Traditionally, the first Thursday of May is local election day. This weekend, spare a thought for those good local councillors who have lost seats, not because of local issues, but because the electorate wanted to punish Messrs.Cameron and Clegg.
I cut my teeth in local politics. Forty years ago, on May 4th 1972, I was the surprise victor in Low Hill, an inner city Ward of Liverpool. Aged 21, still a student, I was daunted to find myself entrusted with the care of a community where half the homes were without inside sanitation. In streets, some of which were lit by gas, there was chronic poverty but incredible generosity; slum clearance but strong communities; wonderful humour. Faith, family, and friendship were in the DNA.
An old-style Liberal, in a neighbourhood which hadn’t elected one in fifty years, party politics was secondary. What mattered was serving the local community; engaging in issues; sharing the people’s vicissitudes; acting as a lightning rod for grievances and aspirations; articulating hopes and fears. Mahatma Gandhi understood the risk of abandoning your roots when he remarked that “to forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
If politicians forget to walk the streets, to engage in the issues which affect people, to live in the communities and regions they represent, or put self aggrandisement before the duty to serve, it compounds alienation and the dislocation of politics and people.
I still have some of the first letters which constituents sent me in 1972.
Thomas Melia lived in Codrington Street in deplorable conditions – in a “temporary” pre-fabricated home, erected years before. Liverpool’s Royal Hospital stands there today. He wrote saying “this is the first time, since I have lived in this neighbourhood that anyone has ever been in touch with me.”
Each week, long lines of people like Mr.Melia queued for hours at the local Rathbone School at “surgeries” which, as a City Councillor or MP, I would hold for the next twenty five years. I was amazed and not a little humbled by the trust which people put in me; shocked by some of the situations with which they needed help; increasingly passionate about seeking improvements; and encouraged by a Miss Walsh of Holland Place, who, having voted for me, perceptively predicted “no doubt you will make plenty of mistakes.” Happily, Liverpool people don’t do deference.
In my 1972 election leaflets I quoted a resident from Prospect Street. He’d lived in Low Hill for 47 years: “Lloyd George said he would provide homes and a country fit for heroes to live in. Nowadays, the condition of our houses means you have to be a hero to live in them.”
I argued for “the Council to inform people of developments affecting the area before decisions are taken.”
Too often local people heard about developments “when it’s too late”. Those who would be affected had “a right to be consulted.” I mounted a spirited attack on “a criminal waste of money” and bad priorities, detailing “the £2 million spent on professional fees for schemes that were subsequently abandoned, £5 million spent to date on acquiring property to make way for an inner city motorway, the line of which looks like being changed again. You might ask “Did you get value for your money when they spent a further £1 million on consultants”
In urging the abandonment of grandiose pie-in-the-sky schemes I called for “the concentration of resources on repairs to pavements, cleansing of streets, provision of decent bus services, and other basic services.”
Derided as “a pavement politician” half the Council walked out in protest during my maiden speech – which opposed the building of dehumanised system built spine blocks and cluster blocks on the outskirts of the city, in Netherley, to which uprooted people from the inner city were being exiled. Twenty years later most of the blocks would be demolished.
I was on a steep learning curve; gradually understanding the constraints; opposing those who thought local politics was about peddling ideology, erecting barricades, or using the Council as a battering ram against central government; learning what was achievable, what wasn’t; and willing to cause trouble – whether it was dumping dead rats on an indifferent official’s desk, filling a wheelbarrow with documents which Council leaders said were “private and confidential” but contained arrogant plans to rip the heart out of the city; or exposing crooked landlords and dodgy planning deals, one involving a councillor from my own Group – leading to a failed attempt to expel me from my Party. Life was never dull.
After taking control of the city, holding down senior posts, chairing important committees, determining policies and shaping new priorities, there were infinite opportunities to do much to improve people’s lives. Later, I would favourably contrast my time as Liverpool’s Housing Chairman with that as a lawmaker at Westminster.
Forty years later I serve as a Vice President of the Local Government Association and remain suspicious of over-weaning centralised States and institutions. I share with Tip O’Neill, a former Congressional Speaker, the belief that in the final analysis “all politics is local.” I’m with the Catholic economist, E.F Schumacher who said “Small is Beautiful” and whose famous book is subtitled “Economics as if People Mattered.” Like economics, politics should also be practiced as if people mattered.
A German Jesuit theologian, Oswald von Nell-Breuning, developed the idea of subsidiarity – that however complex a task may be, or however far reaching, it should be undertaken at the most local level possible. Unsurprisingly, the Nazis banned his writing.
Local Government is a crucial part of the mediating structures of a nation. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes will always attempt to subjugate it – which is why, this weekend, you should spare a thought for those good local councillors who will have paid a price for the follies of a Government which increasingly behaves as if ordinary people and their needs don’t matter at all.