Groundhog Day

The Americans speak of a phenomenon where events continually repeat themselves – they call it groundhog day. I have pondered on this since last week’s elections since when little appears to have changed. There is still a Labour Party hegemony across the city-region despite some small losses (Sefton council excepted). Liverpool still has a former bankrupt named Anderson charged with steering the city out of its slough of despond. The “Echo” continues to fantasise about its contribution to civic transparency. Cllr Woodhouse is again involved in a rather tawdry twitter exchange……oh, and developer Elliot Lawless remains a subject of police investigation.

Back to the elections – it is true to say that, with one notable exception, all of the candidates for the job of city mayor under performed. That exception was independent candidate Stephen Yip. He came from nowhere (politically speaking) to take a very creditable second place without hardly any resources or a city-wide campaign. The real winner was Apathy, aided and abetted by its close relations, Cynicism and Ignorance. We can only speculate about what might happen next year when there will be many more council seats at stake, and interest might be higher.

The two unknowns for Liverpool in the short term are any actions that the Labour Party might take in the wake of its panel hearings; and the effects of the Caller Report recommendations that there be fewer council seats in Liverpool City Council. The honest truth is that neither the government nor the Labour Party  are quite sure what they CAN do about what appears to many outside observers to be an irredeemably bolshie city. They suffer the kind of exasperation which arose in both the national Conservative and the national Labour parties in the early eighties. Whether that suggests echoes of Geoffrey Howe’s “managed decline” approach, or the more muscular resolution of Neil Kinnock, only time will tell.

Of more immediate concern to many in the city-region – those who appreciate Liverpool city’s position as the key economic driver for the area –is the source of the stimulus necessary to prompt real economic revival. The most likely bet is the city’s chief executive. The new mayor has neither the knowledge nor the experience to provide the necessary initiative. Mr Reeves, on the other hand, will be working in collusion with the government’s appointed commissioners. My money is on him as the de facto mayor. However, even if the combined wisdom of the CEO and the commissioners sets the city council on the path to revival, reconstruction and renewal, I cannot see how that, of itself, will rejuvenate the city’s prospects, attracting the level of outside investment that the city will need. Let us face it – the government is not going to come in with an open cheque book.

I do not believe that the battering which the city’s reputation has suffered, is fully understood. Much of this is down to the extent of the corruption endemic in the city, and the numbers of investors – both individual and institutional – who have had their fingers burnt. It is absolutely imperative that there are prosecutions and convictions of those responsible for the civic criminality which has tragically become synonymous with Liverpool. Otherwise, it is perfectly reasonable for people to assume that nothing has changed.

Certainly, I for one could not vouch that Liverpool City Council has been cleansed of its problems by the arrest of the former mayor. Incidentally, he has now called Max Caller a liar in the Independent newspaper. He also says that he was no “don”. That is true – more a useful idiot, hinting at a possible, if unlikely, political comeback. What messages do such comments send to the outside world? Is it simply that it is business as usual – Liverpool City Council style? Sadly, the initial statements of the city’s new mayor and the region’s new police and crime commissioner, suggest a preoccupation with identity politics, as if the scourge of corruption has gone, and is not on their agendas. They should rectify this omission immediately, giving it the priority it deserves.

Elections Looming

With less than two weeks before some of the most telling local elections ever to be held across the city-region, I have had some election material on the candidates sent to me. To be more precise, I have had two Labour leaflets, one in support of both the local council candidate AND the mayoral candidate; and another solely supporting the Labour mayoral candidate for Liverpool.

I have also had a booklet from Liverpool City Council, extolling the virtues of all of the candidates wishing to be Liverpool mayor. Having read many leaflets and manifestos in my long political life, I cannot say that I have read anything which might incline me to alter my pre-existing views on the mayoralty. Nor have I been impressed by the little I have seen on the aspirants for the post of Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). No one could be worse than the outgoing PCC, presumably more preoccupied with the gendarmerie in France than Merseyside Police. However, I was astonished to see that Labour’s candidate – a Liverpool councillor! – had nothing to say about the corruption that is rife within the city council.

I should not be surprised – little appears to have been learnt since the Caller Report was published. A councillor resigns from cabinet, not over the dreadful state of affairs therein, but ostensibly over some disagreement concerning the reconfiguration of Lime Street. Not a word about the sorry state of what is widely perceived as a criminally inclined council. Another goes because of a foul-mouthed rant online about the dead Prince Phillip. One does not have to be a royalist to recognize the unacceptability of such behavior in any circumstances.

The attempts by councillors to regularize their entries on the register of interests, raise more questions. For example, the inept political editor of the Liverpool “Echo” listed the revised register without pointing out the incongruities in it. For example, the acting mayor had indeed updated her entries, as did her colleagues. However, she does not include her two directorships for the Liverpool Arena and the associated hotel. Given the appalling record of the  “Echo”, I rechecked this. Councillor Simon lists all of her unpaid interests but there is no mention of the two appointments in question. I noted this because I have tried – and failed – to discover which of the directors shared in a pot of over £500,000 declared to Companies House as directors’ emoluments. I simply cannot get an answer from the council.

This is the crux of the problem facing Liverpool voters at the ballot box in May. Has anything really changed? Have lessons been learned or is it business as usual? I find it difficult to believe that there has been any substantial change in the council culture. Nor do I anticipate any such change until there is some shock therapy. That means prosecutions followed by convictions.

Therefore, in this context, what does the Labour Party hope to achieve with its investigation panel; and what part might it play in the reform and rehabilitation of Liverpool City Council? Remember – the panel is restricted to looking at Labour Party issues. As the panel recognizes, council issues and police matters are beyond its remit. Thus, it is hard to envisage what changes will eventuate from the panel’s hearings which might dramatically impact on the culture of the council.

We seem to have been here so many times before. Now I read that Liverpool and Wirral are being dragged more and more into the Unite financial controversy. We all know that the present general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, is from Liverpool. We also know that the Flanagan Group and Joe Anderson’s son, David, have been embroiled in the Birmingham building project for Unite, where the costs have risen from an initial £7 million to a colossal £98 million! Now it seems that two Wirral figures were involved in this deal. One is Mike Ryder of Purple Apple Management; the other is McCluskey’s predecessor, Tony Woodley (now, would you believe, in the House of Lords!). They both had parts to play at different stages. Now I read also that Mr Ryder was the link for McCluskey’s preferred successor, Howard Beckett, to join the union’s hierarchy. What a crazy world we are in.

One last snippet before I go into purdah until after the elections. It appears that Knowsley Contractors/King Construction, central to the Tarmacademy controversy which has been of great interest to the police under Operation Aloft, has changed its name to VIAM Ltd. All of its current contracts have been suspended until the police investigations have been completed. Over now to the electors.

A Recap

It is becoming more and more difficult to keep track of the many failings of Liverpool City Council (LCC) over recent years. Quite apart from a now widespread understanding that many millions have been lost to council coffers, the devil is most certainly in the details – details which are now in danger of being overlooked or forgotten. I was reminded of this when I read that Banksy’s “Rat” – which once adorned the side of the White House pub in Duke Street – was up for auction in the Netherlands. How? Its recent history and whereabouts has been clouded in mystery since the White House fell into the hands of developers, the Ascot Group.

I confess to have forgotten about this; but who now remembers the deliberate destruction of a listed building in Wolstenholme Square by developers the Lawless Group? A council spokesman said at the time that it was a “criminal” act but that the council would be taking no action against the developers. We can refer to so-called developments galore, to exemplify the failure of LCC to secure on these projects, Section 106 monies which developers were obligated to pay the council for general environmental improvements. One can only hope that these issues and many others will be pursued under Operation Aloft. Although there are too many to itemise here, each one deserves to be investigated.

Nevertheless, the council ploughs on in its own way, with the same people, by and large. At least, the city solicitor is going, reportedly of her own volition. She will have a substantial pay-off and a secure pension, despite having been responsible for signing off so many of the council’s deals now under investigation. She will not be a loss to the council’s senior officer corps. Incidentally, speaking of pensions, during 2019, I raised twice in my blog concerns which had been raised about the conduct of the Merseyside Pension Fund (MPF), then chaired by Wirral councillor, Paul Doughty. It now appears that the transfer of the ownership of the Cunard Building – now owned by LCC – cost the MPF million of pounds in losses. Perhaps that is yet another deal which requires closer consideration.

Speaking of deals, we know that Merseyside Police were well aware of the conflicts of interests involving those who ran two of the match day car parks via the Beautiful Ideas Company. The internal council report on this, compiled by Councillor Kushner, highlighted the involvement of Councillor O’Byrne in this matter, and the role of her daughter, a former councillor. However, it was extremely sketchy about the biggest cash cow – the Priory Road car park – which was run for some years by the Flanagan Group.

Is it not, to say the least, curious that the same names repeatedly occur in so many of these sorry tales? Much has been made of late of the involvement of Councillor Anderson’s son, David, in the award of controversial contracts to a firm which he owned. Little has been said of the ex-mayor’s daughter, Councillor Joanne Calvert. She, like many of her council colleagues, hastily updated her register of interests when her father was arrested. On this, she was shown to be an “administrator” for a company called Bike2Work Scheme, Ltd. Coincidentally, one of that company’s directors resigned as a director at the same time. His name? Derek Hatton. It is important to note that the company had received a £500,000 grant from LCC courtesy of then Mayor Anderson.

Predictably, none of this will figure in any way in the Labour Party’s inquiry into itself. The Labour Party will concern itself solely with constitutional issues and failings. The logic is that they must not look at or do anything which might in any way undermine or prejudice the police inquiries and potential prosecutions. It is reasonable, therefore, to wonder what effect the Labour Party Inquiry Team can have on the wider problems afflicting a Labour-dominated city like Liverpool.

On an equally sombre note, I read with sincere sadness of the death of veteran GMB Branch 5 leader, Ian Lowes. I was always of the belief that he had seen Militant Tendency for what it was. He remained committed, however, to giving the best possible service to his union members. Sometimes, he got it right, and sometimes he got it wrong, just like the rest of us. I bumped into him on occasion in our local supermarket, and, as an ex-chef, he would volunteer advice on the best meat to buy. Fancying himself as something of a wine buff, he would also recommend a nice (cheap!) red to go with it. Not for Ian the trade union career path: he left that for other contemporaries who, to this day, too often give trade unionism a bad name.

Worms and Woodwork

If nothing else, the Caller report on Liverpool City Council has shaken the worms out of the woodwork of the city.  Settling down to some late evening television, I was dismayed to see that Echo “political editor” (a title I concede hesitantly) Liam Thorp pontificating on the daily headlines on Sky television.  This man, who ignored all of the evidence of the corruption rife in LCC, coincidentally published an interview with academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg.  He is yet another who has had nothing to do or say about Liverpool’s sickness these past ten years, along with another of Thorp’s “expert” academics, Michael Parkinson, remembered for his panegyrics to Joe on behalf of the Heseltine Institute. Talk about the three wise monkeys… The only local academic who has said anything sensible on our travails is Professor Jon Tonge.

Ah, well – they are not alone in belatedly seeing the blindingly obvious.  I note that the city solicitor for these past ten years is to depart.  I am sure that she will be cheered by the Law Society Gazette report, showering support for LCC’s legal beagles.  What humbug to exonerate them from any culpability because of pressure.  They must have seen what was happening, but they still signed off on a catalogue of dodgy deals.  Refusal to sign, or resignation, was surely the proper (dare I say ethical?) course to follow.

The district auditors have not been left behind in issuing a “not me, guv” statement.  Their spokesman, Mr Andrew Smith, claimed that there was no flagging up of issues prior to the arrival of chief executive, Tony Reeves.  His actual reported words were “no red flags to us of these issues until … the arrests”.  This is absolutely untrue.  I went to meet with Grant Thornton at their waterfront offices, and highlighted what was happening in the city council.  This was as LCC sold Millennium House about seven years ago!

Meanwhile, within the council’s political arm, I was intrigued to read that Cllr Leon Tootle – chair of the audit and governance committee – was leaving.  Apparently, he did so with a heavy heart, but worn down by the abuse he has suffered.  Is this the same Cllr Tootle who abused me for taking the council to task over the hugely wasteful – and empty – Parklands School in Speke?  Good riddance, many will say.

Still, as Cllr Simon – acting mayor – still insists that she saw nothing untoward in her years alongside Mayor Anderson as his deputy, another councillor has shown his true colours.  Cllr Kennedy is councillor for Kirkdale, and has been living in Spain for over a year.  His term of office does not end until May 2022, and he fully intends to stay in his new home until then.  He continues to draw his council allowances, and will do so until his term is up.  What does that say to the people in his ward?  It is bad enough that there is a war being waged between his fellow councillor, Joe Hanson, and residents.  It does not augur well for future Labour prospects thereabouts.

The ex-wife of Cllr Kennedy is the infamously low profile Merseyside Police and Crime Commissioner.  Like her ex-consort, she too has an overseas home.  Many believe that she spends far more time in France than on Merseyside.  She was elected under the Labour banner, although she left Labour in accord with the trumped up charges of anti-Semitism in the local party.  Nevertheless, her poor performance will reflect badly on Labour as she is still associated with Labour in the minds of the voters.

Finally, it has been announced that the job creation project for ex-councillor Frank Hont, known as Liverpool Foundation Homes, is to be wound up, with losses of over £700,000.  I am sure that there is more to come.  Meanwhile, the national Labour Party has appointed Deeside MP, David Hanson, and former Leeds City Council Leader, Dame Judith Blake, to carry out a root and branch reform of Liverpool Labour.  Where will they begin?  Do they understand what they are letting themselves in for?

Over three years ago, Lancashire Police handed their conclusions resulting from their long-running and expensive Operation Sheridan to the Crown Prosecution Service.  This investigation, although Lancashire based, leads into the very heart of Liverpool City Council.  To date, the CPS has launched no prosecutions.  The moral of this legal saga is to wait and see what, if any, prosecutions eventuate from the murky chaos of the city council.  Until there are prosecutions and convictions, nothing much will change.

The Beginning of the End?

No-one with any knowledge of Liverpool politics ought to express shock at the Caller Report on Liverpool Council, and the statement in the House of Commons yesterday by the Secretary of State. It has been obvious for years that there has been something radically wrong in the way in which the council (LCC) has been run. Indeed, those who express shock have either ignored the evidence of their own eyes and ears, turning a Nelsonian blind eye to the malpractice all around them; or they are completely politically inept.

Yesterday was a good day for the many good people and businesses of Liverpool. The report was the first step in fumigating the infection of LCC. Council tax payers have been the principal victims to date of the terrible abuses of power cited in the Caller Report. However, there are others of whom questions ought to be asked. Quite apart from the silent majority of councillors who have said and done nothing, we might well ask why the local media sought to shower praise on the council rather than the criticism it warranted. Its Trappist silence on council malfeasance has kept much of the local population in the dark about the reality of how the city has been run. What of the district auditors – Grant Thornton – who did not sign off the council’s accounts for the last five years, but did so in the previous five years when there were scams galore? Why did it take so long for Merseyside Police to involve themselves in what were very obviously criminal activities with the council at the centre? Why did the regional and national Labour parties fail to ensure that their Liverpool councillors observe the standards and Nolan Principles current everywhere else?

What we have now is a thorough and clinical report which sets out just how out of kilter Liverpool City Council has been in terms of best value and best practice. It deals (well) with the council’s processes and where it has failed to serve the interests of the city and its people. This is not a minor aberration but a systemic breakdown caused by a whole string of factors. There are many reasons for why this has happened within LCC; but, reading between the lines of the report, we can speculate that suspected malfeasance was a major issue. Nevertheless, the report is extremely circumspect in its conclusions. Mr Caller did not wish the ongoing police operation (Operation Aloft) to be either inhibited or subverted. The next stage for the people of Liverpool to see is the prosecution in the courts of those responsible for the loss to the city and its people of the many millions of pounds known to have been siphoned out of municipal funds. Hopefully, Merseyside Police and the Crown Prosecution Service will hasten the day of reckoning, and expedite the appearance of the malefactors in the dock.

The report did include some surprises. There is to be a long-overdue revision of local government representation in Liverpool. If I read things correctly, the number of councillors will be reduced by about two thirds, and there will be all-out elections once every four years. Each ward will have one councillor, removing the surplus councillors who seem to exist simply to collect their councillor’s allowance in a variation on Parkinson’s Law. Interestingly, the Shadow Secretary of State told the Commons that the Labour Party is to appoint a “senior” party member to look at Liverpool and see what is needed from a Labour Party political viewpoint.

For yours truly, looking at the longer term needs of LCC, the biggest issue highlighted was the need for cultural change. This will not be easy, but I have banged on for years about how vital are the twin civic virtues of transparency and accountability. That culture will not be changed if bodies like the Heseltine Institute continue to publish shallow puff pieces about the city and its politics, rather than engaging with the real issues. Nor does it help when the acting mayor – an Anderson appointee! – gives a job to ex-MEP Teresa Griffin without any recognisable recruitment process and at an unpublished salary. Nor is faith in locally elected officials improved when absentee landlord Police Commissioner – Jane Kennedy – hits council tax payers with a whopping 7% increase in the police precept.

There is a very long way to go indeed. Perhaps we should start next on looking at ways to remedy the democratic deficit at the Combined Authority… It might take another ten years!

Worse and Worse

Are things getting worse by the day, or is it just me who sees Liverpool’s situation as “critical”?  The craziness of the city council (more later) seems to be set to infect other local institutions in ways which, in turn, reflect fundamental change in a culture supposedly based on fairness and good old common sense.  I refer in this instance to the decision of Liverpool University senate to change the name of one of its halls of residence.

I refer to the Gladstone Halls. William Ewart Gladstone was a Liverpool man who became Prime Minister.  His family had made its wealth using slaves on their West Indian plantation.  As prime minister, he made many remarkable changes for his day – the Victorian era – but nearly 150 years later, he is apparently condemned for being a man of his time.  A politically correct university senate has now decided he must pay the posthumous price of his audacity for being the scion of a slave-owning family, despite the fact that he condemned slavery in his maiden speech in Parliament.  Ah well, when did reason ever enter into such matters?

Meanwhile, Liverpool Labour goes from bad to worse.  Firstly, we have a frustrated mayoral aspirant – Cllr O’Byrne – claiming that the “figures” she had, pointed to her victory had she been allowed to stand.  We can all but dream, councillor.  On the other hand, affronted Cllr Rothery took the Labour Party to the “capitalist courts”, demanding a review of Labour’s legitimate, if extraordinary, decision to disbar its initial shortlist.  She was left with egg on her face as her case was thrown out, and a bill of £65,000 for Labour’s costs, which will be met by Unite, the union.

That leaves us with the two hopefuls for the position as Labour’s candidate in May’s mayoral election.  I received today my first communication (no imprint, of course) from one of them, Cllr Lavelle.  This ambitious young man believes that his experience as a play scheme worker and as a clerical assistant in Peter Dowd’s office, qualifies him to run a city as complex as Liverpool.  His leaflet describes him as a “team builder”.  One wonders at that, given the story of a fellow student of his who complained formally to both his student union and his university about his abusive and bullying behaviour.  According to this young lady, Cllr Lavelle did not simply make an odd comment in the rashness of youth.  He systematically made her life a misery for the whole of her time at university, targeting her disability for horribly vindictive behaviour.

On the other hand, we have Cllr Anderson, thankfully no relation to Mayor Anderson.  Like Cllr Rothery, Cllr Anderson is a councillor in Princes Park ward, although the word is that the two did not get on at all.  One wonders why she suddenly threw her hat into the ring from a position of political obscurity, given that she had already remarked that she would not stand again for the council at the end of her first term of office as a councillor.

Even stranger is her bankruptcy record – not once, but twice.  You might recall that Mayor Anderson went bust in the only commercial venture he ever undertook – running the Munro pub in Duke Street.  We have all seen how his brand of entrepreneurial activity has turned out.  Do we want a repeat?  The city itself teeters in danger of bankruptcy, and we would hope for a new mayor to turn this difficult situation around, in partnership with the chief executive.

There are increasing numbers of people who are recognising that the city’s needs and those of the political parties are not the same thing.  It is why I believe that Stephen Yip – the only independent mayoral candidate of which I am aware – increases in credibility as a mayoral candidate by the day.  The question for him is how he organises his bid for office, and how successful he will be in keeping the chancers and sycophants at a distance from his campaign.  He could hole his campaign below the waterline if he is not careful, by the inadvertent involvement of the myriad of ne’er-do-wells ever eager to side with a political winner.

What a Shambles

Just when Liverpool Labour supporters thought that things were on the mend, party bosses cock things up once again. The past week or so has been a trial and a tribulation for loyal Labourites in Liverpool as the nomination of potential Labour candidates for the city’s mayoralty went from the sublime to the ridiculous. It is almost as if the Labour hierarchy wanted to rid themselves of the responsibility for clearing up the mess at Liverpool City council (LCC). Let me recap.

Nominations were called from amongst Labour Party members to carry the party’s flag in the election of a new mayor in May. Three were shortlisted, and they were quick off the mark in sending out promotional literature in support of themselves. No sooner was this done than the Labour Party hierarchy suspended its own timetable and recalled the three candidates for further interview. As a result, it was decided to disbar their own choices from standing, and seek alternative candidates. No explanations were offered for this extraordinary turn of events. All of this was done at incredibly short notice, but these party officials (none of whom was from Liverpool, or knew anything of its politics) amazed everyone with their new shortlist.

Now let me say at the outset that I have never met or spoken with either of the two candidates put forward. They have no political record of which I am aware, one having gone onto the council in 2016, and the other in 2019. One is a member of Unison and the other is a member of Unite.  The conspiracy theorists (see the Sqwarkbox website) went into overdrive, weaving their weird and wonderful webs, aimed at the selection panel. I find it more realistic to view such panels as incompetent rather than conspiratorial (although they can be both on occasion). It is the end product which counts; and Labour members are being asked to choose between two nondescript backbench councillors with less than six years low level experience between them.

Is the Labour Party serious about a new mayor to clean up the politics of the city council? Perhaps there are skills and talents in the candidates which are yet to be revealed. I fear not, especially given the new allegations which have surfaced suggesting that one of the candidates has been bankrupted, not once but twice. Where was the due diligence in checking this out? The once improbable chance of Labour foregoing a powerful elected position in Liverpool has become much more real.

Now put yourself in the place of serious candidates from other political parties. We can discount Tories – nothing can change their hopes in Liverpool. I assume that Lib Dem Richard Kemp and Tom Crone of the Greens will fancy their chances given the chaos of Labour’s search for a candidate. Add another twist with Cllr Rothery’s reported legal action against the Labour Party (financed, I assume, by Unite), and they can hope for a radical shift away from Labour by Liverpool voters. However, I do not believe that those voters will necessarily swap one political party for another – I hear people saying “A plague on all your houses”. Yet there might be an alternative strategy. Step forward Stephen Yip.

Stephen is the only independent candidate to throw their hat into the ring to date. His back story for Liverpool is excellent. Born and raised in Liverpool 8, he is one of ten children of a Chinese seaman father and a Scouse mother. He founded his own charity for kids (KIND) 37 years ago, which he has run very effectively over that period. He is well known and widely respected, honest and hardworking – just what Liverpool needs. Imagine him as a mayor seeking the Chinese investment that always seems to go to Manchester rather than Liverpool.

What he needs is a strong campaign to get him across to the electorate as a viable candidate. Remember that, due to covid, there will be no door knocking or events in this election. It will be done by leaflets, and that requires some knowledge of campaigning and public relations. Of course, it also requires finance.

If rival parties want to see the end of Labour hegemony in Liverpool, they could do worse than throwing their weight behind Mr Yip. He could spring quite a surprise on the local political establishment, all of whom are seen by many as having failed the city. Stranger things have happened.

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.