Democracy is a precious commodity, and it is in short supply in Liverpool just now. The national Tory Government may be close to taking control of the Labour-dominated city council without a vote being cast.
This is not a rerun story from the 1980s of a right-wing Conservative government crushing a radical, left council. It is the story of lamentable strategic and tactical failings by an all-dominant Labour leadership whose economic strategy was designed to ameliorate savage Lib Dem and Tory spending cuts but turned its back on the needs of local communities and the environment.
Labour holds the directly-elected mayoralty and 72 of the council’s 90 seats, yet is at risk of losing control of the city’s destiny to a Tory-appointed Commissioner, despite the Conservatives not having a single elected representative in the city.
Government inspector Max Caller is walking through the corridors of the Cunard Building, one of the world-famous Three Grace that serves as the Council HQ, gathering ever more evidence of eye-watering governance failings and questionable deals.
The inspector is due to send his report to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Local Government, at the end of the month, just days before pre-election purdah rules kick in.
Mr Jenrick could invoke the 1999 Local Government Act to run the council in full or part. The Government would then have free reign to set aside local democracy and govern through imposed commissioners. He may opt for a less draconian intervention – keeping a local Labour difficulty running would be helpful nationally for the Tories in the run-up to elections across much of the country on 6 May.
Caught in the middle are the people of Liverpool, still reeling from several bouts of Covid-19 lockdown and the fear of the job losses likely to follow the withdrawal of emergency economic support later this year.
A decade ago, the Lib Dem-Tory government ushered in a period of cuts that mean the city now has at least £436 million less to spend each year – a reduction in central government support equivalent to over 60 per cent of its overall budget.
The result is visible walking through any neighbourhood. Too often out of sight are people in real need no longer reached by depleted council services.
Ironically, Covid-19 has brought some short-term government money into the city and galvanised community groups to reach more of the people excluded from services. However, the pandemic has also destroyed the international visitor and student economy on which the mayor’s economic strategy was based.
Mayor Anderson took a strategic decision from 2012 to ‘invest to earn’ and ‘grow the city’ – that is, partner with private developers to enable the construction of new roads and office blocks, upgrade shore-side services for cruise liners, and facilitate ‘zones of opportunity’ for more flats to accommodate international students attracted to the city’s universities. The investment would, over time, generate new income through higher consumer spending and lay a broader base for council tax and business rates.
Mayor Anderson explained the strategy: “At a time of inertia in the economy, it’s vital that we work creatively with the private sector … we are seeking to use our borrowing power and target our resources effectively to help kick-start development and invest in assets that bring in new income streams for the Council.
Over the last eight years, many a press release has begun with a variation of: ‘Liverpool City Council is proposing a new deal with a private developer which could bring …’ The council even borrowed to buy Everton’s training ground for £13 million so that it could lease it back to the Premiership football club in the belief that the steady income would pay off the loan costs and leave money over to invest in services.
The city did get a new exhibition centre, some new hotels, lots of student flats and lots and lots of half-finished buildings, bankrupted developers and disgruntled private investors from as far afield as Hong Kong claiming to have lost tens of millions of pounds. At least three separate police investigations are now underway.
The environmental costs have also been high.
In July 2019, Green councillors were instrumental in winning a unanimous Council vote to declare a Climate Emergency. Green councillor Lawrence Brown told Green World: “We wanted to shift away from the car and towards walking, cycling and other sustainable modes of transport; to protect green spaces from developers; invest in home insulation to reduce fuel poverty and energy use; and to begin to move toward a circular economy. A clear change of focus to a greener society.”
Despite the vote, campaigners have still had to fight off plans to build luxury villas on two of the city’s council parks – Sefton and Calderstones – and numerous green ‘wedges’ have been lost. Mayor Anderson boasted as recently as last July of ‘a landmark moment’ for the city as it hit £100 million of spending on new and revamped roads.
The British Lung Foundation estimates that children born in Liverpool from 2011 onwards could have a reduced average life expectancy of up to five months, based on research from King's College London that looked at the most harmful forms of air pollution. Already, over 1,000 people a year die from complications associated with breathing polluted air across the wider city region.
Nor has the strategy worked on its own terms. Without the current Mayoral farce making headlines, people’s attention would be focussed on a draft budget debated on 3 March that calls for a 4.99 per cent council tax rise and another £15 million of cuts to adult social care, neighbourhood advice centres and supported accommodation.
Green Group leader Tom Crone says: “The truth is, placing so much power in the hands of the Mayor, supported by Labour councillors reliant on the Mayor for political advancement, while pursuing a growth strategy model reliant on deals with developers was destined to end in tears.”
He is the Green Party candidate for Liverpool City Mayor.
He is pressing for a ‘Clean-hands Cabinet of all the parties’ to fill what he describes as ‘a democratic vacuum that has opened up just when our city needs clear direction to lead us out of the pandemic crisis, protect jobs and support local businesses while protecting our environment’.
Just one example of the democratic vacuum is provided by Labour Councillor Malcolm Kennedy. He says ‘no secret has been made’ of the fact that he is living in Madrid while representing Kirkdale for Labour. For the absence of doubt, Kirkdale is a council ward in the fourth most deprived local authority in England. Madrid is the capital of Spain.
Rather like Gogol’s inspector, whose impending arrival in a small town in Tsarist Russia ignited a bonfire of hidden misdeeds accumulated over many years by the local political class, so too Whitehall’s Liverpool inspector.
The inspector arrived soon after five people, including Mayor Anderson, were arrested on 4 December 2020 in connection with offences of bribery and witness intimidation. All deny any wrongdoing and are on extended bail as police inquiries continue.
The government inspection focuses on the council’s planning, highways, regeneration and property management functions. Wider governance issues are under scrutiny too. Staff and councillors have been told to cooperate fully and a route for providing confidential whistle-blower evidence to the inspector is said to be busy.
Rather than lead the city out of the crisis, Labour has turned on its own. It suspended Mayor Anderson’s membership following his arrest, which meant that he could no longer stand in May. That set off the scramble for the Labour nomination.
Three prominent women councillors were shortlisted – Acting Mayor Wendy Simon, former Deputy Mayor Ann O'Byrne and current Lord Mayor Anna Rothery. Then, the day Labour Party members should have received their ballot papers, everything was stopped. The three were ordered back for a second round of interviews and after a long weekend of confusing silence, all three were told they were off the ballot, nominations were re-opened and they need not re-apply.
Whatever you think of the candidates’ politics – and they are a fair reflection of Labour’s fracturing ideological base, representing old-school machine centrism, right-wing opportunism and leftover Corbynism – dumping three women, one of them described by local MP Dan Carden as the most senior black woman in local politics, is a very bad look for a party that claims equality as an underpinning value.
At the beginning of the crisis, Labour defeated a motion backed by Green councillors and other opposition parties to do away with the mayoralty altogether and return to a more open and democratic Cabinet governance model. However, the united opposition did force Labour to agree a city-wide referendum on the future of the mayoralty, but not until 2023.
Labour is now ensnared by that 2012 decision to ‘work creatively with the private sector’ rather than work creatively with opposition parties and the people of Liverpool to set a new course toward a sustainable future.
On 6 May, if none of the Mayoral candidates gets over 50 per cent of first preference votes, second preferences come into play. That prospect opens up all sorts of possibilities.
Until then, Liverpool will be led by Acting Mayor Wendy Simon, who is, according to her national party, not suitable to, well, lead Liverpool.