Tough Times

As the end of the financial year approaches, departments in local and national government hurry to spend their year’s allocation of funding. An obvious one is the rush to complete minor roadworks, backloaded year after year. Politicians ponder on their priorities for the forthcoming year as they struggle to balance the books, as austerity bites ever more into their ability to manoeuvre budgets positively.

Sometimes, desperation kicks in, with madcap promises on income generation, and ill-judged proposals on cutting deficits. So, scratch cards will do little to boost local government finances; nor will encouraging a snooper mentality to catch dog fouling culprits and fly-tippers. Indeed, in areas where the unfortunate tag of “grass” is common, snooping invites a potential violent response from guilty parties. Besides, payment to informants via council tax rebates, will do nothing to boost revenues.

Admittedly, these are desperate times in local government; but the cutbacks are so huge, it is difficult to see how lost funding can be replaced. Take the recent Redrow/Harthill controversy. Fifty houses at £500,000 each, might yield £200,000 – £250,000 in annual council tax. What will that do for those in dire need of social housing? Nothing, – and little for the council’s coffers. Politically, the damage is immense – as is calling legitimate local protestors to the loss of parkland  “cranks”.  A more nuanced approach is needed.

For the electorate, their perception of local government is coloured by the mixed messages often communicated. Liverpool is a good example. The mayor says that an inflated new bureaucracy he fostered cost “only £7 million” (my emphasis), but that the Harthill houses are needed to boost income. Well, you cannot have it both ways. Citizens read these inflated council figures used in one context, and wonder just what is the case. Is there money to throw about, or are we really in desperate straits?

It is not surprising that voters have become more and more cynical. Brexiteers and Trump blame the media, and they certainly have some responsibility. However, overwhelmingly, it is the failure of politicians at all levels to engage in a transparent way with voters which is the major stimulus to the current discontent. The public distrusts those in office to look out for the common good. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that the political classes are in it for themselves rather than to be of service to the wider community.

After a lifetime in politics, I have never known the general public to have had a more jaundiced view of politics and politicians, including the parties. I recently spoke with an “Old” Labour loyalist who asked me about the outcome of the Labour inquiry into anti-semitism in Labour. I pointed out to him that in all my time, I had never witnessed or even heard of an instance of anti-semitism in Labour. Why then, he countered, given that local party members had been cleared, had no official announcement been made? I admitted that I could not answer him.

Seeing my obvious discomfort, he raised the recent actions of the dreadful Netanyahu in permitting the theft of Palestinian land. Why, he asked, had Labour said or done nothing about it? Why was there no outrage locally or nationally by the Party? It would have done so at one time, he asserted. Again, I was not able to give him an answer. He shook his head as he left me, with a hurtful parting shot: “The Labour Party? Now no different to the Tories – all in it for themselves”.

 God only knows what the wider public thinks!

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