Mayoral Rewind

It appears that Labour’s ruling national body has belatedly got the message about the possible Labour nomination for the post of elected mayor. As trade unions precipitately rushed to support one candidate or another, I wonder whether they gave much thought to the needs of either the Labour Party or the city of Liverpool.  There needs to be such a change in a civic culture which either has condoned the manifest corruption which has taken hold in recent years, or has, in some cases, apparently taken advantage of the “opportunities” available in a council which has foregone either transparency or real accountability. 

There is nothing much for me to say which I have not been saying in this blog for years. However, I should point out that there is a misguided belief that any aspiring mayoral candidate must come from within the massed ranks of councillors. That is simply not the case. I presume that Labour’s National Executive is looking for a wider range of potential candidates, given that those who have put themselves forward to date have been found unacceptable. I am equally sure that there are individuals within the Liverpool Labour Party with the requisite skills and background to put themselves forward with confidence.

Hopefully, those whose ambition far exceeds their capabilities will not waste the party’s time. We have had ten years of mismanagement at the top – we need no more. It will initially be a tough row to hoe for whoever takes over in May. If it is the Labour candidate, there will be fulsome support at hand from the party, along with goodwill and practical help. What no-one can inject is the political courage and Labour values which will be prerequisites for the successful candidate. We all wait with bated breath!!

Union Relations

Not for the first time, local politics hereabouts take me into inexplicable corners.  Take Unite, the union.  As most people will realise, it is a national union, generally dealing with national issues. However, Unite, under its last two general secretaries, has taken an inordinate interest in Merseyside politics.  Thirty-five years ago, the then TGWU official – Len McCluskey – spent a lot of his time stirring up difficulties for both his union and for the Labour Party.  Some people called this militancy; others described it as trouble making.  Thus, it should come as no surprise to find that the same culture still exists within the union.

The regional executive of the union met this week, to consider, amongst other things, Unite’s position on the Labour candidates for the Liverpool mayoralty.  Two other unions, Unison and Usdaw, had already made clear their support for Cllr Wendy Simon, a former Unison official. The Unite regional politbureau decided not to support anyone, but to remain neutral.  This was the cue for an almighty online executive row, with the union hierarchy demanding support for Cllr Anna Rothery.  It will be of more than passing interest how this will be resolved.  It does appear, however, that vested interests within the Labour movement are lining up in a self-defined “left/right” battle.  It is telling that Cllr Anne O’Byrne appears to hold no attraction, at least for the brothers and sisters of the union movement.

There is nothing new in the involvement of trade unions in the Labour Party’s selection processes at all levels.  Sometimes it has been a virtuous phenomenon, saving the Labour Party from itself and its inclination towards fratricidal civil war.  On other occasions, union activity – at least at a local level – has been part of the problem rather than the answer.  Such was the case in the 1980s when Len McCluskey’s machinations in the north west were a headache for the Labour Party.  However, what strikes me now is the way in which now the national level of Unite should be so involved in the current difficulties being experienced in Liverpool City Council.

This possibly relates to the controversy surrounding a building project in (of all places) Birmingham.  This was the project originally said to cost £7m which became one costing £96m.  Needless to say, this is a matter of great interest to members of Unite.  What interests those looking at the financial affairs of Liverpool City Council, is the appointment of a Liverpool company – the Flanagan Group – as main contractors.  It appears that at an early stage in this project, Unite had refused to appoint a main contractor approved by Birmingham City Council, insisting on the appointment of the Flanagan Group.

The Flanagan Group is known to Liverpool Council watchers because its principal was arrested along with Mayor Anderson and others in the police anti-corruption drive, Operation Aloft.  Why would such a relatively small and diverse company figure in at least two controversial development cases?  After all, this company was multi-faceted, with a variety of other developments over time in Liverpool, from the Sir Thomas Hotel to the Newz Bar.  The Birmingham development was on a  totally  different scale.

To understand this, one needs to go back to Len McCluskey’s predecessor, Tony Woodley, based in the Wirral.  He struck a deal with a very small Wirral-based company called Purple Apple.  After a series of amalgamations of unions, the expanding TGWU/Unite super union had surplus buildings and land in its property portfolio, in need of rationalisation and/or repair.  This led to a three way, loose partnership, with Purple Apple assessing the properties and Flanagan’s doing any work required (just look at the renewal of Jack Jones’s house in Islington).

Even as Woodley retired as general secretary (and McCluskey took his place), the tidy arrangement continued. McCluskey created a post-retirement job for Woodley, looking after the property portfolio of Unite.  Purple Apple and Flanagans continued to sell their services to the union, liaising through Woodley, now in the House of Lords!.  At the same time, Purple Apple and Flanagans were making large donations to Liverpool Labour Party, as was Unite.  It seems as if everyone remained happy with their cosy arrangements until the police in Liverpool and Unite’s national executive, began to stick their noses in. Where the recent controversy will lead us, we can only hazard a guess. I am sure, however, that there is much more yet to be revealed.

Hobson’s Choice

On Monday, Labour’s regional office emailed a notice referencing today’s hustings for the three Labour hopefuls for the nomination as candidate for Liverpool mayor. The notice says that there is a maximum of 1000 members who can participate in this on-line event. There has already been one set of hustings, I am told, which managed to attract about 100 participants. Think about these figures for a minute, in the context of about 5000 Labour members in the city.

It seems as if the bulk of Labour members in the city will have no opportunity to hear the candidates live, or to put questions to them. If you have not been invited, you simply cannot do so. Admittedly, this is hardly surprising, given the limitations on the hustings, and the shortness of the timetable. Granted also that, given the impact of the pandemic, it is difficult to see how else there might be some semblance of a selection process. Nevertheless, it does raise questions about the internal democracy of the Labour Party.

For example, who exactly has been made aware of these hustings? Presumably it was only those members who can be contacted on-line. Even then, doubts are raised. I am on-line, and I regularly am notified of my branch and constituency meetings but I have no recollection of anything concerning hustings from the regional office. What of those members who are not on-line? There are such members out there, believe it or not. Surely they have a right to be fully involved in such an important selection.

Mind you, one must wonder whether improved communication necessarily leads to increased participation. The poor on-line turn out at the first hustings might suggest that, once again, apathy rules the day, even amongst those honoured with an invitation. Perhaps they had heard that the person invited to chair the event was the council’s in-house apologist at “The Echo” – its laughingly designated “political” editor, Liam Thorpe.

All else aside, these are serious issues. Ballots will be issued on February 17th, closing on March 5th.  My fear is that once again, ballots will be cast in ignorance by a minority of Labour Party members in the city. In my view, the national and regional executives of the Labour Party have once again exhibited remarkable ignorance and disregard for the Liverpool Labour party, and for the city itself. After all, we are in the middle of intensive police and government inquiries into how the council has been mismanaged and corrupted in recent years. Yet we have a choice from between three candidates who have sat by like the fabled three wise monkeys, at the very least oblivious to the malfeasance occurring whilst they were senior councillors. Now we are told to select one of them. Is it to be the one said to be left wing, the one said to be right wing, or the one said to be chasing “ching-ching”? Frankly, I see no clear politics between the three of them.

I emphasise, too, the importance of this to the other boroughs within the city-region. It is not just that Liverpool is the major driver borough within that collective; it has also been a very awkward partner at times to other members of the Combined Authority. There needs to be a responsible and constructive spokesperson for Liverpool on the Combined Authority. Remember, too, that there have been bilateral spill-overs of Liverpool’s corruption, affecting chunks of the city-region. We all have a stake in getting a workable solution to Liverpool Council’s ills, starting with the mayoralty if we must continue the post.