Liverpool Labour: will May be the cruellest month?

By Steve Latchford

The long-awaited report into the running of Liverpool City Council has dropped and it makes for very difficult reading.  For weeks, senior figures in the local council have been warning that people should brace themselves for a rough ride. They weren’t exaggerating.

Max Caller’s 69-page Best Value inspection document has shone an unflattering light on the council’s running of a number of departments, highlighting a dysfunctional culture in which decisions were taken by a small grouping rather than the Cabinet and the ninety elected councillors. In Labour’s safest stronghold, members are reeling after a torrid few weeks that began with the arrest of Mayor Joe Anderson and four other men before Christmas, continued with the suspension of the mayoral selection and the blocking of three candidates and has ended in this highly critical report.

The “serious breakdown of governance” identified by Caller has led to commissioners being sent in for three years to oversee specific departments. This falls short of a full takeover, but gives the government an unprecedented level of control over a city where its vote is minuscule and it doesn’t have a single councillor.

The council’s regeneration department is described as having a “bullying culture.” “People who did not comply did not last.” In the highways and regeneration departments, 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.

Concerns that the move could represent a takeover by Whitehall were aired in ‘vox pop’ interviews with citizens in last in Wednesday’s Liverpool Echo. A sense that this damning report has been coming for some time and was not unexpected combined with a deep loathing for a Tory government posturing as the city’s saviour after slashing 63% of the city’s funding over a decade of austerity.

Others pointed to the questions raised about Housing and Local Government Minister Robert Jenrick’s own allegations to answer over billion-pound property deals and allocation of the ‘Towns Fund’, suggesting there was more than a whiff of hypocrisy about his words.

The Labour leadership, however, was quick to welcome Caller’s report. Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Steve Reed said he accepted it in full and gave Labour’s support to the government’s plan to reform the council. The Party has also indicated that it will be investigating “severe institutional weaknesses” at the Labour-run authority.

While some local Labour Party members are wearily accepting that there is no alternative but to accept the situation, many on the Left are less sanguine. They point out that under Anderson the local authority acted as a reluctant conduit for government spending cuts. Those who opposed the cuts were told again and again that the authority had to reduce spending or commissioners would be sent in. Now that precisely that eventuality has come to pass, ‘sensible socialism’ looks to be a busted flush.

Liverpool’s six thousand-plus Labour members face the May elections with trepidation. Already deeply unhappy about the blocking of the three original candidates to be Mayor and the chaotic selection process, many fear that Labour might struggle in the mayoral contest and could suffer losses of council seats.

Independent mayoral candidate Stephen Yip and the opposition parties will be looking to benefit from Labour’s discomfort. The feeling of much of the Labour membership who were inspired to join the Party under Jeremy Corbyn is that they could be made to pay for the failure of the very political strategy they have spent years criticising. Others are concerned at plans to reduce councillor representation to one per ward and the impact on local democracy.

Faced with a Tory government able to strengthen its control over the city’s affairs through the back door, aided and abetted by a Labour leadership that has pursued a civil war against its own members, there is huge discontent on the left.  Socialists in the party are looking for a lead in resisting an increasingly authoritarian Tory government that now has an unexpected foothold in the city. They don’t see it coming from Keir Starmer.

Image: Liverpool waterfront. Source: FlickrPicture postcard Liverpool. Author: Beverley Goodwin, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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