Neil Kinnock, in his Leader’s speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1985, offered the following memorable rebuke to his colleagues who were leading Liverpool City Council:
“I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions; they are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-placed, outdated, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council, a Labour council, hiring taxis to scuttle round the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers. I tell you – and you’ll listen – you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and people’s homes and people’s services.”
Soon after that, figures in the Militant Tendency who had such dominance in the City – such as Derek Hatton – were expelled from the Labour Party. Their failure to set a legal budget for Liverpool City Council also resulted in legal action by the District Auditor and the councillors responsible being disqualified from office. For a few months, this meant the Liberals running the Council. Once the vacancies were filled it was back under Labour control – but no longer led by supporters of the Militant Tendency.
Municipal turmoil has now returned to the City. The Telegraph reports that “the Government is poised to take over the running of the city of Liverpool this week after a string of corruption allegations.” It adds:
“The expected decision by the Local Government secretary Robert Jenrick to intervene in the running of one of the UK’s biggest cities is unprecedented in modern times. Commissioners could be sent in to run the day-to-day operations of the council for several years, something which has only happened three times in the past 25 years. Commissioners were sent in by the Government to take over the running of councils in Northampton in 2018, Rotherham in 2015 and Towers Hamlets in 2014. None of them was the scale of a city like Liverpool, however. Max Caller, a respected local government inspector who was the commissioner in Tower Hamlets, was appointed by Mr Jenrick to lead the investigation into Liverpool last December. Mr Caller focused his investigation on property management, regeneration, highways, contracts and planning at the council over the past five years.”
The report added that the “city’s accounts have not been signed off by auditors for the past five years because of the continuing police inquiry into financial irregularities.”
Caller has something of a reputation. As Paul noted in December:
“In 2014, Max Caller was sent as a commissioner into Tower Hamlets. The council did not regain control of the borough until 2017. In 2018, he was appointed to head an investigation into Northamptonshire. Next year, that county council will be abolished. Caller has now been sent to Liverpool.”
I have no idea how Caller votes. But it is interesting that the prospect of him being despatched by a Conservative Government to sort out the City’s affairs has been greeted by Liverpudlians with equanimity. No strikes. No riots. No protests. Where are the furious denunciations from the City’s five Labour MPs? Even Dan Carden, the Corbynista MP for Liverpool Walton, preferred to tweet about green spaces this morning. A spokesman for the Council told the Liverpool Echo that he was “unable to comment.”
Of course, for a Government pledged to increase localism, sending in commissioners is a drastic decision contemplated in only the most exceptional of circumstances. The point that Caller is always sent rather makes the point. He could hardly be everywhere at once. Fair-minded people will thus see that it is unreasonable to regard such a safeguard as an attack on democracy. They will see that if allegations of corruption are made, then they are investigated in a just but rigorous manner, and the rule of law upheld.
A more confrontational response to the anticipated intervention from Marsham Street is still possible. But the initial calmness in the Liverpudlian response offers some hope. Whatever failings in local governance in recent times, they surely can’t be as serious as those inflicted on the City in the 1980s. Yet the willingness to deal with problems has much wider acceptance. During the Thatcher Government, though the Militants were defeated, the City was never put under direct rule. The spirit now is to get on with whatever measures are needed. Liverpool has had a prosperous past. Freeport status offers a chance to be a hub of wealth creation once again. Giving investors confidence will be greatly helped by honest and responsible local government. That is what must be established.