Political Merry-Go-Round

As Harold Wilson famously commented, “A week is a long time in politics” – and what a week it was! In Liverpool, Wavertree Constituency Labour Party withdrew from a confrontational row over their local MP, Luciana Berger. Within twenty four hours, however, she jumped ship for a very uncertain political future. The outcomes of her desertion from the Labour cause are as yet unknown, but they are bound to be, at the very least, destabilising. As if that was not enough, it was shadowed by the Hatton political hokey-cokey – in and out of the Labour Party within days! Mayor Anderson was once again overwhelmed by events. He began by telling the media that there was no problem with the return of his old mate Hatton, only to flip later on, claiming that he, like other deselected local politicians, was facing deselection by entrists!

Naturally, he made no mention of the increasing disillusion within the LCC Labour group, worried by his woeful record of bad decisions. Repeating his mantra that there are “difficult choices” ahead (is that not what leadership is all about?), he appears to have learnt nothing from his many (and costly) errors of judgement. For example, having bailed out his chums at Langtry by buying their stake in the former International Garden Festival site, it has now been costed at £30 million to remediate the site, and it will take ten years! That is before a brick can be laid! What an entrepreneurial mastermind we have as city mayor. Perhaps that is why West Derby Constituency Labour Party is seeking to abolish the role of city mayor in order to revert to the traditional council leader model.

Meanwhile, the mayor might do some good and withdraw the council’s ill-judged appeal against the court’s decision on the Harthill estate. Can he not take no for an answer? Whilst he is at it, he should forget any thoughts of selling the Oglet green wedge to Peel. If the latter got the prized land, they would only sell it for housing. Given their record at John Lennon Airport, I can see no viable case for a runway extension. He should also note that Peel have just flogged off Teeside Airport, as they will with JLA when the right offer comes along.

On a more immediate note, the mayor chairs the Appointments and Disciplinary Panel of the city council. This body last met on February 5th, but, as usual, press and public were kept out and no minutes have been published. The item of concern to me was a seemingly bland report on the post of city solicitor. Will he confirm that a large salary increase was approved for the current post holder? In short, has the current city solicitor been given a large bung? If so, on what grounds, and why the secrecy?

The Wirral merry-go-round also appears to be picking up speed. Hot on the heels of their deselection, a bevy of former Labour councillors have now formed their own political grouping of independents. Just in time, perhaps, to poke a stick into the continuing controversy over the proposed golf resort and housing development in the west of the borough. It is no surprise that our old friends Redrow figure in this. In Sefton (without Redrow), there is a bourgeoning protest against proposals to approve another massive housing development in Thornton. As we approach the election period, there are increased concerns in both boroughs that these mega-projects will give a lift to independent candidates like those who were successful in St Helens and Knowsley last time out.

It would be mistaken to think that pro-green or anti-development candidates will bring down overwhelming Labour majorities across the city-region. They are, however, pointers to a deepening distrust of local government generally, reflecting the distrust of political parties nationally. There are difficult political waters ahead.


Perception is All

The Brexit saga has brought out some of the worst features in otherwise rational and fair-minded people. In one discussion with a close family member, I tried to explain how the Council of Ministers worked within the European Union. He was insistent that “they” – that is, the European Commission – foisted “their” laws on this green and pleasant land. Having been a minister attending the Council of Ministers on behalf of the UK, I put to him the various stages at which we – the UK – as a sovereign country, could reject any proposals tabled. He would have none of it, preferring the bigotry of the likes of the Telegraph , Mail or Express.

I should not have been surprised by the vehemence of his refusal to listen. He was simply reflecting an uncomfortable truth of modern politics. No one believes anything which a politician says any more. There is an entrenched view that anyone in office – whether local or national – will lie when it suits them. It is also the case that the truth has become an inconvenient irrelevance to huge swathes of the electorate. Their belief – whether based on ignorance or bigotry or both – supersedes any objective statement of fact, especially if the latter emanates from the mouth of an “expert”.

I was reminded of these lessons when an unsolicited email arrived, together with a photocopy of a leaflet headed “2019/20 Knowsley’s Estimated Council Tax”. Now, I do not know whether it came from the council or a political party. For my immediate purposes, that does not matter. What struck me was the simple juxtaposition of  the projected figures for council tax in two columns, one for Band A and the other for Band D. These were expressed in cash terms and in percentages. It is probable that a similarly painful communication is being produced for each of the boroughs in the city-region. I must say that the stark figures will have an effect.

The council and fire precepts are set to rise by a predictable 2.99%. In contrast,  the “City Region Mayor” is listed as a new precept, but costing an estimated £7 million, adding £12.66* to each household bill. The police precept is to increase by a whopping 14.2%, increasing the cost to each household by £ 16*.

It does not take a genius to recognize that much political capital will be made of these figures. It has already been established that the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) has set up an office for herself costing in excess of a million pounds. Few people in the LCR have a clue as to what the PCC does, never mind the twenty people in her back office. Similarly, there is a sublime ignorance of the role of the metromayor and the Combined Authority which he heads.

Sophisticated explanations of the theory behind their roles just do not wash. Voters simply convince themselves that these are bureaucratic and wasteful supernumeraries. It is instructive to compare our situation once again with that which obtains in our neighbouring Manchester city-region. There, the metromayor has the PCC under his wing. He also has regular – and favourable – access to Manchester-based media which has given his role a far greater authenticity than that which is yet to be realized on Merseyside. Thus, the figures adumbrated above will serve to reinforce the existing negativity of those already predisposed against the roles of PCC and metromayor.

Meanwhile, the political battles within the various Labour parties within the LCR continue. Now there is a national dimension which may have a critical effect on forthcoming local elections. Not for the first time, local MPs, together with allies in Westminster, are using our area as a proxy battleground in the struggle for the direction and control of the national Labour Party. It is surely unacceptable that our local affairs should be subverted in this way.

All of this adds up to another unavoidable fact. In politics, truth is relative to purely political needs from one perspective, and equally relative to a stubborn subjectivity from another. Yet all that voters seem to really want is to feel that they matter. What we are experiencing today – the alienation of the electorate from the political classes – is a direct result of voters believing themselves to being ignored. It is little wonder that their collective perception is so negatively fixed, given their recent experience of successive governments and their sponsoring political parties.

*Band A


No sooner had I commented on the perennial attempts to prise Southport out of Sefton than the local Tories – led by their local Member of Parliament – sought to establish a Southport Town council. Their intentions are clearly to undermine Labour’s current stranglehold on the borough. They know that there are plenty of voters ready to support such a move, if only because of their long-standing abhorrence of being associated with Merseyside in any way, shape or form. Snobbery can be a very powerful toxin within the body politic.

Meanwhile, my omission of any up to date comment on the Wirral was shown to be remiss of me. Where else locally would one encounter such a farce as that surrounding the fate of Mr Stewart Halliday? This man was lined up for a senior council role in charge of economic and housing development. That is, until he was blackballed for the post after council officials alleged that he was guilty of “potential financial irregularities” as a private contractor to the council. No wonder councillors’ eyes are off the political ball. One senior councillor described the council to me as ”…blacker than black. Councillors are frightened to voice opinions that are not the views of the Left/Momentum/Socialist Worker controlled constituency, local campaign forum and branches. The Labour group is a battleground”.

The build up in political pressure is no different in St Helens, where, I am reliably informed, the chief whip has offered his resignation in frustration at his inability to secure wider Labour support for his attempts to maintain discipline within the Labour group.  There are allegations of widespread abuse and homophobia within the Labour group. As in Wirral and Sefton, there is a key role for the Labour Party’s regional office and board in assisting the relevant party units to function correctly if the party is serious about holding on to its current dominant role in the politics of the city-region. As I am tired of saying, a house divided against itself…

My recent mention of the Labour candidature of Mr George Knibb in Liverpool’s Norris Green ward prompted a number of responses. One concerned his role as the driving force behind one of the city’s numerous social enterprises, the North Liverpool Regeneration Company. Billed as a training organization, it was lashed by Ofsted in a recent report. Specialist training press reported  in reference to the company that :

“An inadequate community learning provider has been caught breaking government funding rules after Ofsted found most of its construction apprentices were unemployed.”

Its property services arm was struck off at Companies House last year, with the parent company writing off £113,644 on its behalf. The company itself is not skint – it records on its balance sheet investment properties worth over £7,500,000! The company is closely associated with other “community organizations”, the Vauxhall  Neighbourhood Council and the Florence Institute. Strikingly, its board has had a large number of former, expelled Labour party members running the show. I am sure that this curious hotch-potch is standing by to support Mr Knibb’s election campaign.

I am equally sure that Mr Knibb will also secure support from within the Alt Valley Community Trust, given his close family and political connections with its leading lights. This is another body replete with former Labour Party luminaries, including expellees. However, this history has done nothing to halt the trust’s exponential growth across the north-east of the city, despite owing the city council in excess of £900,000.

Finally, the fraught future of Oglet has been raised with me. Is this to be another Harthill? Let me explain. This site was once a fishing hamlet many years ago, but it now remains as a valuable green space on the Liverpool/Halton border, edging on to the Mersey foreshore. The ubiquitous and ravenous Peel organization seeks to do two things on this stretch of land – or so they say. Firstly, they wish to extend Liverpool Airport’s runway on to it (they own the airport). Secondly, they want to build a photo-voltaic cell array to generate electricity from sunlight. This would be run by a subsidiary, Peel Power, which is also involved in fracking.

The questions which arise are many and troubling. Is a runway extension viable, given the airport’s reported losses year on year? Is it yet another litany of unrealizable promises which appears to be standard with Peel ? Surely LCC should have some input into this since the mayor has sunk council tax payers’ money into the airport? Will the generation plan ever eventuate? Remember that this generation project was originally said to be lined up for what was once Dunlop’s sports field. That is, until that site was flogged off by Peel for housing.

The smart money says that such a fate awaits this prime wedge of real estate sitting between Speke and Hale Village. Frankly, I would never believe a word that Peel says. They are first and foremost, property speculators – they go wherever the money is. In this case, the money would be in housing – but certainly not social housing !!

Realtime Tensions

My identification of local government within our city-region with the ups-and-downs of local Labour party tensions, is based solely upon the simple fact that all of the local political scene is dominated by the Labour Party. It is unavoidable in commenting on any of it without reference to internal Labour Party affairs. Of course, the scene is set at the very top of the party where there has been little success in disguising the rifts which divide it from top to bottom. As a result, it seems unable to function organisationally as it should, ensuring that politics at a local level is played out in a fair and objective manner, according to the rules and constitution of the party.

Do not misunderstand me. As I have written before, there has always been controversy within the Labour Party at all levels; and I am sure that the same can be said of other political parties. They are all both organic and dynamic, constantly re-inventing themselves in one way or another. However, in my experience, there has always been a need and a willingness for party officials to intervene in some form when there have been internal challenges and disputes apparently beyond resolution. When that is not done, the result is organisational chaos and political failure. Remember the old saw that the house divided against itself is doomed to defeat?

If we look at St Helens, whilst the Labour machine has looked at some of the current difficulties within the Labour group, it has failed to satisfy the dissatisfaction felt by some councillors. Indeed, the current situation is said to be worse than the calamitous mess experienced in the 1980s and 1990s. One would imagine that lessons had been learnt, but attempts to set councillors who are “local” against those who are “incomers” will only make it more likely that the success of an independent in Rainhill last year will be repeated.

Sefton is in a different position. Ever since the borough was created in 1974, there has been a “Southport Out” movement, looking to break it up as a coherent local government unit. Generally – as now – this tendency was pushed by the local Tories as a means of maximising their political influence in the north of the borough. Rightly or wrongly, their argument that Bootle is favoured over Southport, or that Southport is a “cash cow” for Bootle, has resonance – in Formby as well as Southport. Very obviously, this judgement is at least partly informed by the domination of Sefton’s Labour group by Bootle councillors. Too often, people believe what they want to believe. Accordingly, it takes astute political leadership and deft presentation in running such a council. Failure to do so means that the grumbles of today evolve into the angry reaction of tomorrow.

Liverpool’s challenges are, as usual, more complicated than those of the other boroughs. Currently embroiled in various police investigations and fresh from defeat in the High Court, I am told that one senior councillor, about to be arrested, has done a deal to hand over voluminous files detailing council malpractice. Only time will tell if these files are of any value to the authorities. The problem for the current council is that voters are prepared to believe anything of them. The mayor seems oblivious to this, and of the damage done to his party locally by his failed land deals on valued green spaces.

Meanwhile, it is leaked that one of the mayor’s developer friends – Mr Lawrence Kenwright – is preparing to seek the Labour nomination as candidate for city mayor in succession to Mayor Anderson. As if this is not enough, it transpires that an expelled former Labour councillor – Mr George Knibb – has been adopted as Labour candidate for the Norris Green ward. Mr Knibb was thrown out of Labour after repeatedly voting against Labour, breaking its rules. It is one thing for this close confederate of Mr Derek Hatton to be allowed back into the Labour Party he betrayed – it is, after all, a very broad church these days. It is quite another thing to allow him to stand for Labour in a safe Labour seat. Voters have long memories, as do other political parties.

I wonder what views the Members of Parliament in the city-region have. No longer is there a party machine willing and able to ensure that local party units are properly conducted. Invariably, problems begin with local units, branches, constituency parties and Labour groups. They tend to be based more on personal ambition than on sincere ideological differences. First visiting themselves on the officers of local parties and councillors, these problems can, like a forest fire, quickly leap across to the Members of Parliament themselves.  I am reminded of the moral of Pastor Niemoller’s famous reflection. Nipping matters in the bud can be sound advice.