Abolish the mayors
We need accountability in local government and in our movement too. James Harvey looks at the corruption scandal in Liverpool
The news that Liverpool’s directly elected mayor, Joe Anderson, was arrested on December 4, along with four other men, on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation made national and international headlines.1 The fact that former Militant supporter and property developer Derek Hatton - a prominent figure in Liverpool city council’s campaign against the Thatcher government in the 1980s - was one of the other four people arrested only added a further twist to what might otherwise have been a routine tale of shenanigans in local government.2
This gave The Sun and Daily Mail the opportunity to trawl through their cutting libraries and rehash the history of Liverpool politics since the 1980s. Opposition parties called for Anderson to “stand down”, while political rivals within the city council’s Labour group and beyond sharpened their knives and got ready for the inevitable power struggle, should Anderson resign.3 The Johnson government pressed home the attack following the arrests, by ordering an inspection of the council by a consultant, Max Caller, who had carried out similar ‘investigations’ in other local authorities.4 For some Tories this opportunity to weaken Labour’s grip in one of its electoral strongholds was just too good to ignore.5
However, the story did not end there. On January 16, The Times reported that one of those arrested for alleged bribery, Paul Flanagan, was an associate of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, and the director of a construction company, the Flanagan Group, which the paper described as “the union’s ‘go-to’ building firm”.6 It reinforced its report with a leading article attacking what it called Unite’s “crony socialism”.7 Both The Times and the Daily Mail carried stories linking sections of the Unite leadership and various property companies, although the papers were careful to state that “there is no suggestion of any criminal wrongdoing in the union’s dealings with either company”.8
In a similar vein an official spokesperson for Unite denied the reports and argued that the stories were a “crude attempt to smear Unite and its leadership through a disgraceful attempt at guilt-by-association”.9 The Times, however, did not let matters rest. On January 20 it followed up on the story in lurid terms with the headline, ‘Union project made thug its safety boss’.10 The paper also carried critical comments by arch rightwing Labour MP John Spellar and former Labour MP Lord John Mann, calling for an investigation into the awarding of union contracts to these companies. Given the political links between Spellar and the defeated rightwing candidate in Unite’s 2017 general secretary election, Gerard Coyne, we should understand the real motives for these articles and attacks. They are clearly directed against both the current McCluskey leadership, along with any potential left candidates for general secretary, such as Howard Beckett and Steve Turner, who might emerge from the union’s bureaucracy in the next few months.11
The linking of these stories about the Liverpool mayor and the awarding of contracts by Unite has serious implications for both the Labour Party and the union at a national level and should be understood in this much wider context. We should not join in these press attacks or lend any support to the criticisms advanced by Spellar and Mann. These gentlemen stand firmly on the side of capitalism and the state, and have a long history of opposition to socialism in the Labour movement. Likewise, The Times, the Daily Mail, the Liverpool Echo and Conservative Home are no friends of the working class either. So Marxists will not echo their attacks, which only seek to undermine the left, not expose alleged wrongdoing. It is not our job to pronounce on a case where no-one has even been charged yet. However, it is quite legitimate and absolutely essential for socialists to comment on the politics of the situation and analyse what this affair tells us about the state of our movement.
The post of directly elected mayor of Liverpool was created by the Cameron government’s 2011 Localism Act. Significantly, in Liverpool it was a city council meeting that decided to have a mayor rather than put the proposal to a local referendum, as had been the case in other cities. The Tories argued that the creation of a mayoral system in the major cities would extend local democracy and accountability. However, along with other aspects of their ‘localism’ agenda, it was really designed to continue the neutering of local government in order to aid the concentration of real power in central government - a process that had begun under Margaret Thatcher and was continued by Tony Blair.
They also hoped to further depoliticise local government by encouraging ‘partnerships’ and much-hyped initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse - in effect competition between cities for scarce central government resources in the era of austerity. In reality, policymaking and power remained in the hands of central government, whilst the mayors carried the can for cuts and worsening local services. Within the local authorities themselves the operation of the mayoral and cabinet system had a Bonapartist form which simply concentrated power in the hands of the mayor and a small group of councillors, while keeping democratic scrutiny to a minimum. Elections were largely fought as popularity or personality contests, with an emphasis on competence and responsibility rather than any real political programme.
In cities like Liverpool this process was aided by the hollowing out of the party following the decline in Labour membership and activism in the 1990s and 2000s. These processes of decay and demoralisation allowed the right to increase its grip on the party machine and determine who would stand as candidates for local government and parliament. It was in this period following the purge of the left in Liverpool in the late 1980s that rightwing councillors like Joe Anderson came into their own once again in local government.
The Labour right embraced this anti-democratic mayoral system with enthusiasm, believing that it could be a way to influence how their cities were governed and, at the same time, carve out a political niche for themselves. It also resonated with the managerial, pro-capitalist politics of the Labour right and their historical tradition of ‘municipal socialism’. The successful political careers of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson were initially the models for this type of opportunism, but Andy Burnham’s re-invention of his political career as ‘King of the North’ during the Covid crisis now seems a better bet for aspiring mayors in Labour-controlled cities.12 Joe Anderson has attempted something of the same in Liverpool, drawing on the powerful rhetoric of Scouse exceptionalism and loudly “standing up to the Tory government” (never an unpopular option on Merseyside) during the Covid crisis.13
But if Anderson the mayor tries to summon up the memories of militant struggles of decades gone by, Anderson the Labour political fixer is also prepared to make a deal in the here and now, under cover of working with the Tories in tackling the Covid crisis.14 However, getting into Boris Johnson’s good books by piloting a mass testing system and getting the vaccination programme speedily underway has not been enough to save Anderson and, whatever the final outcome of the police investigation, by ‘standing aside’ as mayor of Liverpool, his political career is now effectively over.15
Unfortunately, we cannot write the same predictive obituary for the politics and the institutional structures that shaped the career of mayor Anderson. Although many have talked up the specific features of Liverpool politics and amusing comparisons are made with the classic big city bosses of American politics, Liverpool is not Chicago and Joe Anderson is no mayor Daley. Rather he is a man of his own time and own place; and the time and place that fostered careerists like Anderson is the local government system produced by the ‘reforms’ and the restructuring of the central and the local state initiated by Thatcher and Heseltine and continued by their successors. Privatisation and outsourcing, the destruction of direct-labour departments and council services, ‘partnerships’ with the private sector and the growth of ‘consultancy services’ have resulted in the hollowing out of the local state since the 1980s.
Consequently, we now have a local government system closer in spirit and form to the notorious jobbery and potential for individual enrichment that existed before the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 than to the ideals of democratic local administration historically advanced by the labour movement. In this light, the municipal scandals and corruption satirised by Robert Tressell in The ragged-trousered philanthropists have a very contemporary resonance.
Joe Anderson’s rise and fall also reflects the political and organisational degeneration of the labour movement over the last 40 years. The defeat of the left that produced Blairism also produced Labour politicians like Joe Anderson, who carved out a comfortable place for themselves as councillors and elected mayors. Labour has had its big city bosses before - especially in Liverpool - but they were products of the post-war boom, when civic renewal and modernisation were the order of the day, and capitalism could afford to make concessions to the working class.16 Those days are long gone, but the politics of class compromise and accommodation with capitalism - exemplified by the career of politicians like Joe Anderson - remain dominant trends, used to weaken and ensnare the workers’ movement.
This is particularly true in local government. Whether in the radical form of ‘Poplarism’ in the 1920s and confrontation with the Tories of Liverpool under the Militant Tendency-led council in the 1980s, or in the revamped ‘gas and water socialism’ of ‘the Preston model’ in the 2020s, ‘municipal socialism’ can neither deliver viable reforms nor provide a real platform for a socialist struggle in the current period.17 The record of Labour mayors since 2000 shows that there is little room for manoeuvre within capitalism.
Despite its elective nature, the position of mayor is fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-political - a form of Bonapartism which depoliticises local government and sets the ‘charismatic individual’ above representative, collective decision-making. That should have no place in the politics, or the constitutional demands of a democratic movement committed to the transformation of society. Instead, Marxists call for the abolition of the elected mayors and the creation of a democratic system of local authorities made up of elected councillors, accountable and recallable by the electorate, and with full powers and resources to run their cities, towns and areas in the interests of the working class.
As for the other strand in this story - the awarding of contracts by the Unite leadership - this too raises much wider questions of democracy and accountability, this time not in the local state, but in our own movement. The same type of democratic demands that Marxists advance for the capitalist state should also apply to our own organisations and how they conduct their internal affairs. Given the importance of Unite for the future of both the trade union movement and the Labour Party, the issues that have been raised are unlikely to go away before the election of the new general secretary to replace Len McCluskey, when he stands down in 2022.