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!