The received wisdom is that when elected representatives lose meaningful contact with the electorate, they pay the price at the ballot box. This was obviously the case in the recent Copeland and Stoke by-elections. The former was won by the Tories by default, whilst the latter underlined the mountain which Labour has to climb, and the post-Brexit irrelevance of UKIP and its hapless leader.
There are plausible arguments that the Labour Party faces a serious threat in its northern English heartlands, to match the meltdown which occurred in Scotland. Many would ascribe the blame for this solely to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, but I believe that would be mistaken. He certainly carries some responsibility, but the downward spiral of the Labour Party long pre-dates his time as leader. For me, it was encapsulated in the indiscreet tag of “bigot” which Gordon Brown used about a Labour voter when she had the temerity to ask him about immigration. It showed how out of touch the party was with common sentiment amongst Labour supporters.
On a local level, labelling electors as “cranks“- as Mayor Anderson did – has had a similar effect. It betrays a contempt for the voter, and they neither forgive nor forget such dismissive insults. When such contempt is tied to policies which are widely contested in the community, it is asking for trouble. Thus, when I read reports of Wirral council chopping transport provision for young disabled people, I could not believe it. I know there are difficult choices to be made, but who in their right political mind, would conjure up such an option – one so at variance with Labour values, and bound to antagonise so many?
Likewise the assault in Liverpool on green space. The council has already had a bruising electoral come-uppance to its policy in the Woolton area. Learning nothing from that episode, it seems determined to alienate ever more electors by allowing ever more building on hitherto sacrosanct green space and parkland. So much so that few believe any council pronouncements on parks. On top of that, they are doing deals with favoured developers, not just for building, but even to flog off space in their allegedly iconic headquarters in Cunard Building.
The problem of growing numbers of disaffected voters is not restricted to Liverpool. In St. Helens, the rush to build has been met by a spontaneous growth of campaign groups in opposition. Of course, there will always be some against all such proposals, and some of it is “nimbyism” pure and simple. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate such phenomena. There are many traditional Labour voters ready to switch their allegiance – or stay at home – if they feel their views are being ignored. The perception can quickly grow that a distant, unresponsive council is doing things to the community rather than with and for it. This is what gave KRAG some impetus in Kirkby – the belief that the council was ignoring the town.
In a matter of weeks, there will be – on paper – the greatest shake-up of local government since the abolition of the metropolitan counties. Whoever wins – and I hope it will be Steve Rotheram – will face high expectations, and the enormous challenge of rekindling in the community a belief and trust in transparent, accountable, and responsive local government. High hopes may be unrealistic. The Combined Authority is rushing to spend all of the money technically available to the new metromayor even before s/he is elected! At the same time, Mayor Anderson’s familiar – lead officer Ged Fitzgerald – is rewriting the Combined Authority constitution. An incoming metromayor could well enter office to find the cupboard bare, and a constitution designed to tie him/her up in restrictive knots!
Yet unless it can be demonstrated that local government – at metro and borough level – is in tune with their respective electorates, there will be a day of reckoning .Those who listen and explain, who consult and accommodate, will have nothing to fear. Those who are arrogantly dismissive of the voter, and looking to their own interests, rather than those of the electorate, will ultimately be held to account.