Does Liverpool (and the rest of the UK) need a new type of politics?


Protestors at Walton Hall Park

Over the past few months I have been ruminating on three things:
1. The outburst of political debate and discussion caused by the Scottish Referendum. It really excited people to be taking part in a discussion about the future of Scotland;
2. The number of people who have been flocking to campaigns in Liverpool to oppose the sell off of our parks and other green spaces; and
3. The number of people attracted, at least superficially, to UKIP although, most of them have no idea what it stands for and thinks that a party led by a privately educated former stockbroker is a challenge to the establishment.
Let’s be clear that the political parties – all of them – as they exist today are a shadow of their formers elves. If you add up all the declared membership of all the political parties it comes to less than a quarter of the membership of the Young Conservatives in the 1960s. In Liverpool there are probably no more than 250 people fully committed to politics in the way that I have been for 47 years. Of course, that is not the entire membership or active support base of the political parties here because we all have more members and supporters and that but it is the core of the super activists.
Even the Labour Party in Liverpool, rampant though it is in local elections, have to turn out what seems like the iffy part of an old folks home from across the city to campaign against us in Church Ward. Look at the quality of debate in Liverpool City Council – well that’s easy there isn’t any debate in the council. Most speeches are facile rubbish with most councillors being told how to vote. Gilbert and Sullivan never had it so right as when they said, “he always voted at his Party’s call, he never thought of thinking for himself at all!” At the last local elections just 30% of the population bothered to vote. A spontaneous uprising of the people it was not!
Last Wednesday I co-hosted a meeting of green campaign groups from across the City. Last Monday I hosted a meeting of more than 40 people who have come together in my own Church ward to work to defeat Labour Plans to sell off part of Calderstones Park. Four weeks I turned put with more than 200 Walton residents to protest about the sell off for development of Walton Hall Park. What enthusiasm and vibrancy I saw there and what contempt for most of us who engage in party politics. Especially sad for me was hearing that some councillors and MPs were refusing to meet their constituents because their constituents have different ideas to the Mayor of Liverpool.
The way that Labour have behaved in Liverpool since they forced through a Mayoral system without public consent has been particularly depressing. Within weeks they closed down any system of scrutiny and the instructions of Mayor Anderson through an edict from the Chief Whip, Alan Dean. Now we have 10 select committees fed an endless pap of meaningless PowerPoint presentations to make councillors feel important. Labour councillors seem both scared of the elected mayor and desperate to secure the special responsibility allowances that can be gained by currying favour.
There is no doubt that as an individual Joe Anderson is deeply disliked by large sections of the population and his Labour colleagues are no longer popular. Remember it is a long time since a controlling party in Liverpool could only persuade 17% of electors to vote for it. Yet most of the campaigners do not want to enter ‘party politics’ I have been asked countless times in the past few days to ensure that I have Lib Dem candidates in wards like County (which we will have) but when I said, “would you like to do it”, people thought I was joking. They do not think that people like them are politicians because politicians do not behave like people like them.
In Scotland the debate blew away much of the Party political debate to become much more issue focussed. Those issues added up to something much more precious than the manifesto of any political party. Those engaged in the debate had many different views and those views did not themselves mean that there was a consensus on what a Scottish Government should actually do. These were broad, strategic discussions rather than the day to day job of running things that politicians have to prepare for and carry out. It is clear from the resignation of the Labour Leader in Scotland that at least one of the main parties has not thought through the ramifications of that debate and that vote.
So we have political activists by the score but party political activists by the handful how do we link the two sets of people together?
Well for a start off there is now way we can or should dispense with representative democracy. Politics is a matter of priorities and it is absolutely right that those conflicting priorities should be put to the people by way of election and then those that are elected should carry out what they sad within their elected chamber. But that is not enough. Too many politicians think (if they think at all) only within the cocoon of Westminster or Town Hall. They have made themselves remote from the people that they serve and thus from the views of those people and the debates which should be held with people about the issues. About 4 years ago the Independent Newspaper tries to launch a new type of political party but their actions got absolutely nowhere. A political party looks feels and smells like a political party and it always will.
I was amused as ever this morning when three people told me this morning, “still delivering your own leaflets then?” Of course I am. I could not function as a politician without the reassurance that regular contact with my constituents give me. When I speak in Council or elsewhere about what my constituents are thinking and saying I can do so because I am regularly in touch with them.
So if we are to keep political parties then what do we do to create a new body politic? Well I think we have to organise alongside the established political parties an energised civic society which has rights of audience and persuasion into the decision makers in a much more advanced ways than they do now. I would like to see the public able to move and speak on resolutions within the council chamber although the elected politicians should be the only ones with a vote there. I would like to see 51% of all members of scrutiny panels in Liverpool coming from outside the council bringing with them independence and a details knowledge that councillors may never have.
I would like to see the Freedom of Information Act dealt with in Liverpool in the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. I would like to see a detailed diary of the Mayor and Cabinet Members published so that we know who he and they are speaking to and about what.
I think that there are now too many councillors for the work inside the council that is required of them with too few seeking to be community leaders in the way that the community expects them to be. I now think that there are too many special responsibility allowances for the size of council that we are now with the range of activities that we have now.
I think that I am coming to the point of view that the elected mayor of Liverpool should not be elected with a political label but should seek a wider support base than his or her own party. That would automatically break the power of patronage seen within the council now and make the Mayor much more representative of the City as a whole.
This is not, in any way, a preparatory notice to me leaving the Lib Dems. As I have said before you will need to rip my Party Membership Card out of my cold, dead hand. (Thanks for the many offers to do just that!) It is however, an admission that my own Party is not debating issues around the future of democracy in the ways that I think it should be.
So I am sure that many politicians who read this will think I talking absolute rubbish because they struggle to see that all the political class are in deep doo-doos at the moment. We are engulfed in tide of contempt that only a major shake-up of the system will change. Shuffling the deck chairs like we have done with the introduction of elected mayors clearly has not worked to increase participation. Only a major opening up of the system to be inclusive of far more people and far more views will, in the long term, save the democracy which I passionately believe for and the system which I have fought within for so many years.
So over to you. What do you think? You can respond here, on my facebookpage or e-mail me at Whatever your views will you join me in what I believe is badly needed, a great debate about the future of democracy in our City and in our Country.


About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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