Liverpool City Council – a failure of municipal Labourism


Beacon is a non-party platform to further the cause of socialism in Liverpool and the wider City Region.

Liverpool City Council – a failure of municipal Labourism
As Beacon has previously reported, the latest round of cuts approved by Liverpool’s Labour council brings the total cut from the council’s budget since 2010 up to a massive £450million. This £450million cut equates to around 65% of the city council’s 2010 budget, or £800 per household.

In 2016, “Soundings: A journal of politics and culture” published an article by long-standing Liverpool City councillor Steve Munby declaring that “Miracles can happen …” In this piece, Cllr Munby makes the bold claim:

“It is an inconvenient truth that something rather surprising is happening in our big cities that have been decimated by spending cuts. They haven’t.”

Continuing to state:

“And it’s also not too easy for Labour Councils to acknowledge – to say that, despite the profound unfairness of the treatment we have received, things aren’t as bad in the cities as we might have feared.” (Munby, 2016)

In fairness to its author, it could be argued that the upbeat tone of the piece was of its time. That, with Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party challenging the austerity consensus, the Labour council in Liverpool had indeed “to a large extent managed to weather the storm”. However, Labour’s defeat at the 2019 General election would surely have put paid to any notion of sunny skies ahead.

Furthermore, following Max Caller’s “Best Value Inspection Report” into Liverpool City Council, the Liverpool Labour “miracles” may be seen in an entirely different light. Rather than invoking some divine phenomena in “managing austerity”, the Labour council in Liverpool was sowing the seeds of its own crisis of municipal governance. As the effect of the cuts hit home, capacity for oversight and scrutiny began to be diminished to a point where it was no longer viable.

The Caller Report does in fact refer to the cuts in this period:
6.24 The PAMS team also came under pressure during this time to save money for the department. This resulted in a significant head count reduction from 52 FTEs to 26 FTEs. This number was further reduced in 2017 to 17 FTEs. The pressures noted throughout the Inspection Period resulted in further vacancies occurring. This reduction in numbers compromised the team’s ability to function as an effective property management department and key posts, as well as estate knowledge, was lost.

Referring to the cutting of the Rent officer role in particular, Caller says “Without this role in place, LCC continues to have a significant outstanding rent debt of c£7m.” (Caller, 2021)

The stripping out of layers of management was described by Cllr Munby in terms of saving money, flattening hierarchies and being a popular way of getting the trade unions representing manual and clerical grades to support a “cuts start at the top” policy, which targeted job losses in the professional and managerial grades. However, in truth, it was part of a hollowing out of Liverpool City Council that made its subsequent governance failures inevitable.

As Beacon has previously reported, the latest round of cuts approved by Liverpool’s Labour council brings the total cut from the council’s budget since 2010 up to a massive £450million. This £450million cut equates to around 65% of the city council’s 2010 budget, or £800 per household. In addition to the decimation of services, these cuts have led to 2500 council jobs being lost.

The impact of this “austerity via local government” policy upon Liverpool has been disproportionate, with Liverpool Express (01/10/2019) reporting:
Had Liverpool’s Spending Power been cut by “only” the average 12.3% then it would be £77 million better off in 2019/20.

This puts any claims that Labour in Liverpool has delivered any sort of miracle firmly into context. Not only has the Labour council waved through devastating cuts, it has waved through devastating cuts that have disproportionately impacted upon the city to the tune of £77million! This was not a tale of hearty Labour warriors taking on the Tory austerity mongers, it was Labour councillors complying with the worst the Tories could throw at us.

The hollowing out of local government, through Tory government austerity delivered by a compliant Labour council, is compounded by a local Labour Party hollowed of its internal democracy. This is a sorry tale that goes back to the removal of the local party’s democratic structures of accountability and scrutiny in the late 80s – in particular, the disbanding of the District Labour Party (DLP) and its mandate over the Labour Group in the city council.

The DLP may have made some wrong moves. Errors were undoubtedly made, errors more of a tactical nature not a compromise of principle, but they were made openly and democratically. The Liverpool Labour Party of the 1980s didn’t have a Labour Group in the council acting like an autonomous organisation, with councillors not members determining party policy. Nor was there a Mayor behaving like an absolute monarch, making policy decisions that the rank and file were neither party to nor aware of.

The Liverpool Labour Labour Party was famously subject to root and branch “restructuring” in the late 1980s. The subsequent exclusion and ostracisation of an entire generation of local activists was to the eternal benefit of a cohort of now long-standing Labour councillors. These experienced municipal politicians have been party to every decision made by the Labour council. They must surely stand front and centre with questions to answer when Max Caller writes of “files full of ‘what do we do now to get this deal over the line’” and comments “but no one thought it correct to call a halt”.

The recent Liverpool Labour Party Mayoral nomination shambles placed local party democracy, or more specifically the lack of it, in sharp focus. While supporters of candidates on the original shortlist were rightly angered by the party’s withdrawal of the shortlist, it has to be said that the three candidates were withdrawn by similar undemocratic processes to those that selected them in the first place!

Those seeking to be Labour’s mayoral candidate applied by self-nomination, they weren’t nominated by members, branches or affiliated organisations. They were then interviewed by the party and a shortlist was drawn up by the party. Members then decided which of the shortlisted candidates they would align with, having played no role in nominating or shortlisting them.

In spite of clarion voices of Labour Left social media claiming a usurping of democracy by Labour HQ, the reality is that the process was inherently undemocratic to begin with. The “Corbyn influx” did nothing to change the lack of democracy in the Labour Party. It is no more a democratic body of the left than when Blair controlled all before him. It is an unfit vehicle for municipal socialism.

Without the scrutiny of a participative democracy, something the DLP of old provided for, municipal Labourism in Liverpool has delivered a disconnect between the working class, the wider Labour Party in the city, the Labour councillors in the Labour Group and, significantly, the Labour Mayor. The impact of this is set out in graphic detail in the Caller Report.

With the Caller Report in the public domain and Secretary Of State Jenrick’s measures announced, Liverpool stands subject to direct government intervention in the city council and the Liverpool Labour Party, perhaps now fatally wounded, will be subject to yet another intervention from the national party. The failings of the Labour Party in Liverpool have opened the door for the Tories to reshape the council and for Starmer to reshape the local Labour Party.

Socialists are totally correct to oppose the imposition of commissioners with the remit set out by the Secretary of State. However, there is no groundswell of support or sympathy in the city for the local Labour Party or the council. The prevailing mood is accusatory, asking of councillors “if you knew, what did you do? If you didn’t know, why didn’t you know?”

However, we do clearly need to move beyond this crisis. It is vital that our municipal governance is revitalised and democratised. That is a job for the people of this city, not Jenrick, not Starmer, not the Tory government, and not the Labour Party.

Rather than the longer-term role set out by Jenrick, the job of the Commissioners ought to be limited to technical advice to the relevant council departments and enabling a resumption of full local democracy as soon as possible. In this respect, an analogy could be drawn with the role of the civil service when a government falls.

In fact, if Liverpool City Council were a government, it would have fallen. If a government falls, then all seats become subject to a subsequent general election. Viewed it in this respect, the obvious first step to restoring confidence in Liverpool City Council would be for all 99 seats to be put up for election in May. This would subject the entire council, not just the one third due for election this year, to public accountability.

With regard to the role of Mayor, both the government and the Leader of the Opposition have stated that they wish the city to keep this post. However, this must not be their decision to make. Full council elections should be followed by suspension of the role of Mayor pending a consultative period and referendum.

A six months community consultation would bring public scrutiny to a council constitution with more holes in it than a sieve, enabling the people of the city to look into issues that all and sundry from outside the city see fit to pontificate upon, including:
⦁ Whether to continue with the Mayoral model
⦁ The number of councillors per ward
⦁ The total number of councillors
⦁ The method of electing councillors

These are issues that affect the daily lives of people in Liverpool. They should be addressed by the people of Liverpool. As such, the consultation period should conclude with a referendum on a new council constitution, to be put to the people of the city in December this year.

The shape of our local governance absolutely should not be determined in Whitehall or Westminster. Not when the hollowing out of local government has been almost an article of faith in those quarters for four decades.

Similarly, the shape of working class representation in our city should not be shaped by Starmer or the Labour Party’s right wing machine. Not when the roots of the Labour Party’s crisis of accountability in Liverpool can be traced directly to the abolition of Liverpool District Labour Party and its model of mass participatory democracy.

In the short term, an all out 99 seat election followed by consultation and a winter referendum provide a democratic alternative to a three-year period of central government reshaping our council. In the longer term, as Beacon has previously said, this must be a turning point in renewing our local government, rebuilding local democracy through radical devolution, accountability, scrutiny and a community right of recall

Munby, S. 2016, Miracles Can Happen …, Soundings: A journal of politics and culture, Volume 61 pp. 35-48, Lawrence & Wishart
Caller, M. 2021, Liverpool City Council Best Value Inspection December 2020-March 2021.

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Beacon is a non-party platform to further the cause of socialism in Liverpool and the wider City Region.