Town hall meetings are rarely brief and certainly never quiet in Liverpool. The one on March 2 was no exception, as the council of the city that ranks as the most deprived local authority in England worked through the finer details of $147 million in cuts to its $647 million annual budget.
Liverpool is at the very heart of the Conservative-led coalition government’s plans to shrink the public sector, reduce welfare to the bare minimum and “reform” Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) by tendering contracts to private companies while firing a whole swath of healthcare personnel. At every point in the life cycle of a “scouser,” Britain’s affectionate nickname for the city’s residents, the government is seeking to slash services, freeze pay and make life immeasurably harder for some of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
Back inside the town hall, petitions are made. Lisa Dempster, speaking for a daycare center in Knotty Ash, an area in the east of the city, told the assembled company, “I’m doing what David Cameron says he wants people to do. I work full-time, and I have done since the age of 16. My family is being penalized by this government from all sides.” Her hands were shaking as she described how her children would no longer receive the bus passes, educational grants or tax credits that would have enabled her to keep them in school.
Four local Sure Start centers, the British version of Head Start, are under threat and likely to close. Dempster was begging the council to leave hers alone. Luciana Berger, a local Labour MP, told me the two centers in her constituency were “much loved and cherished by the communities that use them” and said the number of e-mails and letters she was receiving was “overwhelming,” and mostly concerned with Sure Start. Even from a government that professes to love a small state, at least 80 percent of Liverpool’s funding comes from the government in Westminster. The centralized nature of authority, and its lack of compromise, is the main reason the city has unilaterally pulled out of David Cameron’s “Big Society” program. As Joe Anderson, leader of the Liverpool council, said that night, “We are not ‘in this together,’” echoing the prime minister’s words in the negative.
For Hayley Todd, a mother of two and an aspiring social worker, Sure Start was a lifeline. She talked me through the experience of “walking through those doors as a new mum and being given that support and that confidence” with free classes and social activities for parents. “If that goes, what are new mums going to do now? It’s going back to where there’s nothing,” she said.
Todd was given free childcare under the last government, which allowed her to study at an adult education college. She says she did it because “that’s the mindset Labour gave me. Not only did I want to do it but I wanted to give something back.” Todd is one of many women I meet who joined Labour in the past ten years, at the height of “New Labour” power.
Todd’s children are now school age and would be extremely lucky to find themselves in a comprehensive (equivalent to a US public school) I visited, St. Edmund Arrowsmith’s in Whiston, located about twenty minutes from the city center. The year-old building gleams like a space-age fortress. Teenagers work out in a state-of-the-art gym, design and build products in the workshop and check the times of their next music lesson on large plasma screens. These kids aren’t privileged. Twenty-three percent of them are on free school meals, and there is a dedicated police officer to make liaisons between home and teachers when the pupils end up in court. A spokesman for the school, who did not wish to be named, told me that around $40 million was spent on this building, and the pride of the students as they go about their day is evident. He added that establishments like this would not have anything physical taken away from them but that cuts would come in the form of the extra help that a school with a welfare roll needs. Educational psychologists, attendance liaisons, consultants and teaching support staff had already lost their jobs, and he feared many more would be fired in the coming months.