Tory commissioners should concentrate minds, writes Derek James of Labour Party Marxists
The announcement that Robert Jenrick, the housing, communities and local government secretary, was appointing commissioners to oversee some of the functions of Liverpool city council had been expected since the arrest of directly elected city mayor Joe Anderson in December.1 Although no-one has actually been charged, Jenrick’s statement has only added to the sense of crisis in the city and further fuelled the as yet unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, bribery and witness intimidation that have continued to swirl around the local authority.2
It would be too easy to dismiss the current situation as simply parish pump politics of purely local interest, or a product of Liverpool exceptionalism that is of only fleeting interest beyond the city. However, the nature of the allegations made in the report and Jenrick’s attack on local democracy point to much more fundamental crises in both the Labour Party and the system of local government that go beyond political machinations or the supposed corruption of powerful individuals.
The ground had been well-laid in the run-up to the announcement and so all the actors had their script off pat. Jenrick led the charge when he suggested that the government-commissioned Caller Report painted a “deeply concerning picture of mismanagement” and revealed a “serious breakdown in governance” in Liverpool.3 The report apparently revealed, he said, that the council had “consistently failed to meet its statutory and managerial responsibilities, and that the pervasive culture appeared to be rule avoidance”.4 In a damning comment, which made all the headlines in the local media, Jenrick argued that the report showed that there was an “overall environment of intimidation, described as one in which the only way to survive was to do what was requested without asking too many questions or applying normal professional standards”.5
The most important part of the local government secretary’s statement was the government’s decision to send commissioners in to Liverpool to run “certain and limited functions” of the city’s council for the next three years, including overseeing an improvement plan. In three key council departments – highways, regeneration and property management – all executive functions will now be transferred to the government-appointed commissioners.6 Jenrick also proposed to reduce the number of city councillors from 90 and replace the current electoral cycle with a whole-council election every four years.7
Labour MPs played their supporting roles to perfection and fell over themselves in rushing to back up the government’s attack on local democracy in Liverpool. In the Commons we were treated to a master class of ‘responsible opposition’ at its best – in other words, the most abject, supine cooperation, as we have come to expect from Starmer’s Labour leadership. Thus the shadow communities and local government secretary, Steve Reed, declared:
Labour both here and our leadership at the city council accept this report in full … We support [Jenrick’s] intention to appoint commissioners, not at this stage to run the council, as he says, but to advise and support elected representatives in strengthening the council’s systems. This is a measured and appropriate response (my emphasis).
Echoing the government’s line, Reed added that the proposals were not, “as some would put it, a Tory takeover”, but were simply a measure to put erring Liverpool back on the straight and narrow: he reassured us that the government commissioners would “intervene directly only if the council’s elected leaders fail to implement their own improvement plan.”8
The response of other Labour MPs was not much better, as they joined in the attack and supported the imposition of the commissioners. Even the comments of left Liverpool MPs Dan Carden and Ian Byrne were respectfully muted, as they sought reassurances from the Tories that the Covid pandemic response and other vital local services would continue to be resourced and supported.9
The acute embarrassment of a Labour leadership now presented with such an alleged scandal in Liverpool city council is almost understandable. Having spent the last year trying to prove their responsibility and respectability, along comes a good old-fashioned municipal corruption case, which unhelpfully reminds voters of the bad old days – and in a city that is synonymous with militant leftwing politics to boot!
As was only to be expected, the local opposition to Labour in Liverpool, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, have made hay during the current mayoral and local council election campaigns by blaming the crisis on a ‘big city boss’ political culture and offering themselves as the anti-corruption candidates who can finally clean up the city.10 The local media have also been playing up the chances of Stephen Yip, an independent mayoral candidate, whilst the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (Tusc) also has a candidate in the field, who could take some votes away from Labour. Although the outcome of the election is, of course, uncertain, the fact that Labour may have a hard fight to hold on to the mayoralty shows the seriousness of the situation the party now faces in Liverpool.11
For many leftwingers in Liverpool the situation revealed in the Caller Report comes as no surprise. From the very beginning, the mayoral system was criticised as an anti-democratic and unaccountable concentration of power in the hands of a single individual and a small cabinet clique. The ‘political culture’ of intimidation and bullying, along with the opportunities for corruption and jobbery revealed in the report, are clearly always inherent in such a Bonapartist system.12 The potential to exploit contacts and contracts in regeneration and building projects for personal gain has always existed in local government. Whether in the small-town peculation in Mugsborough, satirised in The ragged-trousered philanthropists or in the real local government corruption revealed by the Poulson case in the 1970s, from Westminster to the smallest town hall, corruption and capitalism are inseparable throughout the political system.13
However, just as important as this systemic potential for financial corruption is the political corruption that it breeds – especially in the form of powerful and unaccountable local mayors. Our opposition to the imposition of the Tory commissioners on Liverpool and the defence of local democracy must be combined with a complete rejection of both the mayoral system and the political strategy of Labour rightists, such as Joe Anderson. His municipal strategy combined supposedly defending essential services through the politics of ‘the dented shield’ with ‘playing the system’ to make up for the budget cuts imposed by the Tory government’s austerity programme.14 This ‘new municipalism’ echoed Blair’s New Labour strategy and was based on a much-vaunted partnership between local government and capitalist developers, with the aim of encouraging private-sector investment and regeneration to both increase the local tax base and, through a convoluted form of trickle-down economics, improve the living standards of the city’s population.
It was, as Joe Anderson liked to boast in response to his critics, “the only game in town”.15 Now that Robert Jenrick has called time on that particular game and as the labour movement starts to mobilise against his attacks, the question goes beyond protest and opposition. We must think about the type of politics and strategy we need, if we are going to fight back in Liverpool and elsewhere. The experience of Liverpool city council and its fight with the Tories in the 1980s looms large amongst leftwingers in the city and for many comrades on the Labour left that type of municipal strategy and mass mobilisation remains the best way forward.
However, given the very different political and social context of the 2020s it is all too clear that we cannot simply wish such a movement into existence, so what strategy should the left now pursue in what are our very changed and straitened circumstances? At the moment the focus is on protest, but it will be these important issues of both local government and wider political strategy that inevitably come to the fore in the coming weeks, as the Liverpool labour movement’s campaign against the Tory commissioners starts to build up momentum.
- For the background to this story see ‘Abolish the mayors’ Weekly Worker January 21 and ‘Careerism on the Mersey’ Weekly Worker March 11.↩︎
- independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/liverpool-corruption-government-robert-jenrick-b1821765.html. For full details of the findings see assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972756/Liverpool_Best_Value_inspection_report.pdf.↩︎
- See, for example, front-page splash, ‘FAILED’, in Liverpool Echo March 25 2021. The story focussed on the allegations about the council’s toxic culture, climate of fear and wholesale neglect of the city’s interests.↩︎
- R Tressell The ragged-trousered philanthropists London 2004. Obituary: independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-john-poulson-1470735.html.↩︎