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.