Fantasising

We are not yet into spring but there are already a few cuckoos knocking about. They herald the forthcoming elections and selections. First out of the blocks for these is metromayor, Steve Rotheram, with an announcement of the precept which will be levied in the next financial year, to cover the costs of the office of metromayor and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. He has his first hurdle to overcome to keep his job with the selection of the Labour nomination this year. The generally held assumption is that whoever is put forward by Labour – and Steve Rotheram must be odds-on favourite that nomination – will, in turn, be easy favourite to become the next metromayor.

Each borough appears to be girding itself for the 2019 election of councillors, which will happen in a little over three months’ time. That produces its own tensions, particularly when allied to the search for agreement on a policy package that can be sold to the electorate. This is also a prime period for sitting councillors to flex their political muscle if – as many do – they are looking to satisfy their personal political ambitions.

Incidentally, I note that the Echo has made a half-hearted effort to meet its commitments across the LCR. You may recall that they have been subsidised (by the BBC, of all people) under the Local Democracy Reporting scheme, to employ four journalists to maintain feedback to the local electorates, on local government matters. The Echo being what it is, the reports were minimal (and in the case of St Helens, non-existent!). In the interim, the Echo is busy congratulating itself on all of the work which it failed to do, in persuading the Serious Fraud Office to investigate the various Liverpool development scandals. What a nerve that rag has!

As usual, Liverpool Council and its indefatigable mayor take the biscuit. Never a slouch when it comes to self-promotion, the poor man’s Trump in the Cunard Building has been busy congratulating himself for giving a French puppeteer the freedom of the city, an honour which once meant a lot. He deemed to make the presentation himself although this duty is normally the prerogative of the city’s Lord Mayor. We should not be surprised at his chutzpah, what with his circularisation of a ghost-written “contribution” to the Huffington Post in his name, and his lecture to Labour Party members on the intricacies of Brexit and its attendant chaos. Perhaps he should pay more attention to the chaos closer to home.

The mayor cannot help himself in roaming beyond his own brief as Liverpool mayor.  His commentary on the difficulties facing workers at Cammell Laird’s and at Jaguar Land Rover exemplify this tendency of his. The political convention has always been that such matters are primarily the responsibility of the local Member of Parliament and the local council. That means Wirral Council and Knowsley Council – neither of the two plants in question is actually in Liverpool. The mayor, however, in his arrogance, is not renowned for his respect for such political niceties.

One would expect that he would have something of substance to say about events closer to home. For example, he could tell us why he has been so unfailingly supportive of so-called development schemes promoted by crooks, but now under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office and the North West Regional Organised Crime unit. He might also explain the £28,336 paid out on his behalf in the Operation Sheridan investigation (Do you remember the £108,000 of council tax payers’ funds wasted on his personal legal bill when he took his former employer to a tribunal?). At the very least, he might simply account for the time and money wasted in his failed attempts to flog off a chunk of Calderstones Park to Redrow despite overwhelming local opposition.

By any stretch of the imagination, his has been a colossal failure of political leadership of the city, which, in turn, diminishes the whole city-region. What confidence can people have in a city and city-region which tolerates such a degree of ineptitude at the very top? I fear that this failing, flailing mayor is having much more of a negative impact than his colleagues have yet recognised.  We can only wait and wonder to see what, if anything, they are prepared to do about it.

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Serious Fraud Office

This is just a brief note to let people know that that the serious Fraud Office has today announced that it is looking into some of those alleged developments and developers which have been of such concern over the past couple of years. Search warrants have been executed today so we must await the outcome of their endeavours.

The SFO is working in conjunction with Merseyside Police and the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit. As we are all aware, they will not exactly dash into the investigation; nor will they formally give too much information as they proceed. However, their fresh activity reinforces the widely held view that there has been serious corruption; it is organised; and that they have sufficient prima facie evidence to undertake today’s raids.

Happy New Year

This is a telling time across the city-region, if for no other reason than we have local elections looming. Furthermore, there will also be the selections of candidates for the post of mayor in Liverpool, and for metromayor of the LCR. On the surface, this seems to lead to a preoccupation with internal Labour Party matters, but this is unavoidable given the Labour Party’s political domination across the city-region.

It remains difficult for voters to weigh up the runners and riders who will be standing in the various selections. After all, the internal procedures for choosing candidates within the various political parties remain something of a mystery to the vast majority of the electorate. The ability of the latter to penetrate the workings of the parties is complicated by the secrecy which permeates politics at all levels. Thus, regardless of any suggestion to the contrary, councillors in Halton will insist that all is sweetness and light in their council chamber. Equally, St Helens representatives will indignantly deny any hint that there may be mayhem within the controlling Labour group. Given the well-publicised schisms within the Wirral and Liverpool Labour parties, it is all that they can do to prevent the outbreak of open political warfare. Sefton and Knowsley to date remain steadfast in their adherence to the usual code of political omerta.

Yet internal political squabbles should surprise no-one. It has always occurred within the LCR, and, indeed, across the nation. Political ambition and clashing egos are the food and drink of politics at all levels and in all places. Give a new councillor – or MP-a job and a title, and they immediately metamorphose (at least, in their own eyes!) into someone politically unique and indispensable, with a singular take on the issues of the day. Self delusion is part and parcel of political office.

Noble aspirations and dutiful commitment can quickly, and easily, be undermined. Manipulative influences swarm towards those with any degree of power, and work on weakness for the nefarious benefit of others. It is why transparency and accountability are so important – to counteract the potential submission to such influences especially when ego over-rides good sense. It was for such reasons that the all-powerful Caesars were trailed by an imperial official whose function was to remind them of their own mortality. As the old saying goes: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

One of the antidotes to repeated failure in our form of representative democracy, is mandatory reselection. I have never had a problem with it although I recognise that there are many who strongly oppose the idea. When I represented the Walton constituency, it was not down to personal charisma or particular political insights. It was because I stood on a Labour ticket, and the values which that party label embraced. My presumption was that as long as I did the job which I was elected to do, there would be no threat to me via reselection.

So it is at all levels, at least as far as the Labour Party is concerned. That is not to say that conspiratorial machinations to subvert proper processes – whether for ideological reasons or for simple personal ambition – ought to be tolerated. There are procedures for resolving instances of such plotting. However, change in representation can be a very positive thing, promoting fresh faces and harnessing new talents, ideas and energy. Long service is not, of itself, something to be over-rated in politics. It is often a sign of political atrophy and dated attitudes.

Naturally, we would all like to live and work in a wholly harmonious world, but politics is, by definition, an arena for conflicting beliefs and ideas. Within parties and between them, there needs to be a healthy degree of antagonism for our system to work. Of course, everyone has a right to their own particular views, yet when it comes to selections and elections, everything is reduced to how many people support those views and how many oppose them. That is representative democracy at its most basic.

Allow me to close by airing two areas of concern. Firstly, after a six month wait, I have finally secured an answer to my FoI to Liverpool City Council on the legal subsidy given to Mayor Anderson and to former LCC chief executive, Ged Fitzgerald in relation to Operation Sheridan. As most will be aware, both of these men were repeatedly interviewed by Lancashire Police as part of this ongoing corruption investigation. It transpires that the legal costs borne by LCC on behalf of the two individuals were £28336 for the mayor, and £40142 for the former chief executive.

The protracted nature of this major police operation reminded me that it stretches into areas not readily associated with the Lancashire epicentre of police enquiries.  This leads me to my second area of concern. Court records in Preston show that last April, police sought search warrants, citing “alleged criminality Liverpool City Council and the Merseyside Pension Fund”. This is intriguing as Wirral council administers the Fund via a Pensions Committee chaired by Cllr Paul Doughty. Cllr Doughty is a man who favours privacy for his committee, preferring to sit in Birkenhead, away from prying eyes in Wallasey Town Hall. Most recently, debt write-offs totalling over £200,000 were heard in camera, to the concern of pensioners. After all, it if their money at stake.

Cllr Doughty is standing down this year – not too soon, in the opinion of some of his colleagues. Allegations have been made relating to some of his dodgy business associates, and of his failure to conform with the council’s Code of Conduct. Concerns have also been expressed about his close relationship with officers of the Merseyside Pension Fund. One can only wonder if this is connected with the afore-mentioned search warrants. Only time will tell; but the Merseyside Pension Fund and its proper administration is important to many people across the Liverpool City Region. We must hope that the expressed concerns have not in any way damaged the interests of the Fund’s many stakeholders.