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.