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Liverpool Labour’s Testing Year

“Many Labour members also feel deeply alienatied from the Labour leadership, which has been keen to welcome the commissioners. Why punish the many for the failings of an unaccountable few?”

By Steve Latchford

A densely argued 69-page document, full of local government jargon, isn’t the kind of reading to set the pulse racing, but the impact of Max Caller’s Best Value Inspection report into Liverpool City Council has been explosive. The Commons last Wednesday fairly rang with indignant condemnation, some genuine, some highly politically motivated. Liverpool is, after all, Labour’s urban stronghold and in politics crisis means opportunity.

The critical voices that could be heard in Westminster also echoed around the city itself as independent mayoral candidate Stephen Yip and opposition party leaders circled, eager to benefit from Labour’s discomfort.

The document reveals a series of failures in the running of the Labour-dominated authority, the party already reeling from a mayoral selection process that descended into morale-sapping farce. The culture of the highways and regeneration departments came in for severe criticism. Caller and his colleagues found a “worrying lack of record-keeping” and documents were “created retrospectively, discarded in skips or even destroyed.” The highways department is described as dysfunctional with “no coherent business plan” and “dubious” contract deals. Property management deals were arbitrarily decided and there was a “fundamental failure… to understand and appreciate the basic standards governing those in public service” and “no established way to hold those falling below those acceptable standards to account.” Instead of Cabinet leadership, it seems there was clique leadership.

While stopping short of ordering a full takeover of the council, with commissioners instead being sent to supervise specific parts of the planning, highways and regeneration directorate, Housing and Local Government Minister Robert Jenrick has instigated an unprecedented level of intervention in one of the UK’s major cities with a population of half a million people.

Local people are not surprised that there have been problems in the running of the council for some time, but there is little appetite for direct government intervention in a city that doesn’t have a single Tory councillor and where the vote for the Conservative Party is derisory. Many mentioned the context of austerity, during which the Tory government, aided and abetted by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, slashed over 60% of the city’s funding. Others scoffed at the cheek of Jenrick lecturing from his parliamentary dispatch box when he has his own string of corruption allegations to answer. His conduct of property development deals has been murky to say the least.

In Labour circles, the events of the last few weeks have been Calvary on the Mersey. First, there were the arrests before Christmas of Mayor Joe Anderson and four others, the origin of the current travails. Weeks later, the mayoral selection was abruptly interrupted with the three original candidates excluded from the process. Then a shortlist of two inexperienced candidates was hurriedly drawing up.

Anderson’s running of the council was a version of David Blunkett’s dented shield, the council acting as a conduit for government-imposed spending cuts. Again and again, Anderson argued that if the council didn’t trim its spending the government would send in commissioners. Councillors administered the cuts, but the commissioners are about to arrive anyway.

Many Labour members also feel deeply alienatied from the Labour leadership, which has been keen to welcome the commissioners. Why punish the many for the failings of an unaccountable few? Commissioners will now be in the city for three years and the number of councillors will be drastically reduced in two years, with just one per ward. There are concerns this could lead to a professionalisation of local democracy and its authoritarian policing from above by both unelected commissioners and the same Labour leadership that has clamped down on CLPs, spuriously suspended scores of members and made a complete mess of the Liverpool mayoral selection.

Local elections that have often been seen as shoo-ins for Labour could now deliver significant gains for opposition parties. Many Labour activists, not just Corbyn supporters, but many of those who were persuaded to support Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign by the ten pledges, see Labour’s troubles as self-inflicted both by the party’s local and national leadership. Desire for change can only grow.

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