New Year, New Politics

When I went for my “Echo”, I was given a promotional free gift with it. It was a two-roll pack of toilet paper! Honestly! I did not know which was the more appropriate to put in the bathroom, so poor is our local newspaper nowadays. “The Echo” seems to veer daily from printing self-congratulatory press releases put out by the football clubs, local councils, and the Peel group, to depressing court accounts of violence, theft and drugs. It is far from the paper it once was.

I noted that the paper included a “State of the Nation” report for Liverpool, in the name of Mayor Anderson. This gives the message that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”, which we know as Liverpool. However, it quite rightly announces that there will be no referendum on the mayor’s original proposal to massively increase council tax. Apparently, the public relations gimmick of an online budget consultation rebounded on the mayor, revealing deep resentment of his ideas for bridging the budget gap in 2017.

However, you cannot keep a good wheeze down. Perhaps a gullible public might fall for another presentational trick, no matter how risible. There it was, in black and white in our local Merseyside comic. Liverpool is now to be treated to its own lottery, if the financial wizard guiding the city’s finances has his way. That is, a new form of regressive taxation hitting the poor rather than the affluent. As is well known, it is the poor who keep lotteries going, and the rich who benefit.

Twenty five years ago, I sat on the parliamentary committee scrutinising the National Lottery Bill, making a forlorn attempt to halt the introduction of the first national lottery since it was banned in 1826. Later that year, I was on the desperate South Side of Chicago, crack and crime ridden. There were huge billboards everywhere, advertising the Illinois State Lottery. The billboards displayed a blown-up facsimile of a lottery ticket, with a slogan stretched across it in large letters, saying “Your Ticket Outta Here”.

What a dismal prospect, having to rely on a millions to one chance, to win enough to access a decent life in a decent neighbourhood with some hope for the future. The very thought that here on Merseyside, vital services may be reliant on a gambling product in an already cluttered gambling market, is beyond comprehension. Better that we take to task the unhealthy proliferation of dodgy developers with their bent deals. They are taking a fortune out of the city whilst putting little in.

We live today in a difficult world, with craziness as the order of the day. New tensions surface daily between the USA, and Russia and China. War rages in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Libya. If they were to miraculously find peace, an extreme right wing Israeli government stands intent on stirring the Middle East pot. The shockwaves are felt throughout Europe and elsewhere. Meanwhile, we in the UK also struggle with Brexit and its implications. These are troubled times.

As we enter 2017, we should remind ourselves that ultimately, all politics is local. In a world where liberal democracy is under the cosh, we need to rebuild. That means a grass-roots revival, based on collegiality, accountability, and transparency. We must begin somewhere – perhaps the Liverpool City Region with a new metro-mayor is as good a place as any to start. Happy New Year!

A Christmas Carol

“Christmas is coming, the developers are getting fat,

Please put a fortune in the rich man’s hat.

If you do not have a fortune, a contract will do,

If you haven’t got a contract then a grant is good, too.”

I know, I know – I should be singing about a goose in the old Christmas song! Yet given the number of recent announcements in the run-up to Christmas, the happy days for exploitative, so-called “developers” are here to stay. Given also the tough times facing local government, income from any source and at any cost, seems to be welcome.

I thought of this when there was recent publicity about a fresh tranche of public money going into the coffers of Peel, of Manchester. Let us be clear about this company with massive land interests in the city-region, and with huge influence with government, locally and nationally. Its prime purpose is to squeeze as much profit as they can from their holdings. Their interest is those of its owner, Isle of Man tax exile, John Whittaker, NOT the interests of the city-region and its people. Peel are very good at shifting those profits offshore to tax havens, to wind up ultimately in an Isle of Man private trust.  Safe from the Inland Revenue.

These are the type of people who prosper today – property speculators and self-styled developers, promising investment and a golden future. These snake-oil salesmen can be found lobbying anyone with any clout in the public sector who can help to satisfy their greed. Bankrupts and criminals can set themselves up in new companies, knowing that due diligence is currently a charade when projects are approved and money is doled out. The superficial attractions are of short-term building jobs – often given anyway to people from outside the city-region – but they mean relatively little when the wider, long term interests of the local economy are to be considered. A bubble is being inflated which will inevitably burst, but, conveniently for the get-rich-quick merchants, it will occur after they have taken their profits and gone.

Thus, the first metro-mayor will have his/her work cut out in their necessary task of guiding the local economy; for the present free-for-all must be controlled in a coherent and co-ordinated way for the good of the whole city-region. Our economy cannot be based on the interests of dodgy developers, profiteering at the expense of our hard-pressed  people.  Their needs and their services must come first.

Likewise, local businesses, paying their way locally and nationally, should be fostered wherever possible, rather than outside fly-by-nights being fast-tracked to indecent gain, with little input of either significance or proportion, to the local economy. For far too long, outside interests have seen this area as a place in which to make a quick quid without any concern for the wider community interest.

A recent conversation with a local political leader brought home to me a further challenge facing the victor in next May’s election. As the Combined Authority spends up the money available to it, and employs a new cohort of bureaucrats before a metro-mayor can have a say, there are still those in key positions seeking to advance their own egotistical cause with a cavalier disregard for the future of the city-region and its people.

Therefore, my wish for 2017 is that those who, to date, have refused to face future realities, have a change of heart, and recognise that the election in May of a metro-mayor is a game changer. We can all pull together and make it a success, truly giving the Liverpool city-region a fresh start. Alternatively, the political backwoodsmen can continue their silly and irrelevant manoeuvring, enabling our region’s critics to say “We told you so !”.

Unity is Strength

There is a Biblical saying that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Looking around the world of politics today, it is striking how true this is. Post the Brexit vote, and with the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA, we can readily see how divided internally nations are on key issues.

Of course, there are massive differences between politics in the USA and those of the UK. To begin with, we have very different electoral systems. We also have organic constitutional arrangements with our unwritten system, whilst America’s written constitution, despite its sensible separation of powers, sometimes seems set in an archaic past. Nevertheless, both Brexit and Trump have, in their respective settings, catalysed politics (for the worse, I would say). One thing which both phenomena reveal is a deep distrust held by many people, for “politics as usual”.

Across Europe, we see a similar reaction of aversion to what many consider “establishment rule”. Italy, France, the Netherlands – many of our European neighbours are facing the same demand for change from what has hitherto been seen as standard. There is a real danger that liberal democracy itself – the bedrock of Western stability since World War 2 – is at risk, as the reaction includes a lurch to the far right in so many countries.

My generation took the defeat of the extreme right as irreversible. We found it inconceivable that it could resurrect itself in the way in which it has. Its symptoms of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia – all interlaced with violence – are on the rise everywhere. Crudities once alien to civilised debate and discourse, are alarmingly now acceptable in the public domain.

Here in the UK, the Tory government is in total disarray as it tries to square the circle on Brexit, Europe being a toxic issue which has bedevilled it for fifty years. Meanwhile, the official Opposition – Labour – displays its current irrelevance by its protracted period of navel-gazing. Hobbled by the usual metropolitan mantras, and choked by the nostrums of the capital’s chatterati, Labour seriously risks losing its English industrial heartlands in the same way as it forfeited its dominance in Scotland.

Perhaps it is why Andy Burnham has challenged the blinkered view of Diane Abbott on immigration policy. Unlike her, Andy will be facing a provincial electorate in four and a half months, and that electorate might well be in the mood to give the political classes another  good kicking. After all, Labour is the political establishment in Greater Manchester, as it is in the Liverpool City Region.

There are those who have been over confident in Labour success in the metro-mayoral elections due next May. They should wake up to reality. Those elections will be the next major test of Labour’s credibility in this brave, new world. If the party remains at war with itself, either nationally or locally, it will simply diminish its standing at the ballot box. Success requires unity – of policy, purpose, and personnel.

Education Blues

For once, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree on something with Mayor Anderson. His complaint about the Government’s failure to have a meaningful consultation on proposed NHS restructuring, struck a chord. I just hope that Mayor Anderson now applies the same thinking to any more proposals HE wishes to dump unannounced, on the city of Liverpool.

Nevertheless, I was not as moved as he appeared to be at proposals to restructure the local NHS. I know that we have seen billions wasted on similar exercises. We all oppose privatisation, and deplore cuts in service levels. Yet if the proposals are about cutting out the Byzantine bureaucracy of the NHS, with its overbearing, management-heavy culture, we should look at them with care.

Of far more concern to me, is the recent report from Ofsted on schools’ performance. It shows the widening educational gulf between the north and the south of England. We are all conscious of the divide in the country in terms of wealth and income. There is little chance of narrowing that gap if we fail to give our children a fair and equal start in education and training.

It is particularly worrying to note the parlous educational standards in the boroughs of Liverpool and Knowsley. Unlike the rest of the city-region, these two authorities are specifically named in the report, for their overall declining standards. Both have invested heavily in new school buildings (some already empty!), a huge expense through PFI funding. However, the decision makers seem to fail to recognise that the key to raising standards lies not in new buildings (welcome though they may be) but in what happens IN them. In particular, we need dynamic leadership and high quality teaching.

Most intriguing is the difference between the achievements in the primary schools, and the struggle at the secondary level. So many of our primary schools have exemplary records in educating our children in preparation for secondary school. It is when they make that transition where things go amiss. So much good work seems to be wasted.

I recognise that there are complex reasons for this, but there is much which can be done locally to improve matters. As ever, different interest groups will seek to pass the responsibility on to others. This blame game has bedevilled education in this country for years. However, in the final analysis, the issues raised by the report will only be resolved when those in charge – “the leaders” – accept both the responsibility and the challenge. We are talking here of councillors, officers and headteachers.

Without addressing the problem, with the greatest urgency, we will continue to see so many of our youngsters denied the opportunities afforded to youth elsewhere in the country – and, indeed, elsewhere in the city-region. There can be no excuses, and no empty distractions to take people’s minds off this failing of our children.