In a move that had been trailed in the previous weekend’s papers, communities secretary Robert Jenrick announced on Wednesday that government-appointed commissioners would be sent to Liverpool to implement a partial takeover of the city’s scandal-stricken council. Serious accusations have been levelled at the local authority, including the ‘awarding of dubious contracts,’ a ‘worrying lack of record-keeping’ – including the dumping of some documents and retrospective drafting of others – and creating a ‘culture of intimidation.’
The allegations were made in a report authored by Max Caller, a local government inspector dispatched by Jenrick to investigate the running of Liverpool’s council. As a result of Caller’s findings, the commissioners will take responsibility for a range of the local authority’s functions – including planning, regeneration and highways – for a term of at least three years. The upshot is that a city which hasn’t elected a Tory councillor for over a quarter of a century now finds itself under the watchful tutelage of a Tory government it largely despises.
It’s worth noting that the Thatcher government briefly considered taking Liverpool council over themselves in the mid-1980s, but ultimately demurred. According to Tom Hazeldine in his book, The Northern Question, Neil Kinnock – whose anti-Militant speech at the 1985 Labour Party conference remains an iconic moment for the Labour right – was minded to support it. Once the miners’ strike was defeated and local government resistance to Thatcherism collapsed, however, Liverpool Labour was picked off without a full takeover.
To the consternation of many, Keir Starmer and his shadow communities secretary Steve Reed were quick to accept the Jenrick plan in full; Reed insisted, unconvincingly, that it did not amount to a ‘Tory takeover.’ The ongoing selection of Labour’s mayoral candidate in Liverpool has been similarly mired in controversy. The original shortlist of three candidates – all local councillors – was scrapped on the day ballots were due to be sent out to local Labour members, with no public explanation as to why.
Liverpool’s former mayor, Joe Anderson, was arrested in December on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation. Anderson had previously seen off an attempt by local party members to remove him via a trigger ballot earlier in the year, and was set to run for a third term before the scandal burst into the open. Arrested alongside him was Derek Hatton, formerly the city’s deputy mayor in the 1980s and then a senior supporter of Militant, and who has subsequently had interests in property development.
Of course, these allegations are weighty and nobody who wants to see transparency and honesty in local government should simply dismiss them. But, putting it very mildly, Jenrick makes an implausible anti-corruption crusader. Last year, he admitted unlawfully helping Tory donor and former press baron Richard Desmond avoid paying around £45 million in tax to Labour-run Tower Hamlets council – one of the poorest in the country – by personally approving Desmond’s plan to build more than 1,500 luxury flats in the borough.
The approval was made just 24 hours before a new community infrastructure levy, intended to raise money for local public services, came into force. Desmond had claimed that the tax would have made the Westferry Road development unviable – a common gambit of property developers looking to dodge charges and other obligations to local councils – but in personal text messages to Jenrick, privately told him ‘we appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!’
Fortunately for Jenrick, the story was soon shunted off last June’s front pages by Keir Starmer’s decision to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet. Now, Starmer and his frontbench can’t point out Jenrick’s obvious hypocrisy because they’re so eager to be seen as a safe and loyal opposition that won’t change anything fundamental if given the chance, nor threaten any real vested interests. This has been its priority throughout the pandemic, and its war on the Labour left is also intended to ram the same point home.
Inevitably, given the alleged involvement of Hatton, many will compare recent goings-on in Liverpool to the 1980s, when Militant was highly influential on the local council. But Liverpool Labour has a long and inglorious history of petty, ‘city boss’ politics dating back to at least the 1950s and ‘60s, when the right-wing Labour machine helmed by Jack and Bessie Braddock ran the city – and its Labour Party – with an iron fist, setting a pattern which would endure for long thereafter and which, it seems, hasn’t entirely gone away today.
Socialist historian Willie Thompson has noted that the Braddocks were ‘renowned for political racketeering and machine politics, the most disreputable aspects of unchallenged control by the traditional Labour Party right.’ Militant, though a tight-knit Trotskyist organisation in its own right, was also a product of this cloak-and-dagger local political culture. Instead of dismantling the Braddock machine of petty corruption, Militant simply opted ‘to lay hold of that machine and direct it to its own purposes.’
However, similar tendencies have been visible in many other Labour councils over the years, suggesting that they’re something inherent to municipal Labourism, and not a purely Liverpudlian phenomenon. As John Gyford has argued in The Politics of Local Socialism, his study of Labour in local government, the archetypal ‘closed and strong’ Labour council has long been one prone to domination by strong leaders and assertive council officers, and thus ‘capable of being employed for ends that might be good or bad or a mixture of the two.’
Weak mechanisms of party democracy, and the way MPs, their staff and local councillors often dominate constituency Labour parties, has allowed leading cliques on Labour councils considerable latitude in doing as they pleased. The introduction of directly-elected mayors by New Labour – expanded by the coalition government – created even more opportunities for petty patronage; opportunities of which, it appears, some mayors (though by no means all or even most) and their associates have been quite happy to avail themselves.
Attempts to strengthen party democracy at the local level under Jeremy Corbyn amounted, regrettably, to very little. Katy Clark’s Democracy Review proposed that party members should elect the leaders of their local Labour council groups, but this was successfully kicked into the long grass by the Labour right and then dropped altogether. Party members who organised to challenge their Labour council, as in Haringey – where the local leadership was embroiled in another controversial property deal – were routinely slandered as bullies.
While Keir Starmer has been at pains to cooperate with Jenrick over Liverpool, there will be other Labour council leaders currently fiddling nervously with their shirt collars. Other Tory MPs were quick to suggest that Jenrick should take a closer look at the Labour councils in their own areas. This is remarkable chutzpah from a party whose pandemic response has been notorious for its brazen conflicts of interest, but there is a grain of truth in the charge: some Labour councils have made dodgy property deals their stock in trade for years.
It’s not surprising that with local elections just around the corner, Keir Starmer has had so little to say about Labour councils and has instead stuck to national issues. There are good Labour councils he could cite – Preston, Salford, North Ayrshire – but these are led by the left. Some other Labour councils are political liabilities. In Steve Reed’s backyard of Croydon, also the stomping ground of general secretary David Evans, the Labour-run local authority, rocked by its own property-related crisis, recently negotiated a £120 million bailout.
The Tory intervention in Liverpool isn’t entirely without opposition. Local left-wing councillor Sarah Doyle has warned that it could pave the way for further privatisation with minimal input from elected councillors or local residents. Indeed, it looks like a testing of the waters. If the Tories get away with it there, and the Labour leadership seems prepared to let them, they may be emboldened into launching further attacks on the (already severely constrained) powers of local government, which has taken a hammering over the last decade or so.
Plans for a major overhaul of council structures, including the merging and abolition of some local authorities, and more directly-elected mayoralties, have already been floated in the press. Coupled with parliamentary boundary changes – which will tilt the balance further towards areas with Tory-friendly voter demographics – this could amount to a radical redrawing of the political map. Keir Starmer will have his work cut out if he’s to keep the heat off other Labour councils, and he may live to regret the precedent he is helping to set.