And if growing foreclosure is expected to be our collective destiny in the weeks and months to come, then Liverpool is already living our future – the city and its metropolitan area were the first to move to level 3 of England’s new foreclosure system.
It’s a familiar role, Liverpool as an outlier. And the first titles in response to the Level 3 decision played on a feeling of Liverpudlian exceptionalism. It was ‘the 1980s again’, so history ran – a time of brutal economic decline and confrontation, like today, between a Conservative government and a Labor local authority, then controlled by the militant tendency of ‘leftmost.
Or if you were there – I was a schoolboy in Militant Walton stronghold – the memories converge on an absolute truth to which we are committed: the world, most easily embodied in the “evil Tory government”, was against us. . That there was a lot of truth to this position – in 1981 then-Chancellor Geoffrey Howe circulated a note to cabinet colleagues suggesting that Liverpool be left to a “managed decline” spell; more problems than it was worth – did not always help.
Living in the city meant setting up one barricade or another every day, and Militant’s continual and often pantomime opposition took its toll. In the 1980s, few football fans and journalists looking for a political fight came to visit. The city was defiant, “us against them”, felt closed off and often seemed to like it that way.
The ‘new Liverpool’ that has emerged over the past two decades has a different tone: ‘Come see us, let us entertain you.’ Its business model thrives on openness – tourism, conferences, pleasure seeking (and education) – just as Covid-19 has made openness the most difficult thing. So, while the parallels to the 1980s make sense in terms of economic challenge, the city facing them is distinct. There is now a clear idea of a future – you get a good idea of it by talking to politicians, business leaders, school children – but that future now looks vulnerable, fragile.
“Think of the Liverpool region as an emerging economy,” says Alison McGovern, Labor MP for Wirral South, who is a “stakeholder” in the Liverpool City region. “Coming out of the 70s and 80s was like coming out of trauma. [Liverpool lost no fewer than 80,000 jobs between 1972 and 1982] There are huge advantages to being “emerging”. Growth rates are higher, there is a lot of land, relatively cheap. Lots of people want to live here. But companies are young, they are less likely to have capital reserves; they need support. ”
The differences with the 1980s also have something to say about the evolution of relations between the national government and a major provincial city like Liverpool. “Going forward, we might see this as a time when we realized we could do things differently,” McGovern says. “A time when English towns and regions started to take more control – of the economy, of healthcare, etc.
An optimistic reading, in this sense, might suggest that if the 1980s were the end of something – the last kick, for example, of an old industrial economy – there is a potential for misery for the start of something new. If you were feeling romantic, you could describe it, as the New Statesman did last week, as the ‘revolt in the north’, with Liverpool this time joined by Manchester and others. Talk to Steve Rotheram, Mayor of the Liverpool area, and you will feel his frustration at an incompetent center. But, in the spirit of the city’s change, he has little time for 1980-type bluster: “To be honest, it felt like an emergency. Our hospitals could be overwhelmed, and I just wanted to focus on getting economic support so that we are in good shape to come out.
McGovern attributes as a key to Liverpool’s growing sense of self the structure that accompanies the mayors of the metro. “During my early years as an MP, it made me cry that there was no platform to discuss ideas of local relevance. Now we have that – the structures, the officials, our own chief economist.
In a calculation like this, how you build an urban economy is closely related to the means of doing it. Liverpool’s confidence has seen a series of steady revivals – its designation as European Capital of Culture in 2008 was central – but without political and institutional structures momentum can be lost. Plus, the old “them versus us” has turned into a matter of trust. “Decentralization is a big word for the question of who do you want to look after things,” says Rotheram. “Anyone in London or people you know?” This issue becomes more urgent when health and livelihoods are at stake.
“Listen, let’s not be too conspiratorial,” conspires a local businessman, “but if you’re in London and making decisions it’s easier to let things fail. here. It’s not just a Liverpool affair – look at how parts of Manchester have been left to stew for weeks.
However, whatever the levels of local control, in post-industrial “cultural” economies – think of Liverpool as the model – the future is still precarious. Liverpool remains a place of great poverty, with many people taking jobs where they need to be on the site – they cannot, as many of us can, work remotely.
A waitress at my hotel tells me that she has only had eight hours of work in the past two weeks. This feeling that I had, as I walked the streets, that the city was closed has real implications for her. She is convinced, however, that “the slowdown will not stop completely… Something is happening here in Liverpool. Which, unlike the old days, feels like some kind of a fitting challenge.