An enormous room, fearful in symmetry and smartly appointed in wood, brass and leaded glass; chandeliers hang from the ceiling like bunches of grapes. A large man rises from the top table – all leather high-backed chairs – to give his speech amid a round of applause. He has notes and a glass of water. The massed people, all sat facing the front, are cheering. The people on the top table sometimes smile indulgently, sometimes talk among themselves, sometimes they look bashful when referred to. The man lists names – there are a lot of people to thank. Sometimes there is laughter, sometimes a small gasp of surprise or shock. Occasionally people get to their feet and clap. He ends with his hopes for the future, sits down and is congratulated by those around him.
It might sound like a wedding speech. It is, in fact, the first speech that Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson has delivered to the council in the Town Hall: delivered to audience of party faithful, the odd Liberal, an occasional Green and what’s left of Liverpool’s Liberal Democrats, who look like the most depressed people in the world. To extend the wedding reception metaphor, Liverpool’s Lib Dems are definitely Table Nine.
SevenStreets has come along to gauge how Mayor Joe seems to be getting on, but also to soak in a little Liverpool party politics. Anderson seems assured and in control of his brief, which is surely as wide-ranging as that of most public officials in the country. He is, essentially, running Liverpool: making appointments here and then, wrangling with budgets, fighting with national government (or not – Joe has a personal letter from his new mate Nick Clegg) and starting more initiatives than Mike Storey’s made comebacks.
The news, it would appear, is rather gloomy due to national cuts and ongoing austerity politics – Anderson frames the narrative as ‘cuts versus taxes’, we’re at the eye of a ‘perfect storm’. The press are not helping, says Joe, casting a baleful eye towards the public gallery, where SevenStreets is sitting with the journos, who are scribbling shorthand notes and muttering uncomplimentary things about Uncle Joe. The council is currently leaking like a sieve, primarily to David Bartlett’s excellent Dale Street Associates blog in the Post; there’s a Whodunnit subtext to proceedings.
Local media promotes a cynical attitude towards politics, says Anderson, and hypocritically complains about low turnouts (his own election as Mayor was on a startlingly low turnout) while failing to promote political debate. Perhaps, but any newsman will tell you that good news is no news – if politicians believe the Fourth Estate is failing they need to look at better ways to communicate directly with the electorate, because struggling newspapers won’t anticipate a Joe Anderson Good News Column as a scoop.
How much the job of running a city has changed over the years is evident by Joe’s rather long and not especially interesting speech – pitched somewhere between a party political broadcast, a lecture and a Q+A. SevenStreets is reminded of brief spells of court and council reporting back in Hartlepool. In the age of targets, oversight, KPIs and middle managers, Joe Anderson is the biggest manager of all.
The grinding detail of it all is turgid, impenetrable and seemingly without end (Joe talks without a break for about 90 minutes). This is what modern politics is all about. No tub-thumping; no ideology; no beer and sandwiches; no passion. A lot of white men in suits arguing about etiquette, procedure and fine print (that may be unfair, there are plenty of women on the council and some councillors who are not white, though I doubt the council is demographically representative of Liverpool).
Joe does sound passionate when trying to rouse his councillors to become community leaders and his vision of a joined-up Liverpool with social entrepreneurs and the city’s various stakeholders – private sector, universities, QUANGOs and local government – is interesting. He has doubled the Mayoral Community Fund (to £1.5m) and receives a standing ovation from his party. It’s a moment that shows the utter domination of Liverpool City Council by the Labour Party, forgiven its transgressions of the 80s and handed a huge mandate to sort the city’s problems out – and arguably to take on a Tory-led national government,
And Anderson does seem to recognise that doing has been replaced by reporting – leaving councillors as little more than paper-shufflers. But the great ideological battles seem long gone; a kind of grey, Blairite third-way paper-chase in their place. He resembles an Old Labour bruiser – if US voters need to to be able to imagine having a beer with their President, you could imagine ten pints of bitter and a pie with Joe – but appears to marry those instincts to the technocrat loquaciousness of New Labour.
Those familiar with Prime Minister’s Questions might imagine that council debates consist of a lot of rich, white men bellowing baroque insults at one another, but no. We longed for some old-fashioned rough-and-tumble. We half hoped that Derek Hatton might make a return to the chamber, in the style of a legendary old wrestler making a comeback to the WWE to clear house and direct a blistering promo at the young pretenders, perhaps delivering chairshots to Anderson, Kemp and Radford before toasting Warren Bradley with a cold beer: Steve Munby desperately calling for quiet. But no.
Although at one point Joe appears to call former council leader Mike Storey ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ – leading to a frisson of shock around the chamber – he quickly explains that he said ‘Lord Ha-Ha’, whatever that means, things only really get going when Lib Dem deputy Tom Morrison unleashes a devastating mixed metaphor that somehow manages to include eggs and beans.
But Deputy Mayor Paul Brant bats it away with the lack of effort that a barrister might display. That’s because he is a barrister. When Brant congratulates Richard Kemp on being elected the Lib Dems party leader, Kemp, in a moment of self-deprecation, shouts “Take that back!’ Undeterred Brant rejoins that the electorate “may well take it back” at the next election. SevenStreets sniggers.
Kemp may rival Anderson for his circumlocution. “What’s he on about?” we ask someone nearby. “God knows,” comes the rejoinder. It is probably something that Councillor Kemp believes to be important as he seems quite passionate. But for the impartial observer it’s hard to follow, as are the majority of the proceedings. We’re informed that this session is likely to go on until 9pm – having started at 5pm, so we slope out at 7pm and head to the pub.
For those that remain are numerous pork-barreling councillor fripperies; such taxing questions as urban foxes and a walled garden at Sudley House are among the testing problems facing councillors today. It’s hard to believe that a lot of them aren’t there so the councillors who posed them can go back to constituents with pieces of paper in their hands to show them they’ve been hard at work.
It does not seem much like hard work – just like a very dull lecture, or a wedding speech that’s interspersed with breaks to enjoy coffee and cakes in an antechamber next door. But we’re under no illusions about how hard councillors work – local politics may be many things but it certainly ain’t glamourous.
What is glamourous, of course, is the Town Hall, a grand Georgian edifice built when Liverpool was awash with slave money. It is grandiose, but there are also delicate features around the building: mosaics, murals and little ornaments like the two brass Liver Birds that a sceptre resides on in the council chambers. There are tours every month, which we recommend.
As for the council, they continue to debate into the night. It’s difficult to know what make of the cast of characters who represent Liverpool’s political leadership – Anderson, Kemp, Brant, Munby and Radford. Presumably they all got into politics to make a difference; to do good – for the right reasons.
But watching them argue technicalities of etiquette, procedure and nuance there’s a feeling that they’re all institutionalised by the grinding inevitability of bureaucracy. In the public gallery are youngsters who look very much like the sort of people who would be spotted on similar committees at universities; the next generation of paper-shufflers and motion-submitters being prepped for these dusty rituals.
Political geeks may enjoy the dry point-scoring in the chambers, but it’s hard to believe that members of the Liverpool electorate would be impressed. It would simply reinforce the view that politicians are a breed apart; displaying an almost autistic hunger for quibbling numbers and rules (despite a very Liverpudlian bent towards argument).
That may be part and parcel of being in politics, but it is doing local politics no favours if the only interaction the public has are stage-managed events and the only reporting concerns photo opps or these speechifying debates that are simultaneously childish and astonishingly dull.
Anderson has an opportunity as Mayor to get out and break down some walls. Perhaps that could be greatest opportunity of Liverpool choosing to have a city Mayor: the chance to reconnect with an electorate that finds politics boring, untrustworthy and corrupt.
• You can go on guided tours of Liverpool Town Hall every month -check website for details; members of the public can sit in on council meetings – check liverpool.gov.uk for more details.
Images are by the yes man, ahigsett, Social Enterprise Netowrk, inniebear via Flickr respectively