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8 February 2021updated 05 Aug 2021 5:52am

Steve Rotheram: government has “reverted to a Whitehall knows best approach“

The Liverpool Metro Mayor on the UK skills gap, devolution, and the skills MPs need.

By Jonny Ball

“When I was in parliament it was really interesting to see that hardly anybody else there had a trade background,” Steve Rotheram tells me when we meet over Zoom at the start of England’s third lockdown. The metro mayor of Liverpool City Region – a devolved body encompassing Liverpool itself along with five neighbouring local authority areas – Rotheram was an apprentice bricklayer before entering politics, an unusual background for the British political class.

From 2010 to 2017, Rotheram was member of parliament for Liverpool Walton, the safest seat in the country, where Labour’s vote share hasn’t dipped below 70 per cent for 30 years. In 2015, he became parliamentary private secretary to the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. But his time in SW1 was “frustrating”, with the levers of power turning “very, very slowly”.

Before the 2017 general election he stepped down to run as Labour’s candidate for Liverpool metro mayor, a new role at the head of the newly formed Combined Authority on Merseyside, which would control a budget of £900m and have significant devolved powers, including over skills and training. The Labour MP for Leigh at the time, Andy Burnham, also stepped down to become metro mayor of the neighbouring body in Greater Manchester.

“When the opportunity came to do something more locally, and perhaps to forge a new way of doing things and accelerate delivery, I thought ‘yeah okay, let’s have a look at that’,” says Rotheram. His own professional background set him apart from most MPs. “I’d say 99 per cent of them had come through academia,” he says. “They had gone to school, done A-levels, done a degree at a posh university, a lot of them anyway, and had ended up there”.

In the 1983 parliament, just over half of the Labour benches were made up of university graduates. Now, the party’s parliamentarians are more likely to have a degree than their Conservative  counterparts (84 per cent and 83 per cent respectively, while the figure for the whole country is around a third).

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Last year, the Conservatives shifted government policy to boost further education. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, announced the government was scrapping the target of 50 per cent of school leavers going to university, set by Tony Blair two decades ago, only one year after it was first achieved. In a speech at the time Williamson said there was an “still an inbuilt snobbishness”, and that further education (FE) was so undervalued in the UK it “may as well have stood for “forgotten education”.

A government white paper in January proposed an expansion of lifelong learning, designed to help older workers retrain in new industries and professions, and suggested giving employers more influence in developing vocational training. But Rotheram describes the proposals as having “sidestepped devolution and reverted to a Whitehall knows best approach”, asking ministers to “change course”.

The mayor says any problems are not just about the Secretary of State for Education. “It’s easy to have a pop at Gavin Williamson because he’s fairly poor,” he says, “but he is the whipping boy for the department – and that’s got structural issues… They are probably the most centralised of all departments… and there’s lots of churn, you seem to be making some progress, and then somebody else comes in.”

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Across the North, the pandemic has hit harder economically than in the South East, with northern unemployment benefit claimants making up a larger proportion of the total than before the lockdowns and closures began. This puts the government’s “level up” agenda in jeopardy. In addition to poor infrastructure and historically lower levels of investment, the productivity gap between the North and South has been partly blamed on low skills in some of Britain’s northern regions. London’s higher growth and higher public and private investment – with their associated employment opportunities – attract educated, skilled young people from all over the country, reinforcing the dominance of the capital.

Training, skills and apprenticeships will be key to Liverpool’s post-pandemic recovery, according to Rotheram. “We’re going to need people with different skill sets,” he says, keen to emphasise that economic revival and “building back better” won’t just be about rebuilding those sectors normally associated with Liverpool – its cultural and visitor economy. “If you look under the bonnet you see a completely different way in which the whole city region is starting to transform,” he says. “We’re hoping to build a tidal barrage project worth billions of pounds, and I don’t want people from all over the world taking those job opportunities away from local people… To be able to compete they need those vocational qualifications.”

While the Conservatives under Boris Johnson have tried to put more focus on those vocational qualifications, Rotheram is sceptical: “I’d like to see what they say in parliament become the reality in areas like ours.”

But the Tories’ new emphasis accompanies a slow but steady change in the demographic of its voters and MPs, not least in the fallen “red wall”. Historically, Labour grandees often made the journey from manual professions to workplace organising, then through the trade unions to become MPs. Now, you are far more likely to find seasoned Westminster “insiders” in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

“Parliament is supposed to reflect the society that it’s drawn from,” says Rotheram. But while undoubted progress has been made over the past four decades in representation for women and ethnic minorities, the perception of politicians as a closed “political class” is as strong as ever.

Internal debate still rages within Labour about whether the party has become too metropolitan, too middle class. Was its recent failure to win the votes of the skilled and unskilled manual workers who used to make up its base linked to the lack of MPs from similar backgrounds? The 2019 election saw the majority of those voters shift to the Conservatives for the first time, while the Labour led among university graduates.

But beyond simple electoral calculations, selecting MPs from such a homogeneous pool of talent limits their skill set. “I’m not having a pop at academia,” Rotheram assures me. “It’s great for some people… but the vocational route gives you a better understanding of working as part of a team… And you know there have been many promising political careers that have died on the altar of individuals not being able to work as part of a team.

“All those phrases like ‘there’s no I in team’ – well go and work in parliament for a bit and you’ll see that they don’t exist,” he says. Rotheram could be referring to any number of high-profile political spats – Thatcher vs the “wets”, Blair and Brown, or even Corbyn and McDonnell.

Read more: The endless age of austerity: Liverpool puts the ghost of the 1980s to bed – for now​

He speaks from personal experience too. In the race to become Labour candidate for Liverpool’s metro mayor, Rotheram fought a selection battle against Liverpool city mayor Joe Anderson, as well as the Wavertree MP Luciana Berger. Liverpool’s Labour members overwhelmingly chose Rotheram, encouraged by his “Corbynite” credentials (a 2018 article described Rotheram as “the most powerful Corbynista in the country”), but it wasn’t long before tensions between Anderson and Rotheram spilled onto the front pages of the Liverpool Echo.

This rivalry has had its day. Anderson has now stepped down following his arrest on suspicion of bribery and corruption, and a referendum is planned on abolishing his post. Many Liverpudlians had wondered why Liverpool the city and the city region had two overlapping executive mayors.

Rotheram, meanwhile, was recently catapulted into the national limelight for different reasons. Boris Johnson praised him for supposedly co-operating with the government over the Covid-19 tiering system, comparing Liverpool favourably against Burnham’s stubborn Greater Manchester, the public face of opposition to the government’s measures.

Rotheram tells me this was a deliberate strategy to “divide and rule”, used “as an attempt to drive a wedge between myself and Andy”, his “best friend in politics”. He adds: “We were told that Dominic Cummings had his fingerprints on this as well.”

Now Liverpool is out of its tiers and, along with the rest of the country, into its third lockdown in less than 12 months. Its hospitality, tourism, culture and leisure sectors – central to the port city’s revival following its post-war decline – will be battered by months of enforced closures. Figures released last year showed that Liverpool experienced the second-highest rise in the jobless claimant count after the first lockdown.

The mayor is keen to talk up the city region’s economic offer: high-value manufacturing projects; green energy hubs; materials innovation; automation and robotics; four universities and a vibrant knowledge economy; and the opportunities in big data due to a planned “digital ring” based around the Hartree supercomputer. Capitalising on all of these requires a highly skilled labour market – something the Combined Authority is working on. Before the pandemic, and in partnership with local employers, the authority created 9,000 jobs and 5,500 apprenticeships using skills capital funding and the devolved adult education budget.

Read more: How Liverpool’s Covid-19 lockdown is stoking dreams of independence

But Rotheram is keen for further devolution. With control over revenue from the Apprenticeship Levy he’d be able to do more, he says. Devolved authorities, unlike the Department for Education, have an intimate knowledge of their local areas, an awareness of the needs of local businesses, relationships with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), and the ability to be flexible.

“People don’t just appear with, for instance, expert skills in modern methods of construction. People need to be trained. How can they be trained if there’s no local college that’s delivering that?” he asks. Much like the pandemic response, the government can be slow to learn how important local knowledge is in delivering policies and making smart budgetary decisions.

“[The government] keep on saying, ‘we’re going to do X’. And X for them is a major capital investment project, a big shiny thing,” says Rotheram. “But they won’t say anything about who’s doing it. I keep on asking them: ‘Who’s building that for you? Where are the skills gonna come from?’ HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, all these new hospitals, the bridges that are supposedly going to be built from Scotland to Ireland. Who would do it even if those fanciful things ever came to fruition? We’ve got skill shortages now, and we need people with different skill sets for the future. We can deliver that locally, whereas government could never do that.”

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on Skills and Apprenticeships. You can click here for the full edition.