behalf of Lloyd-George; politicians like John Stonehouse, Jonathan Aitken and Lord Archer went to gaol. The parliamentary expenses scandal was only eight years ago. Consider the Poulson scandal in local government; or locally, the infamous Kirkby ski-slope.  Anyone who believes us to be holier than thou as a nation is hiding their head in the sand.

The harsh reality is that corruption, like sin, is with us always.  Passing laws of itself will not prevent it as unscrupulous individuals allow greed and ego to guide their activities.  There are, however, measures we the public can all take to minimise the chances of dishonest people taking advantage in the public domain.

The first and simplest step is to ask questions.  Ask of those who are charged with responsibility for our interests – public servants and those elected to public office.  Be persistent in pursuing your right to information – if necessary, use Freedom of Information legislation to get answers.  After all, corrupt crooks generally work in the dark, fearing the light of publicity. The oxygen of publicity is toxic to the corrupt.

Regardless of who sits in what position, temptation always hovers around those in public life.  The higher up the greasy pole they climb, the greater the temptation is.  It is why, on the fall of the old – and corrupt – Soviet Union, the clarion calls were “glasnost” and “perestroika” (openness and reconstruction).  That openness indicated a profound cultural shift, in recognition that knowledge is power. Giving people information is transferring that power to those to whom it rightly belongs – the electorate.

The aspiration of Gorbachov and his contemporaries is one that we would do well to imitate.  As John Curran once said: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance”.  That is not just a fine but dated thought.  It is a prerequisite for a society free of corruption, whether local or national.

Testing Times

The Labour Party seems to be in one long campaign or another these days. As the contest for the nomination of the Labour candidate for metromayor closes, the pace picks up in the battle for the national leadership of the party .We could certainly do without the latter, given the latitude our internal preoccupations allow to the Tories to do what they like. The only current restraint on Conservatives appears to be their own internal divisions over the Brexit debacle.

Frankly, Labour Party members have, in the immediate future, a better chance locally of determining changes for the improvement of local communities. Indeed, Corbyn and Smith share so many views on policy, one wonders why there is a national leadership contest at all. In truth, we all know why: it is the curse of politics but often the stimulus for political progress – personal  ambition.

This triumph of the personal over the collective is commonplace in all aspects of life, whether in the workplace or in Westminster, in a council or in a company. We label this phenomenon “ambition” – give some people a little power or a title, and they want more. It very often goes to their heads. In extremis, it can be very dangerous – as Lord Acton famously remarked: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

This brings me to the metromayoral selection process in the Labour Party. There are some sobering lessons to be learnt if we are to truly be a democratic socialist party, given this modern trend for concentrating power in one pair of hands, whether a mayor, a metromayor, or a police commissioner. Whoever is put in that role is almost bound to be somewhat overwhelmed by the possibilities which those powers give to them. They weigh heavily on the ego, and distort an otherwise laudable self-belief. Apart from the patronage s/he controls, the incumbent will also be prey to insistent siren voices of self-interest forever at their ear, attempting to push a special interest of some sort or other.

The Tory intention in concentrating power is not new. Their objective is to dispose of local democracy as we understand it. They wish to leave matters to the electorate to decide once a cycle who will have control of the local levers of power regardless of what damage might be done between elections. The Labour Party rules are of little help in controlling these latter-day pro-consuls. In fact, the rules – silent as they are – actually help to thwart the accepted democratic practices of the party in local government.

Thus, it will be essential that the party firstly revises its rules to have regard for these massive changes in the form of local government now taking place. We must have genuine and objective scrutiny of whoever is in these new, powerful posts. In a Labour council-dominated area like our city-region, it might mean foregoing the old pals act which currently exists between councils, and/or council leaders as the appropriate scrutineers. No longer will cosy arrangements wash with the voting public.

Without trusted, impartial scrutiny, there will be a very obvious democratic deficit. We must be guided by accountability, transparency, inclusivity and flexibility; but these hinge on effective scrutiny. New ways of thinking are of paramount importance, leading to rules which guarantee that that new thinking is translated into a form of politics which breaks with discredited forms of the past and rebuilds faith in local democracy.

Home Straight

The latest story going the round is that Joe’s office believed it would be a boost for the mayor to be seen in a locally produced car. They went for a Land Rover Evoque, but Joe was not impressed and had it returned, as he wanted a more “masculine” vehicle. As a result, it cost the council £4000 as a lease had already been signed.

Is the tale true? I do not know – I have not had the time yet to check it out. However, for an aspiring metromayor, it does not matter if the story is fact or fable. The reality is that people across the Liverpool City Region are prepared to believe this and a score of as yet unproven allegations against the mayor without much ado. It illustrates a profound lack of trust in him as a leader in the eyes of so many. Why is this?

Firstly, people see and hear non-stop spin claiming success after success, yet their everyday experience in the city of Liverpool tells them otherwise. The public are no longer prepared to buy into our local government leaders giving them a line, any more than they will buy into the same baloney at national level. It remains to be seen if Labour Party members on Merseyside are in tune with popular opinion on this. We will see in a week’s time.

Secondly, our fellow citizens have learnt not only how to ferret out the truth – as with Joe’s legal bills, and the shambles of Liverpool Direct – but how to disseminate that truth via social media. I never cease to marvel at how well-informed so many people are, despite the appalling failure of the local media to report on what is being done locally in our name.

Thirdly, there has been a massive swing in public opinion generally, and particularly on Merseyside. No longer will people tolerate their Labour representatives cosying up to either Tory ministers or to big business taking plenty out of Merseyside, but putting relatively little back in. If the mayor is to be believed, we are to be a tourist trap, bringing low-skill, low-wage jobs in its wake.

During the campaign for the Labour nomination for the metromayoralty, we have heard each of the three candidates setting out their stall. What this new post is intended to deliver across the city-region is economic growth. For most that means high-tech, high-skill, high-wage employment opportunities, especially for our young people. Delivery of this will require a trim, dynamic, and flexible operation across a whole raft of interconnected areas; and tough negotiation with both Westminster and Whitehall.

To achieve this, Joe has offered us a bloated, overpaid bureaucracy (remember his comment that it will “only cost £7 million”?). It shows both his limitations and his distance from current realities. He has poured money into vanity projects and into Everton’s training facilities – meanwhile, the city languishes at the bottom of the national list of cities recording economic growth. Indeed, Liverpool’s economy has shrunk on Joe’s watch, whilst all of the other city-region authorities have grown.

As the last selection votes go in, it is to be hoped that Local Labour has woken up to reality on this issue. If Joe was to be the Labour candidate, it seems certain that any half-decent celebrity candidate would have a walkover against him in 2017.