Gateway to England

With its stunning buildings and cosmopolitan character, Liverpool deserves the title of European Cap

Almost two and a half thousand years ago, King Ptolemy wondered how to increase the glory of his new capital city, Alexandria. He created the grandfather of all museums and the greatest library of the ancient world, which attracted a flock of leading academics. Thus adorned, Alexandria could rival more venerable cities such as Athens. Ever since, cultural institutions have been a hallmark of great cities. As the fast-growing towns and cities of industrial England were given greater powers of self-government in the mid-19th century, museums, libraries and civic buildings began rising throughout the regions.

The story post-1945 is less happy. De-industrialisation, suburbanisation and architectural disasters combined to leave our cities poorer, uglier and less func-tional than ever before. The near-failure of our regional cities and the overwhelming hegemony of London and the south-east began to create a lopsided economy and society.

With the virtual collapse of Liverpool's local authority in the early 1980s, things could only get better. Glasgow became the test case for urban revival. Following what appeared, at the time, to be a fairly silly advertising campaign (Mr Happy and the slogan "Glasgow's miles better"), the Scottish city won the European City of Culture gong in 1990 and is now Britain's third most popular tourist destination. The work of the urban task force chaired by Richard Rogers and the urban white paper published in 2000 were signs that the Labour government intended to make the urban renaissance a serious issue. The revival of Manchester city centre has been well documented; downtown Birmingham is once again a pleasant place to shop, to stroll and enjoy; Newcastle glitters with trophy projects such as the Baltic and the winking bridge.

Unsurprisingly, the competition for which British city was going to be European Capital of Culture 2008 was intensely fought, with cities from Belfast to Brighton peddling their cultural wares. On 4 June 2003, Tessa Jowell announced that Liverpool had been selected. In spite of high levels of unemployment and unloved social housing, in spite of an unjust media image of whingeing, thieving and skiving, Liverpool won.

For some time now, the rebirth of Liverpool has been gathering speed, with cultural institutions ranging from the robust and long-established - such as the Walker Art Gallery and Liverpool University - to the much younger FACT centre, Liverpool Biennial and Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. A recent Guardian headline about Liverpool's new appeal summed up the current mood: "Even the taxi drivers are moaning less".

We know that Britain's cities still rate rather poorly in terms of gross domestic product per capita when compared to Continental cities. Theories du jour for urban success range from the American don Richard Florida and his three Ts - tolerance, talent and technology - to the thinking of more right-wing ideologues who have opted instead for the two Ss: sun and sprawl. However useful, or not, such shorthand may be, certainly more thought than ever before is being directed towards analysing what makes post-industrial cities work for their citizens. Much of the talk about Capital of Culture has focused on what has been called the "Bilbao effect" - namely, how culture and cultural institutions (particularly when housed in "iconic" buildings) can be used to regenerate neglected cities.

The figures put forward for Liverpool are indeed impressive. Projects include the Fourth Grace (a waterfront building designed by Will Alsop), a new liner terminal, an £800m downtown shopping development and the continued growth of John Lennon international airport. These and other developments, and the events taking place before and during 2008, will bring investment of more than £2bn, create around 14,000 new jobs and generate another £200m through spending by tourists. Liverpool's museums, galleries, football teams, architecture and performing arts all need to be encouraged to continue raising expectations.

In recent years, planners and conservationists have been paying increasing attention to "characterisation". Liverpool's character very much rests on its past as the greatest mercantile city of the greatest empire in the world. Everything about Liverpool, from its dazzling stock of significant buildings (second only to London) and its many cultural institutions to its global outlook and cosmo-politan character, derives from its historic role as the pre-eminent gateway into and out of England.

The rebirth of a great city - especially one with a potentially global status - is tremendously exciting. All the elements of success are present in Liverpool: deft civic leadership (both political and executive); a confident citizenry; an eager private sector; robust cultural institutions; a distinctive and inspiring local environment. The Capital of Culture will be the catalyst to bring together existing strengths and will also, I hope, remind many (including those in government) that success in Liverpool will prove our determination and ability to bring our cities back to life.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, After Madrid, does urban life have a future?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide