A Year of Decision

With the general election behind us, along with the Christmas holiday period, it is time for us all to review exactly where we stand across the Liverpool City Region (LCR) at the start of a new political cycle. Notwithstanding Tory claims to be the dominant party for the north, we are all too aware that there is a new Tory government with no love for Merseyside. Everything must be viewed through this prism, as we can expect little support or understanding from Westminster.

As I have repeatedly remarked, the Labour Party dominates local government throughout the LCR; and this is reflected in the various office holders across the city-region. Regardless of the political affiliation (or none) of the people therein, this is an important fact of political life for all across the LCR. This coming May, there could be changes in the representation within individual wards across the LCR, but it is difficult to foresee a change of council control in Liverpool, Knowsley, St Helens or Halton, principally because the opposition seems to be currently so weak in those boroughs. Thus, it is psephologically improbable to anticipate change. If there was to be a change, the objective observer would look to Wirral or Sefton, if anywhere.

However, there are other elections looming for prominent positions within the city-region – metromayor, police and crime commissioner (PCC), and Liverpool mayor. It has not been a brilliant past year for any of the current incumbents. The invisibility of the present PCC has been well noted, and her decision to step down widely welcomed. This has led to a general belief that a good, active local independent with a “hands on “ approach, might very well take the vacant post. Unlike the Manchester PCC, that of the LCR has not been integrated into the city-region structure under the metromayor. This has been a major failing, leaving our PCC virtually unaccountable. Perhaps this is part of the reason that Merseyside Police has been so slack in dealing with the tide of corruption allegations swirling through the city of Liverpool.

The reputational blight currently afflicting the city – the Echo’s whitewash apart – is important to us all, given that Liverpool is the big economic driver for the city-region as a whole. Currently, there are a clutch of criminal investigations underway involving senior council figures and self-styled “developers”. The investigating bodies involved include the North West Regional Crime Squad and the Serious Fraud Office, as well as Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Lancashire police forces. Central to this reputational meltdown is the city’s mayor. He cannot have the power which he has without taking the responsibility which goes with it. It took months for him to rid us of the former chief executive after his arrest; now he is again failing to act with the director of regeneration after his arrest. Thus, the mayor’s political standing is at an all-time low. It remains to be seen whether or not he retains the support of the Liverpool Labour Party membership, enabling him to stand for election again. That is the first hurdle which he must cross. If he is successful and has the Labour endorsement in May, who knows who will oppose him, and what the outcome will be?

The Labour Party has already endorsed Steve Rotheram to stand again for the post of metromayor. The measure of his task was reflected in today’s news that the LCR’s Combined Authority failed to muster a quorum of elected members for an important budget meeting, one which would have spread around much needed funding across the city-region. If councillors will not turn out for that, what are they doing as councillors? This illustrates the difference in attitude towards the metromayoralty between elected representatives in the city-regions of Liverpool and “can-do” Manchester. There remains a question mark over our own metromayor’s ability to stamp his authority on the LCR, particularly the city of Liverpool, where the mayor appears to constantly seek to subvert the role of the metromayor.

Elections in May might tell us whether the city-region (and its constituent parts) is ready to come to terms with modern political realities. Failure to do so cannot be simply brushed off. Ultimately, it will be down to an electorate whose tribalism has sustained so many people in elected office who frankly could not run a lollipop crossing. Just remember, we get the standards of governance which we deserve.

2020 – A Year of Change?

History will view the last decade as an extraordinarily harsh period in our country, including across our city-region. There is no doubt that the bullish Tory government, with its big majority, will do little to ease the pressures facing Labour-run local authorities. Indeed, it is the avowed aim of the Johnson administration to destroy what they see as the last redoubts of Labour support. That puts our city-region squarely in its sights. So, given the sorry state of the Labour and Lib Dem parties nationally, we must ask what can be done locally to ameliorate the situation of those most in need locally?

There will be changes in the national party leaderships, but it will take much more than this before there can be any effective challenge to the new-found Tory confidence with its large parliamentary majority. We have not yet faced the reality of Brexit, and those in need help now! Their best hope – if not their only one – remains with local government. The current reality across our city-region means authorities which are Labour run. They, in turn, face elections this year – councils, metromayor, police commissioner, and in Liverpool, city mayor. The record of these is patchy.

The police commissioner – elected ostensibly as Labour – has been an absentee landlord, collecting a massive salary but virtually invisible, and ineffective in the eyes of the public. The councils have varied in how they have dealt with austerity, but voters are tending to look at failures rather than ever decreasing successes. Corruption cases in Liverpool and Knowsley councils have surely increased the electorate’s cynicism about the probity of their local representatives. The metromayor has struggled to educate the electorate on the limits to his powers – far less than those available to his equivalents in Manchester and London and repeatedly undermined by his “colleague” in the Cunard Building. Finally, the Liverpool mayor is generally viewed as way past his sell-by date, despite the efforts of his spin doctors (including the Liverpool Echo) to project him in a positive light. He appears to survive because of the political weakness of the Liverpool Council Labour group.

Nevertheless, those currently facing reselection and re-election have undoubted advantages. Firstly, there is incumbency. In an area like ours, it is very difficult to dislodge someone already well dug in to the political battleground. Then there is the spectre of apathy. Across the city-region, we have some of the lowest turn-outs in the whole country. Large numbers of voters have simply washed their hands of electoral politics, particularly at a local level. We all hear the same comments that “Nothing changes” or “They are all the same”. This suits those in power who simply want to be there, rather than to change things for the better. Finally, there is the question of a viable opposition. Who, many local electors ask, can effectively take on the local Labour hegemony? There may be opportunities to chip away in Wirral and Sefton for council seats, but few obvious prospects elsewhere.

Yet there is space for a challenge, particularly in relation to the roles of Police Commissioner and Liverpool mayor. In the opinion of many, both of the current incumbents have been failures. The current Police Commissioner has read the runes and will not be standing again. The Liverpool mayor has yet to be reselected by his party, although he is trying to steamroller his re-selection through. These are roles where a high profile, charismatic “independent” candidate might for once overcome the twin evils of apathy and tribalism.

After all, if the recent general election has reminded us of anything, it is that the electorate cannot be taken for granted, even in the most committed Labour heartlands. Who would have ever imagined a Tory defeating Dennis Skinner in a seat he had held for 47 years? Who could have believed that those northern mining areas devastated by Thatcher would turn to the Tories? Who foresaw the decimation of the Labour Party across the country? Nevertheless, a truly smart local opposition in Liverpool, for example, could seek to circumvent the local Labour council with a concerted push to replace the current mayor with a candidate from left field. Whether that is either possible or practicable is for others to decide, but it is certainly do-able. Welcome to 2020!