Selection Manoeuvres?

When Stephen Twigg announced his intention to retire as the member of parliament for Liverpool West Derby, as a member of that constituency’s Labour Party, I took more than a passing interest. In my time, I have observed many selections of parliamentary candidates, officiating at a fair few, and participating in one as a candidate myself. It seems as if little has really changed down the years to make the whole process more transparent to the average party member, or to free that process of nomination and selection from the traditional back room deals so often detested by the party’s rank and file.

Most of their concerns have centred on what they see as “fixing” of matters by their local party establishment, and, particularly, trade unions (or rather, their officials). Sadly, too many Labour Party members remain ignorant as to how candidates succeed in being selected, often imputing to the successful, every political fiddle under the sun. There is nothing new in this, nor is it necessarily true in many cases. However, it is as well for the novice to recognise that there are always networks of narrow interest at play in selections, sometimes successful and sometimes not.

The most obvious are the fraternal deals done between trade unions to ensure that their man or woman is selected. This partiality towards the favoured trade union nominee is as old as the Labour Party itself, originally designed to ensure that the interests of a given union were represented in parliament. Historically, the National Union of Mineworkers decided who would represent Labour wherever there was a pit. It has evolved into something far removed from the original good  intentions on behalf of the wider membership and local community, generally having little to do with ordinary trade union members. Nowadays, it is often more about the personal ambition of union nominees, or about the very narrow – and personal – interests of trade union bosses. It will be a surprise to many that Frank Field was originally listed  as a docker with the old TGWU (now Unite), or that lawyer John Smith, former leader of the Labour Party, was registered as a boilermaker with the GMB.

Yet there are always other, less obvious networks at play in parliamentary selections, sometimes ideological, sometimes religious, sometimes cultural, and sometimes downright venal. These can have a huge impact in a parliamentary selection. Let us look at West Derby as just one example. In that constituency, there is a tightly knit group of influential councillors spread across two wards, Norris Green and Croxteth. There is nothing wrong or even unusual in that; but it is well worth looking at what binds them and how that can influence a selection.

The councillors concerned are George Knibb, Anthony Lavelle, Sharon Ross, Joann Kushner, and the latter’s husband, Barry Kushner. The sixth councillor, Peter Mitchell, appears to be somewhat apart from the others. The glue which binds the first five is the ubiquitous Alt Valley Partnership (AVP), which is described as a community initiative. All five are, in one way or another, connected to this body. It is run by Phil Knibb, and Barry Kushner is a paid consultant for it. Sharon Ross works for it, and Councillors Lavelle and Joann Kushner are strong supporters of the AVP. That is understandable, I suppose, given the high profile of the AVP in the area.

Councillor Knibb, brother of AVP boss Phil, is a paid consultant for the North Liverpool Regeneration Company (NLRC) as is Councillor Barry Kushner. This organisation was George Knibb’s “baby” until he decided on a return to the council. It is interesting to look at the directors of the NLRC past and present, and at the fourteen companies associated with brother Phil. It is a roll call of formerly expelled Liverpool councillors and their political supporters of yesteryear, including Tony Jennings, Dominic Brady and Tony Rimmer, now rehabilitated in the New Model Labour Party. Many are now potential votes in a West Derby selection.

Local scuttlebutt suggests that Barry Kushner is pushing – and being pushed – to succeed Stephen Twigg. He is perfectly entitled to do so, but he may find that his ownership of multiple rental properties will not go down too well in West Derby. It may seem fanciful to those both inside and outside of the constituency, but they should not be surprised if there is a concerted effort by the AVP in aid of Cllr Kushner, or someone else equally acceptable to them, for what is arguably a safe Labour seat.

Naturally, there is a process to be followed, however flawed that process might be, beginning with a shortlist of potential candidates. Yet it is as well to be aware of the influence which these powerful lobbies can bring to bear, especially in safe Labour seats. There is a long way to go in achieving true Labour Party democracy.

Stating the Obvious

About four years late, the Echo has at long last stated the blindingly obvious – that the International Garden Festival (IGF) site is largely unsuitable for housing development. You may recall that Mayor Anderson paid the previous owners – the Langtree development company – the princely sum of £6 million for this derelict land fronting the River Mersey. A smart move for Langtree; a bad deal for the city of Liverpool. Anyone local over the age of fifty knows that the land had been the city’s major waste tip before the IGF of the mid-eighties. Equally, anyone with half a brain knew that the site was a toxic waste land, and would need a hugely expensive programme of decontamination before it could be used for housing.

I do not blame Langtree for off-loading this unviable site. However, I do hold responsible our self-styled “entrepreneurial” mayor for buying it. He should have been wide awake to what lay ahead, taking a lead from the ill-fated Housing Market Renewal Initiative of the Blair government. On Merseyside, this well-intentioned scheme embraced Wirral, Liverpool, and Sefton. The allocation for the latter was wholly used up on the decontamination of a single site, illustrating how expensive that process can be, and acting as a warning to those who make precipitate and grandiose commitments of council funds, to white elephant developments.

This brings me to the vexed question of the proposed new stadium for Everton Football Club. There are many questions to be resolved about the commercial viability of the scheme, but these are matters for the club, a privately-owned company. I do maintain, however, that it is not for the mayor or anyone else to involve the city’s funds in it. Already, the case for that position is being underlined by the increasing costs of the project. An initial estimate of £300 million has already escalated to £500 million, and is bound to rise much further.

Way back, on the 17/5/16, the mayor boasted that such a stadium might be built within three years, and “may boost Liverpool’s Commonwealth Games bid”. Here we are in 2019 with no start in sight and no games on offer. Undaunted, the mayor tweeted on the 19/7/16 that “a stadium within two years is achievable”. A month later, on the 17/8/16, an Evertonian website quoted the mayor that “EFC have the cash ……and could be in their new home within three years”. Promises, promises – all built on sand.

On the financing of the new stadium, the mayor said on the 10/1/18 that Liverpool City Council was close to agreeing to provide two-thirds of the funding required. By the 29/3/18, he insisted that “the city and people of Liverpool won’t spend a penny on the deal”. However, three weeks earlier, on the 6/3/19, the Echo reported that “the LCC paid out over £700,000 on consulting fees over the EFC stadium plans”.

This led an assiduous battler for council transparency to seek information on these fees. What were they exactly? To whom were they paid and what was the purpose of the consultancy? Needless to say, she was ignored. The next step was to formally request information under Freedom of Information legislation. She was then told she could not have it because release of such information might damage “dialogue” between the council and the club. This is utter rubbish, and a direct repudiation of the people’s right to know. The owner of EFC has already publicly stated that the funding of a new stadium will come from private sources, whilst the mayor has claimed that the club will reimburse the city for its expenses. Why not confirm, therefore, the details of this public expenditure?

The city is being run like a privately-owned venture capital company. Little wonder, then, that an old school friend – resident in the Far East for fifty years – tells me that the word is spreading in financial circles there, to avoid investment in Liverpool. If we are not careful, the ripple effects of this weakened reputation will spread like wildfire. Merseyside Police have already launched an investigation into fraud within Knowsley Council, involving a council officer. Who knows, for goodness sake, where it will end?

Governance Debate

Mayor Anderson’s campaign to be re-selected as Labour mayoral candidate for Liverpool is in full swing. The latest missive to members sets out how he has single-handedly saved the shipbuilding and repair industry from closure on Merseyside. I am not at all sure as to his locus in involving himself in a Wirral business when he is mayor for Liverpool. I know that he wanted to be Merseyside’s metromayor, but we have one – and he has already been re-selected to stand again on behalf of the Labour Party.

More importantly, the pace is hotting up on the Liverpool Labour group’s decision as to whether or not to retain the post of elected mayor in Liverpool. Liverpool constituency Labour parties are currently debating this issue; and to this end, the council’s Labour group’s working party – set up to look at this – has disseminated a series of papers intended to better inform discussion. Essentially, Liverpool Labour is to decide on its preferred governance model – a leader and cabinet model (the overwhelming choice across the country); the committee model (which gives councillors greater involvement in decision making); or the existing mayoral model.

It is a good idea for the working party to make as much information available to rank-and-file members as possible, and to bury some of the myths which have been propagated by both sides of this thorny issue. However, I am not moved by self-serving internal council reports. Nor do I buy into ambiguous peer group reviews, where councillors comment on councillors. These tend at best to be jargon-filled and uninformative. So what do we have left to supplement members gut instincts?

Included are two academic reports, presumably meant to give an authoritative flavour to the debate. The first was written last month by Stuart Wilkes-Heeg, of Liverpool University. It is very non-committal. It tries to sum up the little research which has been done on the subject, without drawing any conclusions. The second paper was written in 2016 by Michael Parkinson, also of Liverpool University. It is worth looking a little closer at this one.

Parkinson makes no attempt to be impartial. He tells us that, amongst the council’s partners, “there is huge goodwill and support for the office of elected mayor…..and for the individual himself”. Intrigued by this unsubstantiated assertion from three years ago, I turned to the appendix listing the fifty one “partners” he had interviewed, and upon whom he based this comment. Four politicians were on the list – Richard Kemp, Steve Munby, Nick Small, and Joe Anderson. Others included were disgraced former council CEO, Ged Fitzgerald, and party promoter and Joe crony, Frank McKenna. The rest consisted of bureaucrats and quangocrats with a sprinkling of businessmen – a cross section of the self-selecting local “great and good”. Nowhere do I see a reference to what ordinary people think – that is, those who pay for all this nonsense and have no vested interest in the council.

I was neither surprised nor disappointed by the Parkinson report, having first read it back in 2016 on its first release. We should note that it was published in the name of the Heseltine Institute, the eponymous little group dedicated to the promotion of the Tory peer’s views. These include the advocacy of the establishment of elected mayors, although truly objective evidence shows that, given a say in the matter, most people reject the mayoral model.

Still, one can but hope. London’s experience – with Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson – has shown how the mayoral model inflates already massive egos. Liverpool has shown, to date, how accountability and transparency nose dive, as do probity and competence. Let the people decide.