Lessons to be Learned

It has been both instructive and alarming to watch events unfold in Washington in recent days; but, oddly, it has also been heartening. There are lessons to be learnt, and it appears as if Americans might at last be realising the bitter truth about their parody of a president. It is heartening to see the erosion of the “credibility” of the massive ego at the heart of the current administration as even his ultra right-wing  support begins to wilt. The alarm comes with the danger to us all with the breakdown in American government.

Whether we like it or not, America remains the only true super-power in both military and economic terms. As such, it has as many enemies as it has friends. Crude and insensitive behaviour on the international stage is not peculiar to Trump, but he and his cronies have taken it to new heights (or depths!). As the saying goes, if America sneezes, we all catch a cold. Thus, if it seeks military solutions to international problems, we are all potentially placed in the line of fire.

Remember, America prides itself on its constitutional arrangements whereby the three arms of state power are separated – the executive (i.e. the President); Congress; and the courts. Yet they now have a president with no regard for constitutional niceties, and who is trying to dominate his country (and elsewhere) through his own monstrous prejudices. It is disturbing to observe as a technically independent Congress fails in its duty to restrain him.

One can argue that America is currently a one-party state. Theoretically, the Republican Party controls the presidency, the senate and the House of Representatives. Through the latter, they also control appointments to the Supreme Court – hugely important in American public life. Nevertheless, because of one man’s ego, and the political cowardice of the Republican Party, the current administration is being viewed as the worst ever in United States history and out of control. What can WE learn from this?

Firstly, that one party rule is disastrous. It inevitably reduces accountability and transparency. Internal factions and feuding become the order of the day as political corruption takes a deadly grip. Personal advancement becomes the only measure of political success. Leadership grows ever more detached from reality, buoyed by a belief that their mandate takes them over and above the bounds of conventional political behaviour.

Thereafter, the leadership in such a dominant party is in danger of political paranoia, looking for plots and conspiracies within party ranks. As pressures increase, so does the influence of “friends” and advisers, both official and unofficial. Dependant on the leadership for their own fortunes, the temptation for the latter is to say what they believe the leadership wants to hear, rather than “speaking the truth unto power”. Of course, if the leadership weakens or is inept, real power drifts to these advisers and to paid officials.

Unfortunately, intellectually limited leaders tend to believe that, like Trump, they have much more to offer than is actually the case. Devoid of a meaningful opposition and sycophantically supported within the ranks of the governing party, they quickly sow the seeds of their own demise, along with that of their party. It is merely a matter of time before they are held to account. It is why it is in the political interests of ALL parties to insist on the twin pillars of real democracy – true and full accountability and transparency.

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Fake News

Scarcely a day passes without President Trump chanting his mantra of “fake news” on twitter in his attacks on the American media. Here on Merseyside, it is too often a case of “no news” – at least in regard to anything meaningful. Yet we do have our poor people’s versions of what were once disparagingly referred to as spin doctors; and they have been fiddling their own version of fake news recently.

So, when I read of the mending of fences between the metromayor and the city mayor, I do so with a large degree of scepticism. Not, I hasten to add, about the notion of our senior representatives in the city-region working together constructively for the good of the city-region. I would expect that we all want to see positive collaboration between them for the good of all of our people. It is just that mayor Anderson has too often cried wolf whilst rejecting co-operative working – with the Combined Authority, with Steve Rotheram, and, most recently, with Dan Carden.

Perhaps it was the language that was used. It was that of a spin doctor, and one that was partial in favour of mayor Anderson. It sounded like an apology from the injured party in this latest spat – “we are immensely fortunate to have a leader with his (i.e. Anderson’s) experience and skills“, Rotheram is supposed to have said. I find this difficult to believe, given the way in which he has been abused and undermined by Anderson.

A more obvious use of fake news concerns the extraordinary line taken by Liverpool Council on the Chinatown fiasco. This is a huge development which has been used to dupe overseas investors, to their detriment and to that of Liverpool’s reputation as a place in which to invest. It is notable that mayor Anderson has ducked out of this one, dropping it on the toes of his ambitious deputy, Cllr. O’Byrne, for her to explain it away. The thrust of their line is to portray the council as a victim. I beg to differ. The victims are the investors and the unpaid contractors. The council leadership is one of the villains of the situation.

In a city currently without a chief executive and a chief planning officer, the buck stops fairly and squarely with the city’s newly self-designated executive mayor and his cabinet. The companies and individuals involved in the Chinatown scam have form, and are well known to the council. The same unsavoury bunch are also involved in other dodgy developments across the city, and elsewhere. Indeed, Greater Manchester Police are heavily investigating their deals in Manchester. All of this should, and would, have been apparent to a half-decent council applying due diligence to these cowboys. They did not, and continue to allow these con men to operate in Liverpool, apparently with impunity.

It is both ironic and sad that our reputation with Chinese investors is being tarnished. We have in Liverpool the oldest Chinatown in Europe; and we are twinned with Chinese megacity and economic powerhouse, Shanghai. Meanwhile, China invests £1 billion of real money in Manchester… Draw your own conclusions.

Liverpeel City Region

Speaking of their declining local airport on the Durham/Yorkshire border, the Northern Echo newspaper pithily concluded that “Peel’s masterplan….is based around housing and business development“. An apt summary, as far as it goes, of the ubiquitous Peel’s focus. We might say it has but passing interest in airports or docks, or industrial development. Its primary purpose is to make profits out of its vast land bank (over 5000 acres) by whatever means come to hand.

Those profits ultimately end up in the private Billown Trust based in the Isle of Man, run by and for billionaire tax exile John Whittaker. There is nothing illegal in amassing wealth in this way, nor, in the eyes of many, is it intrinsically immoral. Sadly, the world is full of individuals whose sole purpose is to fatten their bank accounts in every way possible. The question is how that is done, and how, in turn, it affects others.

So, where Peel has undercapitalised land, it is happy for others to “frack” thereon for oil or gas, or to erect wind turbines – at a price, of course. Where development is an option leading to bigger profits, it will partner with whoever comes along. Its objective is financial benefit, whether partnered with the public or the private sector.

The nature of this company came to mind when I noticed that the Combined Authority at its June meeting, awarded from the Single Investment Fund, another grant – of £1 million – to this capitalist hydra. Peel is very adept at accessing public funds (that is, those taxes which you pay and which Mr Whittaker strives so hard to avoid) for what are not always successful projects. Take the post-Panamax container berth on the docks.

It has cost £400 million to build, but has been virtually unusable since February when the first of several huge sinkholes appeared in the new structure. Although Peel claim two “visits” to the berth since then by container ships, it is in danger of being seen as a monstrous white elephant. Given that a major minority shareholder in Peel is the investment arm of Deutsche Bank, one might be forgiven for thinking that any pain was borne by the private sector alone. You would be wrong.

When the docks project was first floated, Peel insisted that it was contingent on a massive dredging programme in the Mersey, costing £41 million. OF this sum, £35 million came from the taxpayer via the Regional Growth Fund. In a highly unusual move, and to the outrage of rival ports, Sefton Council bid for the money which went directly to Peel, for its benefit. I have never understood how this came about.

 Yet this overlap between the public and private sectors is not unusual in itself, nor necessarily undesirable. What is of concern in the case of Peel is the degree to which it is entwined with local authorities and their leading lights in the city-region. To their advantage, Peel have worked their way assiduously into the heart of decision –making affecting the people and communities of the city-region.

Liverpool Airport exemplifies the problem. In a competitive market, it lost £14 million between 2012 and 2014. Despite this record, Liverpool Council has put in millions to this privately owned operation. To ostensibly look after the council’s interests, there are five council representatives on two of the various airport companies’ boards – Mayor Anderson, councillors O’Byrne, Small and Kennedy, and suspended CEO Fitzgerald. However, given the nature of Peel, it is difficult to pin down which of the sixteen (yes, sixteen separate legal entities) Peel companies involved in Liverpool Airport actually has the controlling interest. Thus, we cannot know whose interests are being catered for. You never do with Peel – there are well in excess of 400 companies in the group, possibly hundreds more.

Of course, it is not only at the airport where this blurring of public and private interests can occur. Wirral leader Phil Davies sits on the city-region’s Local Enterprise Partnership which doles out millions of public money to private companies, including Peel. Halton’s leader Rob Polhill and assorted colleagues have also sat on a Peel company board (all of which, incidentally, are headquartered in Manchester). This is how Peel operates, to maximise its influence with, and funding from, public bodies.

There has been no more skilled and useful operative in this demi-monde between business and government than Robert Hough. A member of Peel’s main board from 1986 onwards and holder of 135 directorships, he was until recently the chair of the city-region LEP, and a co-opted member of the Combined Authority. A Manchester man but close collaborator with Joe Anderson, no-one could be better placed to peddle influence on behalf of Peel than he was.

Thus, it is little wonder that there is increasing scepticism about Peel. Notwithstanding their formidable public relations machine, people are seeing through their hyperbole. We have all heard the bull about Mersey Waters. We are supposed to wait 50 years to see if they have it right! They spoke too of the container quay as built by “a world class team” using “the very best of world engineering”. When their ship canal gates broke down (supposedly renewed with a £3.8 million grant) paralysing Warrington traffic, there was not a word of explanation or apology. Why should they? Profit is their game, not the community interest; and our representatives seem eager to help them. Peel appear to have more clout than the rest of us put together.

Is this representative democracy?

Connecting with Voters

When Labour entered national government back in 1997, it realised that news management was vital in keeping people informed about what government was doing. No fake news, no embellishment of the facts, nor false promises. It may have degenerated over time with an emphasis on spin, but it was not the original approach in office. I thought of this whilst reading a copy of the Liverpool Echo – nothing like the paper it was, but still a platform for local government to give out information.

The paper seems to concentrate on covering Liverpool rather than the other boroughs, when it covers local government at all. The edition I read carried press releases from the mayor and his deputy. The latter was a long “mea culpa” over the stagnation of Chinatown and other development sites. She offered no explanation of the real concerns over the dodgy people and companies who had been involved, despite national media interest. Nor was there any explanation as to how, if due diligence had been performed, these scam artists had got their hands on such important deals. Instead, we had the usual mantra of promises for the future without any obvious substance, and without accountability for the failures of the past.

Her line was partially echoed by the mayor in his comments about the Adelphi, and his thinly-veiled threat of its compulsory purchase. Hopefully, he is beginning to see that the city’s reputation – with visitors and with investors – is at stake, given recent high profile criticism in the national media, of the council’s attitude to green space, and the mayor’s reactionary view of the city’s threatened  World Heritage Site status. The latter is particularly puzzling. We are told that Peel’s illusory plans for the docks are more important in economic terms than WHS status. Yet I see that the head of Cumbria’s tourist authority has computed that their newly won WHS status for the Lake District is worth at least £20 million per annum to the area. Is the mayor unaware that even his cherished hopes for cruise ships are nourished in the sales brochures in part by our WHS status?

Who now remembers the mayoral freebie to Birmingham, Alabama? Despite the outpouring of PR at the time, nothing of any note has accrued to Liverpool from the mayor’s visit. Likewise, the massive sums afforded to Everton FC (and the privately owned club is still being underwritten by the council) whilst we read nightly of the huge amounts being paid by the club, for and to players? Who has truly explained what benefits there are to people suffering under austerity? In their minds, they simply see a total disconnect between the council’s priorities and their actual needs. All the spin in the world is not going to change their perception of the administration.

The moral of the story is straightforward: if you are straight with the electorate, they will be straight with you. If you try to snow them, they will see through it, and ultimately extract their revenge. Moreover, where those in public life are found wanting, then they must be held accountable for it, whether it be mismanagement, incompetence, or wrongdoing. The electorate expects nothing less. That is what those two, little but vital words – transparency and accountability – mean in practice.