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.