Mayor or Leader?

As the battle for control of Liverpool City council hots up within the controlling Labour Group, it is for far too many, a question of personalities rather than policies. Whilst personality is undeniably an issue, it can too easily overwhelm what really matters when it comes to the future of the city and its residents. To all intents and purposes, St Helens and Wirral councils have changed their council leadership without the public acrimony that appears to be part and parcel of just about everything concerning Liverpool City Council.

Perhaps the current situation was unintentionally summed up by the widely reviled former deputy leader of the city council – Derek Hatton – whose own brand of personality politics caused so much damage to the city in the 1980s. “This is Anderson’s Liverpool”, he declared in local comic, the Echo. His paean of praise to the current mayor – Joe Anderson – bore all the hallmarks of his own failed political career on the council – distortions, hyperbole, and misrepresentations. I would imagine that anyone serious about being selected for anything, would rate Hatton’s endorsement as about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. Still, they are old mates – two of a kind, you might say.

We should look at what really matters. Back in 2011, the city had the concept of an elected mayor foisted on it without any reference to its people. It was a backroom stitch-up between Anderson and former Tory Chancellor, George Osborne. The role has created a huge democratic deficit in the city as it is neither transparent nor accountable. The mayor dominates all council matters and decides at his whim who serves in his cabinet.  As Cllr Harry Doyle aptly summed up, councillors are effectively surplus to requirements, with virtually no role in the council where all decisions are made in their name by the mayor. This is evidently a mayor who prefers backroom deals with developers to open and democratic debate.

His record has been appalling to objective eyes, from the outrageous use of over £100,000 of public money in his private legal case against his former employers, through his gross mishandling of green issues, to his abject failure to address the corruption involved in the failed development projects boom which has given rise to the label of “Scam City” being attached to the city. His misdirection of huge amounts of public money has been a reflection of his own ego – an incredible inability to recognize his own very obvious limitations. Whether we refer to his “investment” in Finch Farm; his purchase of Cunard Building: his bail out of developers Langtree at the Garden Festival site – the list goes on and on. Even by his own “entrepreneurial” standards, he has been a disaster.

Yet none of this cavalier conduct in the name of the city would have been so easy if he had been council leader rather than mayor, with the sweeping powers which the mayoralty gave him. That is why, first and foremost, one would hope that the council will see the role abolished at the earliest opportunity rather than simply change the occupant of the role. If the current mayor was simply replaced, there is no reason to believe that his replacement would be any more transparent and accountable. Certainly, there is no one in the council front rank who stands out as a potentially  more capable and honest candidate for the role of mayor.

Naturally, the question then arises: who would be the most likely candidate for the role of leader of the council? Under the council’s present political composition, it would be a member of the Labour Group; and it would be for the Labour Group to determine who is best suited for that role. I would like to think that they would look for a new broom to sweep out the political detritus of recent years. Amongst the current crop of “leading lights”, there is too much bad blood, too much involvement in recent scandals, too much history. A new face, a new name, does not guarantee a new approach; but it would be a welcome relief from what has gone before.

Incidentally, Len McCluskey took issue with my last blog, and my reference to an event he attended. Firstly, he tells me, his predecessor, Tony Woodley, was not in attendance. Secondly, he insists that in his speech at the event, he merely thanked Joe Anderson for his support in an industrial dispute. There you are, Len – a simple correction costs nothing.

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Post-Election Thoughts

This holiday weekend has seen local politicians throughout the city-region, reflecting on the results of last Thursday’s elections. The immediate reaction of those who lost out was to blame Brexit; in all honesty, there is some truth in that. However, there was also a linkage across the city-region suggesting an increased salience of environmental issues in the minds of voters. It would be as well for councillors to think long and hard as to why this was the case.

In my mind, the biggest winners across the city-region on the night were the Green Party – not just because of the number of seats which they won, but also because of the number of votes which they amassed. In ward after ward – many of which had not had a Green candidate before – Green nominees polled a surprisingly high vote, given their previously low (or non-existent) base. It is too simple to just write this off as a result of a protest vote. Perhaps it is a sign of increasing public awareness of the criminal damage being done to our environment locally, nationally, and internationally.

Nationally, the Lib Dems were without doubt the biggest winners in terms of seats won, as the Tories were demonstrably the biggest losers in terms of seats lost. Hereabouts, the Tories actually gained a seat on the Wirral, whilst gains for the Lib Dems, the Greens and independents were dotted across the city-region. It would be glib to point out that Labour were generally losers; but they were coming from a very high base in all six of our local councils. Other than in Wirral, Labour retain a strong control of our local authorities. Nevertheless, only time will tell if lessons have been learnt from some quite remarkable reverses for Labour.

Ironically, the biggest “news” on election night in Liverpool was not the continued dilution of Labour support at the ballot box, but another huge fissure within the council ranks. Cllr O’Byrne announced as the ballot closed her intention to move the abolition of the post of city mayor at the council’s annual meeting later in May. As it happens , whilst I am certainly no supporter of Cllr O’Byrne, I have often written that the role is superfluous. Moreover, under the stewardship of Mayor Anderson, the role has shown itself to be anti-democratic, wasteful and inefficient. It is also profoundly politically corrupt. Unlike Manchester, for example, which has prospered without a city mayor, Liverpool has been subject to the whimsical leadership of Anderson, a man not noted for either interpersonal or entrepreneurial skills. Furthermore, it is my belief that simply replacing Anderson is not enough. Sadly, most local politicians, given the apparently unbridled powers within the city which Anderson seems to have, would fall prey to the same kind of ego trip which has characterized Anderson’s tenure of office.

I was interested to hear that Anderson attended a recent community awards event, organized by Cllr Woodhouse. Other guests included former Unite head honcho, Tony Woodley, and the union’s current boss, Len McCluskey. The latter spoke in fulsome support of Anderson as mayor, pledging help from Unite in maintaining his personal grip on power. One wonders what the quid pro quo might be for the two trade unionists, one of whom lives in Wirral and the other in London. Sup with a long spoon would be my advice. Unite members might not share their leader’s enthusiasm for a mayor who is so heartily disliked and distrusted, both within the Liverpool Labour Party and within the wider city.

Of course, if Anderson was to put himself up for mayor again, it has been suggested that he would face strong opposition for the Labour nomination in the city. One of those tipped to oppose him was Cllr O’Byrne, who is now seeking to abolish the post altogether, reverting to a more traditional council leader. Politics can be a strange land. Any leadership post she sought would surely first demand an explanation of her run-in with the police which led to her dramatic departure from her role as deputy Police Commissioner (another of Jane Kennedy’s disastrous misjudgements).

The other “hot tip” for the nomination as city mayor was one-time buddy of Anderson, “developer” Lawrence Kenwright. Again, we must wait and see what the future holds for Mr Kenwright. He has just put up for sale his two busiest (he says) hotels in Liverpool at the same time that it has leaked out that “hundreds” of investors in his speculative projects are clamouring for the overdue monies owed to them by Mr Kenwright’s company, Signature Living. I have long been advised that the rates of return which he has been in the habit of promising were wholly unrealistic, only repayable if he could keep attracting new investors to pay off the old.

Perhaps chickens are coming home to roost for Mr Kenwright. He has, of course, been down this road before, ending up in bankruptcy. It seems as if he and Mayor Anderson (remember his Munro collapse?) have still one thing in common – personal business failure.

Stupidity or Cupidity?

Like many people, I have often asked myself whether the many scams being perpetrated within the public domain on Merseyside, are down to avarice on the part of some of those in positions of authority, or simply ineptitude coupled with sublime ignorance. The recent farce involving the appointment to a senior post in Wirral Council, of an individual who only days prior had invoiced the council for large sums on behalf of a dissolved company, is an example of what might fall under either explanation. If it was not for the tendency of councils to be so secretive, many such scandals might be nipped in the bud. Transparency can make such a difference.

Look at Knowsley and the Kirkby town centre debacle. The preferred developer is a long established company, St.Modwen. However, the latter have failed to date to progress the long-overdue redevelopment of the town centre. My information is that the company have tried to off-load the job back on to Knowsley council.  The council has, in turn, imposed a blackout on any information for Kirkby residents, undoubtedly with an eye on this week’s elections. I cannot see how an embargo on meaningful information to those residents will do anything for the council’s standing in the town. Thursday may indicate just how disgruntled Kirkby electors are.

Meanwhile, councillors elsewhere also face the electorate across the city-region. Like their colleagues in the Wirral, they have all seen “development” and green space emerge as a major issue. The same vexed question led, last time out, to the election of an independent in Rainhill (St Helens). Will it raise its head again?  In Sefton, there are a range of proposed housing projects which have aroused the ire of electors. Even normally placid Halton has a stake in this widespread challenge, given the activity of pressure group “Save Oglet Shore”.

Naturally, Liverpool is the daddy of them all. The recent forced relocation of residents of Fox Street Village, is just the latest in a long line of failed projects, organised and criminal rip-offs, and blatant compromise of health and safety – all in the name of “development”, and all approved by the city council. Bear in mind that the Mayor setup up a scrutiny panel last year, under the chairmanship of Cllr Jane Corbett, designed to get to the bottom of this succession of scandals which have besmirched the good name of the city and of the council. This panel has met at least five times, but there have been no minutes, reports or information emanating from them. Again, I understand that there is an election due, but this is nothing less than a disgraceful abdication of civic responsibility to the people of Liverpool.

It is not as if it is the only inquiry in the council which has maintained a Trappist silence. Cast your mind back to the controversial issues raised in relation to the match day parking facilities. This was what triggered the resignation of highly respected former council leader and Lord Mayor, Frank Prendergast, from the Labour group on the council. The Mayor also set up an inquiry, to be led by the city solicitor, into the affairs of two of the parking sites. The third – the biggest and most valuable (since leased to LFC, I believe) –  was left unquestioned, for reasons one can only surmise. Once more, there has been no report back, nor an explanation for the omission of the Priory Road site from the inquiry. Is it any wonder that so many electors have such a jaundiced view of the Mayor and the council?

Meanwhile, the Echo says nothing – the three wise monkeys have nothing on our local comic. Online, it spouts about the major issues facing local politicians on Thursday. “Development” does not get a mention. I would suggest that the Echo looks at the latest manoeuvre involving Mr Kerry Tomlinson, a pivotal figure in the narrow circles of local “development”. One of his companies – Strand Plaza – is the freeholder to Mersey House on the Strand. That company has issued what are known as Section 5 notices to the leaseholders with properties in that building. The total asking price is £866,000. This is a legal requirement to give existing leaseholders first refusal on purchasing the freehold.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that a London finance house – Amicus Finance – holds four charges against Mersey House whilst being itself in administration. Furthermore, Strand Plaza is way overdue in submitting to Companies House the legally required financial returns. I hope that I am wrong, but I wonder if I can see a perfect financial storm in the making.

If only Liverpool Council – and its cheerleaders at the Echo – got their act together, they just might provide a lead across the city-region in negating the image of cupidity and/or stupidity which has characterised so many local plans and activities in recent years.

Elections Looming!

Well, the leaflets have started to arrive (or, in my case, leaflet in the singular, so far). The usual political platitudes are being trotted out by the major parties, in their attempts to play the blame game, in the hope of securing votes. Given the dire record of turn out in local elections, one can only speculate as to whether any more voters will be inspired to cast their ballot this year. If previous years are anything to go by, the runaway winners around the city-region will be the ever-popular Apathy Party.

Mind you, it is fair to say that all the political and media focus has now been for many months on the never-ending issue of Brexit. We are yet to see if the general national disillusion with political parties will give a further boost to Apathy in the forthcoming local elections. Equally, the current public alienation might well prove a catalyst for success for minor parties and independents. I do not doubt that Brexit will be used as a convenient excuse for failure by someone. Time will tell.

Council candidates within our city-region will face various challenges, attempting to answer serious local questions which have arisen. Widespread protests over proposals to build on green space have had a major impact. Such developments remain tough battlegrounds in Wirral, Sefton, Liverpool, St Helens and Knowsley. There have been retreats (think of Knowsley plans to flog off its parks), and court action (consider Liverpool’s mishandling of the Harthill debacle). Nevertheless, the electorate can be very unforgiving if the issue is big enough for them.

In Knowsley, it is being said that preferred developer for Kirkby town centre – St Modwen  – have tried to hand over their lease on the town centre back to Knowsley Council. The failure to redevelop the town centre as has long been promised, has been a real sore point for years with Kirkby residents. It was noted in the Daily Mirror recently that, in a survey of over one thousand shopping centres, Kirkby ranked third worst! It would be revolutionary indeed if Labour’s long time control in the town was to be over-turned, but these are strange times…

On paper, the council within the city-region in most danger of changing political hands is Wirral. I say “on paper” because these are not normal times. If they were, Wirral Labour would be facing a perfect political storm. A raft of deselections; a breakaway group of councillors, aided and abetted by local MP, Frank Field; a departing council Leader – all on top of the usual pressures like the controversy over the proposed golf course and associated development on the green belt. Yet the Tory opposition face their own problems, given the appalling profile of their national party.

I have always believed that voters have mixed motives at every election, covering local and national issues. There are the tribal voters who vote for their party come what may; but an increasing number of those who do vote are becoming more selective, voting against a party rather than for one. Just look at the price paid by the Lib Dems in local and national elections when people voted against them because of their coalition support for an extremely unpopular Tory party.

Meanwhile, Liverpool is definitely in election mode – or, at least, the council is. There has been a big surge in extensive road surfacing works, after years of neglect. This top dressing of some of the city’s busiest roads is welcome, although I hesitate to say what the outcome will be in the ballot box. Some of the Labour candidates are distancing themselves on the doorstep and on social media, from Joe and all of his works. Perhaps they are getting messages which they are yet to share with the rest of us.

At least some of the more senior councillors seem somewhat detached from the fray. I was bemused by the apparent preoccupation of Cllr Gary Millar with a perceived threat to our salad supplies if Brexit was to go ahead. I do not know whether he has his finger on the pulse of what really matters in the city, or whether the pressure of the unanswered questions to him about his involvement in Chinatown and other developments, is finally getting to him. Perhaps he is distracted by Cllr Corbett’s inquiry into development scams around the city. When, incidentally, will she report on this?

Speaking of development, the Echo is still at it, trying to take credit for other people’s investigations. The latest concerns the dreadful Fox Street Village, a death trap development similar to the Paramount building off London Road. The Echo jumped on the bandwagon of concern about this disgrace after Granada TV did a piece on it. They, along with various council entities, sat on the information made available to them and did and said absolutely nothing for the best part of two years! It is sad to see a once renowned newspaper fall so low.

Anti-Semitism and Labour

I do not normally deal with issues beyond the concerns of the immediate Liverpool city-region, but charges of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party have been bandied about locally. I refer specifically to “charges” because, as I have often said, I have never witnessed or heard of examples locally of anti-Semitism, either as a member of the party for fifty-five years; as an employee of it; or as an elected member, representing it in parliament.

This current controversy in itself should not be surprising, as these charges seem to have gained currency in parallel with intensive attacks on Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Generally, they have been amplified by alleged parliamentary colleagues who just happen to be his political enemies within the Labour Party. The party itself has been labelled “institutionally anti-Semitic”, whatever that may mean. Sadly, some of our local Members of Parliament have joined the chorus – along with the departing Police and Crime Commissioner – determined to decry a party with a proud record of anti-racism.

Let me say that no-one can justify anti-Semitism – a pernicious form of racism focussed on Jews. However, there has been deliberate confusion of that detestable bigotry with a quite different matter of criticism of the Israeli government and its policies. The conflation of the two has too often led to misleading accusations that legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government are anti-Semitic when they are not.

The misuse of the grave charge of anti-Semitism was brought home to me back in 2007 when two highly respected American academics – John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt – co-authored a book entitled: “The Israel Lobby and United States Foreign Policy”. It was a scholarly work which set out to chronicle the influence on the United States of highly organised and well-funded lobby groups like the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC (the nearest equivalents which we have might be bodies like the Conservative Friends of Israel and the Labour Friends of Israel).

The reaction to the extremely well-researched and objective book was immediate and vitriolic, with the now all-too-familiar accusations of anti-Semitism directed at the authors. Perhaps this reaction was partly explained by the persistence of anti-Jewish myths propagated by hard –right hatemongers. Yet the publication was also a challenge to the pro-Israel lobby groups who, in common with other such lobbyists, are averse to the illuminating transparency to which right-minded democrats aspire.

This unedifying spat came to mind when I saw that the decidedly dodgy Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu (currently facing a range of criminal charges back home) appeared at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. To my surprise, I noted that another guest speaker at this jamboree was Joan Ryan, MP, only the second British politician (after one Tony Blair) ever invited to address this body. I have seen no accounts of this anywhere in the British media, other than in the Jewish press. Not only was she chair of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) but, according to LFI’s website will remain so, despite leaving the party and abusing it in extreme terms to her American audience!

Her speech was a vicious diatribe – a toxic attack on the party which by her own admission, had given her so much, and of which she claimed to have been a member for forty years until she walked out to join the Independents Group. She described a Labour Party which I – and, I suspect, the vast majority of Labour Party members  – do not recognise, probably because it does not exist other than in her fevered imagination. I will not bore you with her ugly, distorted view of the party, except to say that her central charge was that the Labour Party “seeks to demonise and delegitimize Israel”. Great stuff for her audience, of course, and grist to the mill for the sub-text of attacking Jeremy Corbyn personally.

Now, I have said repeatedly that, had I still been in parliament at the time, I would not have nominated Jeremy, nor would I have voted for him. I have no axe to grind with him – he just would never have been my choice. He was, however, elected leader of the Labour Party – twice! In my book, he will remain leader, despite all the plots and conspiracies conjured up to undermine him, until he packs it in, or the party as a whole decides to replace him, not a cabal of self-seekers. One calumny is that Jeremy is anti-Semitic. He is not – this charge just will not wash. Those who wish to challenge those in power in the party, at any level, should do so on the basis of policy debate, never on the basis of personal attacks rooted in deceit.

Police and Crime Commissioner

It ought to come as no surprise that Jane Kennedy has announced that she will not be standing again for the position of PCC, or that she has left the Labour Party. As PCC, she has been virtually invisible to the wider electorate. It is as well to recognise that she was elected to the post on the basis of a miserable 12.7% turnout. Winning 56% of first preferences, it meant that she actually had a paltry 7% of the electors – principally, Labour voters – supporting her.

This ought to be a consideration now that she is to leave her very well paid – £80,000 plus – position. She was, of course, elected on a Labour ticket; but now that she has deserted Labour, should she not resign from her post immediately? After all, this would be an appropriate point for the post to be integrated into the structure of the metromayoralty of Steve Rotheram, as has been the case in Manchester. At the very least, it would surely save a large portion of the £1 million plus per annum cost of the bureaucracy built up by Ms Kennedy.

As for her Labour Party resignation, no one should be surprised, given her record of resignation. Back in 2006, she noisily resigned from her ministerial post under Blair in protest at the appointment of former LCC chief executive David Henshaw to a highly paid government job. I had no quarrel with that – I had written to Blair along with colleagues expressing my own dismay at the appointment. However, resignation can become a habit. It certainly appears to have been the case with Ms Kennedy.

In June of 2009, she again resigned, this time from Brown’s government, amidst accusations of “No.10 bullying”. She said that Brown’s way represented “the kind of politics I had fought against all of my life”. I found this a bit rich, given the way she had abused me – calling me “a f—king coward” – when I led the vote in the Commons against the Iraq War. Many in parliament believed that her 2009 resignation was tied to the failed plot – led by James Purnell – to undermine Brown.

Later that year, she announced in November that she was leaving parliament; and was quoted as saying that part of her reason was that, post the expenses scandal, she would not be able to continue employing her partner, Peter Dowling. Income consideration was no revelation to me. Back in the 1980s, she and her then husband had told me that they felt that the Labour Party owed them a job given what they believed that they had done for the party.

I found this strange. Other than a speech at the 1985 Labour conference, I did not know what they had done any more than many other members in standing up to Militant. In fact, soon after that conversation, Ms Kennedy was given a job in Oldham for NUPE. She did not return until 1992 for the general election. However, it was an indicator of a mindset which apparently never left her, and which remains all too prevalent today amongst elected representatives.

Having announced her retirement, she set about ensuring that her parliamentary successor should be an unknown , young Londoner – Luciana Berger – who had neither knowledge nor experience of Merseyside. Their paths had crossed when Ms Berger worked for Labour Friends of Israel, an organisation which Ms Kennedy had chaired. With Peter Dowling’s position in the constituency Labour party, it is not too hard to see how Ms Berger – who also lived in Ms Kennedy’s Childwall home during her campaign for the seat – won the nomination. Perhaps Ms Kennedy’s latest resignation is connected to that friendship (Berger and is now an independent in parliament, alongside Kennedy’s best friend, Ann Coffey, MP) – I do not know. But if it looks like betrayal, sounds like betrayal…….then it probably is.

Guile and Gullibility

One should never underestimate the guile of the criminal classes, any more than one should underestimate the gullibility of the political classes. Very often, both groups share common traits, such as all-consuming personal ambition (whether for money, position or power); but, in general terms, they follow very different routes in pursuit of their goals. As one example of this, I have just published a book (Amazon – “The Gangsters, the Judge, and the Politician”) which describes just one controversial interface between criminality and the political world. Although this book looks at this phenomenon in the national context, it might easily have been placed in the context of local government.

I thought of this when I heard of the latest instance of disarray in the conduct of Wirral Borough Council. How easy for the dishonest individual to operate when councillors and officers seem incapable of clear communication between themselves. Even more so in Liverpool, where the perpetrators of well-documented development scams continue to operate with impunity under the myopic gaze of the council. I must say that it strikes me as absurd that local council leaders should be at the annual MIPIM developers’ junket in Nice whilst there is so much evidence of on-going criminality involving developers here at home. Mind you, I have never understood why it is necessary for political leaders to posture at such events as MIPIM when generally, their knowledge of building and development – and its associated finance – is sublimely deficient.

Admittedly, there has been a critical national dimension to what has been happening in our major conurbations. An obsessive culture of deregulation and a laissez-faire approach to governance, needs to be addressed nationally. The harsh reality is that no-one  – councillors, officials, auditors, even the police – seems to be taking the kind of robust investigation and action required to inhibit widespread corrupt activity. Naturally, I must assume that much of what people rightly complain about is technically legal, although how acknowledged scam artists are able to repeatedly set up sham companies and rip people off (including councils!), is beyond my comprehension.

The immediate problem for the voter and the council tax payer is simple. They are constantly assailed by mixed messages. On the one hand, they are deluged under cries of “Austerity!” at every turn, whether in connection with cuts or inefficiencies in local services, or as the reason for increases in their council taxes. At the same time, voters are increasingly aware of massive amounts of expenditure, used – for good or ill – in ways which they do not believe are in their interest.

There are simultaneous promises of jam tomorrow – a plan for this development, high hopes for that one. Too often, these either repeat or contradict previous pronouncements. The electorate is not totally amnesiac, nor is it perpetually forgiving. Voters are taken for fools at the peril of politicians.

We are in turbulent times, locally and nationally. I have never known such disillusionment at all levels with politics and with politicians; and I wonder to where what amounts to widespread studied contempt will lead. I believe that at the local level, there is an urgent need to re-examine the public interest – that of the majority – rather than what so many see as the preferment of private interests. Right now, no-one appears to be speaking for the council tax payer, yet business, including the aforementioned crooks, is being indulged in a way contrary to the interests of the mass of voters. For how long, I wonder, will this be tolerated?