Leadership

We are constantly told that the elusive quality of “leadership” is missing from contemporary politics; but what exactly is meant by “leadership” is a more difficult matter!  Too often in practical politics, it is confused with the more problematic notion of “the leader”. There is always a tension when considering leadership, between following public opinion and setting the public agenda. Naturally, as in most areas of human activity, there is a balance to be struck. Go too far one way, and you have an ignorant and nasty nationalism; go the other, and you can end up with a vanguardist democratic centralism. Both are to be deplored.

The issue today is more focussed upon the notion of “the leader” rather than “leadership” per se. What do you do about an egomaniac as leader, especially if s/he heads up a supine and craven group of fellow travellers? How do you deal with a leader who blatantly lies and abuses with carefree abandon? What is to be said of a leader who is surrounded by businessmen cronies and has a cavalier disregard for right and wrong? How can one support a charlatan who believes that a gullible public can be conned indefinitely?

For many, these questions never arise. They are those with principles and values which transcend the venial and the venal, and look with contempt on those crude tactical manoeuvrings which too often are passed off as “realistic” politics. Such people of integrity – and there remain many – would never consider selling their political souls for either personal advancement or profit. Such is the core of the real Labour Party which was once summed up admirably by Harold Wilson in the aphorism that “The Labour Party is nothing if not a moral crusade”.

That “moral crusade” assumes that members hold the right motives to achieve the right ends. It believes in social justice, with equal opportunity for all; and is further predicated on the view that Labour representatives are accountable to the party and to the public, and are transparent in all of their dealings.

It is also the case that there are occasions, whether in a parliament or a council, there are matters of such gravity, that Labour representatives ought to vote according to their consciences rather than tamely to follow an arbitrary whip. On those occasions, the issue in question must be of profound significance concerning a matter of principle, rather than one merely of political convenience.

Brexit is just such an issue. The matter is of such fundamental importance to the nation that the usual presentational preoccupation of those at the top of the party tree is irrelevant. We know how the media will react regardless of what Labour does – the party will never be given balanced, much less good, coverage in the present climate. What matters is the national interest, and there can be no compromise over that. Over time, Labour will be recognised for exercising its collective conscience, rather than trying to dragoon Members one way or another for expedient tactical reasons. After all, elected Labour representatives at all levels are not delegates, but free-thinkers on behalf of their constituents.

The latter are the key to the success or failure of any political party. Parties are, in the final analysis, a means to an end on behalf of their members and electoral supporters. Voters are the most essential component of any democracy. We have seen this most recently locally with people power persuading the Liverpool Alder Hey Trust to recall its plans to build 400 houses on promised park-land. Once non-party people DO organise themselves on an issue of importance to them, it is amazing what they can achieve, as the pro-parks protesters have repeatedly shown in Liverpool. The moral is straightforward – in the modern age, people will not tolerate political diktats from any party. They aspire to a form of leadership which listens attentively and sincerely to them, and then seeks to do things with communities, rather than to them.

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Education, Education, Education

It has been a raw week for the Liverpool City Region with regard to education. National statistics have identified Knowsley and Halton boroughs as amongst the lowest-achieving education authorities in the country, on the basis of their secondary examination results. Take out of the frame private schools and selective grammars, and Liverpool, Sefton and Wirral share similarly disappointing examination outcomes. St Helens seems to stand apart in its secondary attainment levels.

I have commented before on Knowsley’s excellent primary provision which is in such marked contrast to its failings at the secondary level. As we know, the borough will shortly offer no schools with “A” level courses. Neighbouring Liverpool is about to face a diminution of its own offer as Fazakerley High School seeks to dump its “A”  level courses. Children in such outlying areas will face tremendous – and unnecessary – extra difficulty in trying to access quality post-16 education. Pupils in Speke have already suffered educational deprivation since the Parklands debacle (still, incidentally, costing the council tax payer a fortune!).

This is a major problem for the incipient Liverpool City Region, and will need to be addressed if the Liverpool conurbation is to ensure that all of its youngsters share in both educational and vocational opportunity. Whilst it is clear that many children do get an excellent education locally, including those in the private and selective sectors, it is also the case that the true picture is blurred by the numbers of children who travel from one borough to another for their education (in Knowsley, one third leave the borough daily).

It is axiomatic that successful education and training are the keys to a vibrant and rewarding local economy, as well as nationally vital. It follows that failing education and training hinder the prospects of resuscitating the local jobs market, given that modern jobs – high skills and high wages – require well-qualified people.

One of the major tasks devolved to the soon-to-be-elected metro-mayor is the economic renewal of the city-region. S/he will be obliged to work in tandem with the members of the Combined Authority – i.e. the leaders of the six boroughs within it. Of course, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to devise a city-region wide strategy for our economic needs. This will, of necessity, reach into education and training, wherein local government in the area has failed to distinguish itself.

The opportunity, however, is the possibility of showing national government how capable local government can be in meeting local needs. Given enterprising leadership, we can create locally the longer-term circumstances conducive to economic prosperity. The advent of a metro-mayor is the ideal time for local borough-based thinking to be subsumed into the interests of the city-region as a whole. In educational and training terms, that translates into focussing on the interest s of our youngsters regardless of the borough in which they live.

This would require a fundamental shift in thinking within our six boroughs. Just as the travel-to-work area pays no heed to arbitrary borough boundaries, and transport provision – by definition – crisscrosses the city-region, so might educational resources and authority be pooled across the whole conurbation. After all, this would simply be a formal recognition of the current (if ad hoc) provision of education and training. It would also provide a coherent and cost-effective framework for ensuring that all of our children have an equal opportunity to access the groundwork essential for a successful and rewarding life.

Post-Truth Politics

Friday lunch time was spent listening to Roger Phillips’ phone-in on Radio Merseyside. I made a point of it as I knew that Mayor Anderson was his guest. There was the usual range of questions, familiar to anyone elected as a political representative – dog-fouling, run-down areas, alley gates – the everyday issues which grab the attention of voters.

Then came a question from Roger to the mayor, on the role of metro-mayors. I was quite taken with the mayor’s response, that he would be working hard for the successful election of Steve Rotheram as metro-mayor when the election is held in May.  Indeed, he sounded enthusiastic about the prospect. This surprised me, given the email which the mayor has sent to members of Liverpool Labour Group, and an open letter which he has written to the Liverpool Echo. These centred on an article in the Liverpool Echo.

In his email to councillors, the mayor admits to “openly criticising Steve”, calling Steve’s comments “truly ignorant”. The mayor’s basic complaint is that Steve had made “an implicit attack on the work of (Liverpool) council” in the Echo, quoting a headline as “unforgiveable and suggests no interest in your election as a councillor”.

When I read this, I was truly flabbergasted.  Firstly, anyone who knows anything about the media knows that journalists write headlines, not interviewees (By the way, the offending headline said, according to the mayor – “I will build homes for the city’s homeless”. The actual headline online was “New homes for rough sleepers pledge from metro-mayor candidate”).  I have carefully read the article in question, and could see nothing to which ANYONE could take exception. In it Steve praised the “excellent” work of the six local authorities. There was NO reference at all to Liverpool specifically.

In fact, what Steve was saying was entirely in line with the national Labour Party policy and campaign set out by parliamentary spokesman, John Healey. It was also entirely consistent with the responsibilities and competences of an incoming metro-mayor, with a remit across all six local authorities in the city-region, not simply Liverpool.

Having misled Liverpool councillors in his email that they were somehow being maligned by Steve, the letter to the Echo takes the mayor’s imagined grievances to a wider audience. He wrongly accuses Steve of “ignorance”, lacking “understanding”, and being plain “wrong”. He goes on to charge Steve with “gesture” politics, prescribing “an overly simple solution”.  All this because Steve echoed national policy whilst praising all of our local authorities for their excellent work!!

I am sorry to say that the mayor’s reaction to a perfectly reasonable interview – in which Liverpool was not even mentioned – is, at best, knee-jerk in nature, rebutting charges which have not been made; and claiming insults neither uttered nor implied. His final slander, suggesting that Steve was a man to “jump on bandwagons that criticise the city’s hard work”, was a fabrication too far.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that the mayor – well known for his vindictiveness and his ego – is still unable to come to terms with the fact that Labour Party members overwhelmingly preferred Steve to him as Labour’s metro-mayoral nominee. The mayor has done his best to date to tie in the future metro-mayor to an agenda constructed within the city-region’s Combined Authority by the mayor and his confederates. It seems as if he now wishes to set Labour councillors and the wider public against the selected Labour candidate in the run-up to the election.

Pawnshop Politics

Many of you will recall the cheap sale of Liverpool City Council’s landmark offices, Millennium House. At the time, it was claimed that it was a steal at a price of around a third of the original independent valuation. The deal went along with a substantial subsequent upgrade in the building by the council, and included two cash cows – a gymnasium and parking spaces.

It was sold to a firm run by a former bankrupt. This firm has, since then, been involved in a controversial purchase in Cardiff of the iconic Coal Exchange building. Cardiff MP, Stephen Doughty, has questioned the background of this deal in a parliamentary debate. He said that, intriguingly, Cardiff council had been persuaded to lend this firm – Signature Living – a large sum of money to enable the purchase to proceed.

Back here in Liverpool, Signature Living has been promoted locally as a bidder for the Municipal Building, a much more significant proposed sale by the council than that of Millennium House (which was justified in the vanity project of the Cunard building purchase). Much fanfare has been created by the council about extensive interest in the building across Europe.

Now we again learn via the Liverpool Echo of another bidder for the building – the Ascot Group, based in Crosby. Thus, there have now been two named potential bidders. What is curious is that both bidders are linked, via Millennium House, now known as the Shankly Hotel. With much publicity, shortly after the deal for the Shankly Hotel was done, it was announced that Ascot had become a financial partner to Signature Living in the project.

It is, therefore, extremely important that there is total transparency by the council in the whole process of the sell-off of the Municipal Building. There can be no repeat of the opacity surrounding the sale of Millennium House, and which still persists in so many of the council’s dealings (FOI requests are often blocked in the name of “commercial confidentiality”). For example, how has the building been marketed, and by whom? What due diligence is being done on potential buyers? What independent valuations have been done, and by whom? How will bids for such a unique landmark be tested?

The city has been a hive of commercial activity in recent years in the eyes of some, a hotbed of exploitation in the view of others. It is only fair to the reputation of the city – and fair to its council tax payers – that the council is open at every stage so that it can be held accountable for the sale of such assets. The right thing must not only be done, but be seen to be done.

Follow the Money

There has been a flurry of announcements from local government in this first week of the new year, each impacting on council tax payers across the whole of the Liverpool City Region. The proposals also further lock in whoever wins the metro-mayoral election next May, to an agenda not of their making.

The first announcement, of a major housing initiative, came from Whitehall. Included was a plan for a new urban village in Knowsley. Now, we all recognise the need for new housing; but what caught the eye was the official Knowsley Council statement that they would be making a bid for £17 million towards the scheme, from the Combined Authority. Thus, the new metro-mayor may well be committed in terms of both planning AND finance to a scheme in which s/he has had no say.

This proposal was quickly followed by a Liverpool Council plan to spend £20 million on a small new link road near Prince’s Dock, and a claim by the mayor that, in April, a further £6 million would be committed. Oh, and he tells us a new rail station is to be built near Bramley Moor Dock! (Has Merseytravel agreed? The last time a similar plan was mooted by EFC, Merseytravel, under Mark Dowd, kicked it into touch).There will also be huge compensation and relocation costs due to existing businesses affected. All of this, before a metro-mayor is elected in May.

 There are many issues arising from these grand plans, not least, where the money is coming from.  This is quite apart from the now standard Gadarene rush to pre-empt the freedom and flexibility of a new metro-mayor to apply priorities validated in an election, and in the very areas set out in statute within the jurisdiction of that metro-mayor.

The Knowsley bid is a guide as to one source of the funding involved in these proposals. Another source will be Merseytravel, although I fear that borrowing will be part of the mix, as well as further fire sales of council assets, at giveaway prices to the same dodgy developers. Remember that money from Merseytravel and from the Combined Authority is money intended to benefit ALL of the city-region, not just Liverpool. The biggest question is why the developers/beneficiaries of these schemes are not paying for the infrastructure improvements under s.106 agreements. Why, instead, are they being subsidised?

These beneficiaries, by the way, are principally our old friends, the Peel Group, and Everton Football Club. Peel are a private company run by a billionaire whose companies use off-shore tax havens. Everton is also a private company, half-owned by a billionaire. Most of its players also ship their wealth overseas. Peel have had subsidies from Liverpool Council for its airport business and its port business.  EFC have had subsidy for its Finch Farm training ground. Now both Peel and EFC will again be given a huge lift by Mayor Anderson for a questionable return to the communities of the city-region.

How DOES Mayor Anderson explain these decisions of his when he is making, by his own admission, massive cuts across services? Cuts might be explained by the Government’s parsimony, but that will not wash with his choice of spending priorities. Liverpool Council has lost its Labour sense of purpose if it places the interests of rich, private companies before the interests of the poorest sections of the community and their dire needs.