Throughout a lifetime of interest and involvement in what we call politics, I have always believed that, in the broadest sense, politics was about a set of values, and their application via a series of aims, for the good of all. In a wider context, politics have evolved into the relatively modern phenomenon of political parties which people join to advance their beliefs. Those parties have usually been defined rather loosely – left, right or centrist – although each is normally a coalition of interests.
The Conservatives have been viewed as the party of the status quo, defending the rights and privileges of those who have, resistant to demands for change which regularly bubble up within the body politic. Labour, meanwhile has historically presented itself as the party of the have nots – the disaffected, the deprived, and the socially marginalised. The Liberal Democrats has sought to bridge the divide between these two. Other parties are more narrow. The Greens pride themselves as the party of the environment, whilst the nationalist parties are, by definition, circumscribed geographically. Oddities like the Brexit party and UKIP are single issue vehicles with one self-evident aim.
Approaching the general election, the major parties as we have known them, appear to be cracking at the seams – at least at a national level. It is not just a consequence of Brexit, although that is a massive catalyst in the internal crises facing the major parties. The glue which has bound these “broad coalitions” together for many years appears to be rapidly dissolving, like the planetary ice caps. More and more, the broad coalitions are becoming redundant, superseded by special interests without the wider allegiances of yesteryear. However, in musing on these matters, I recall the sage advice given to his colleagues by the former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, that” All politics is local”.
Within our city-region, there has always been an extra edge to party politics. On the surface, some things may seem to have changed, but that would be a superficial appreciation of the current state of affairs. Thus, while Sefton looks politically quiescent, the same north-south tensions obtain which have hindered it for forty five years. Across the Mersey in Wirral, there remains an obsession with the outdated issues and sectarianism of the 1980s. Knowsley may be judged by the recent challenge to sitting MP, George Howarth, killed off by the central Labour diktat to constituency Labour parties, that all sitting MPs be reselected for the forthcoming general election.
However, as the saying goes, God – and the electorate – moves in mysterious ways. Two of our local boroughs face serious problems which illustrate why Labour as the local governing party need to rediscover why they are in public life. They are Liverpool and St Helens. Given the Labour hegemony in the two boroughs, it is not too fanciful to believe that both could face melt down in their different ways.
I wrote recently about the toxicity within St Helens Labour. I was not to know then that two female councillors would depart Labour, including the chief whip, in exasperation at life in the Labour group. These losses have nothing to do with Brexit, but they do reflect a real breakdown in internal discipline, with the council leader caught in the middle of continuous faction fighting. This situation speaks volumes to me about those who are plotting and scheming within St Helens Labour. They display little understanding of how essential collectivity is, preferring that their own petty ambitions predominate.
Liverpool is no stranger to the adoption of an exceptionalist pose; and it remains bogged down in the usual morass of unenlightened self-interest. Two months ago, the Labour group on the council had an away day to discuss the mayoralty. It was obviously designed to head off the widespread dissatisfaction with the role and its incumbent, and also as a reaction to a Liberal Democrat motion due to go before the council. What was clear from the minutes of the meeting was that there was a great deal of unhappiness within the group on the matter. They recognised that both the rank-and-file Labour membership and the electorate were at odds with the council over the mayoralty.
Despite some spurious assertions “from the floor” (according to the minutes), many councillors are concerned by the many gaps between the official mayor/council position and the views of both the electorate and Labour Party members. Curiously, the minutes refer to different agenda items, one entitled “Political and Economic Environment”. This in turn was headed by the bald statement that “Len McCluskey in favour of elected City Mayors”. So who gives a toss what Len McCluskey thinks? He is not in any elected office in Liverpool, and I doubt whether he is still on the electoral role in the city. Obviously, the council cares what the union boss thinks, if not the electorate or lay party members.
The indicative vote which had been held across the city constituency by constituency voted 2 to 1 against an elected mayor. The highest body for lay members (the Local Campaign Forum) also voted against the role of elected Mayor. The Labour group’s answer was to kick the issue into the long grass until 2022. So much for Labour party democracy. You might say that a job creation programme has been reinforced for the sole benefit of Joe Anderson. Is it any wonder that people lose faith??