“Defiance is in the air”

Alan Gibbons looks at the shortlist for Liverpool’s Labour mayoral candidate

The political scene in Liverpool, always lively, just got livelier.

In May, alongside the votes for local councillors and a Police and Crime Commissioner, the city’s electorate will choose a new directly elected Mayor. Choosing the Labour candidate has been a very brief process because the incumbent, Joe Anderson, was arrested before Christmas as part of an investigation into allegations of bribery and witness intimidation linked to building deals in the city.

Local politics in the city always summons up memories of the days when John Hamilton, Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton were leading figures in Liverpool City Council’s confrontation with Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. That era definitively sealed the death of the Tories as a force in Liverpool.

The very idea of a directly elected Mayor is controversial here. The post is not the most popular with local people. Many see it as less democratic and less responsive than leader-cabinet or committee models. Opposition to this form of governance is widespread in the city’s Labour Party with its membership of over six thousand.

Earlier this month, a panel made up of NEC and regional executive members shortlisted candidates. Acting Mayor Wendy Simon was a shoo-in to go forward. Seen by many as a continuity candidate, Wendy is often called a ‘safe pair of hands’. She has represented Kensington and Fairfield since 2007 and has been a Cabinet member for much of that time. She is a retired social worker who worked in the neighbouring borough of Knowsley and is an active member of the public service trade union Unison, who back her campaign. One of Wendy’s strengths is that she doesn’t tend to antagonise people, no matter what wing of the Party they are on, the opposite of a ‘Marmite candidate’. Wendy is strongly associated with Mayor Anderson’s messaging that the days of the Militant Tendency-influenced council of the 1980s are consigned to the past.

Ann O’Byrne, a member of the GMB union, has represented the Warbreck ward since 2007, wresting control of the seat from the Liberal Democrats and making it a Labour stronghold. She was Deputy Mayor of Liverpool until 2018 when she quit Mayor Anderson’s Cabinet following the sacking of her close ally Nick Small. The following year she attempted to remove Mayor Anderson’s position with an election-night move, just minutes after the count, but eventually lost out in a Labour group vote.

Known to be hard-working, Ann has long been considered a strong candidate and regarded as the front-runner at the outset of this campaign. A regular on picket lines and other trade union demonstrations, and manhandled by police in protests against a Tommy Robinson rally in Bootle during the General Election, Ann has won support from broad sections of the membership. But she is viewed warily by some on the Labour left because of her proximity to figures on the right of the party like Nick Small, who once called enthused Corbyn supporters ‘dinosaurs’.

The final candidate in the all-women race is Anna Rothery, a longstanding member of Unite the Union. Anna made history in 2019 when she became the first black Lord Mayor in Liverpool, replacing Peter Brennan. She has represented the Princes Park ward in Liverpool 8, where she was brought up, since 2006. Known for her work on equal opportunities, Anna initiated the monthly vigils at St Luke’s, the city’s Bombed Out Church, to commemorate the victims of the Grenfell disaster. Anna was the last of the three to declare and, as the only one of the trio not to serve in the Cabinet, considered the outsider.

There is a lot at stake in this election. A Centre for Cities report concluded that, calculated per resident, Liverpool was the locality hardest hit by austerity measures, with an £816 reduction to council services’ funding for every person living in the city. The Local Government Association forecast recently that a new government funding formula will impose an extra £27m cut to Liverpool’s battered budget every year from 2021 onwards. This is devastating in what is already one of the most deprived areas in the country.

Such is the shadow falling across the city that Mayor Anderson, previously wedded to ‘sensible socialism’ and somebody who argued that the council had to make difficult decisions to avoid commissioners being sent in, was driven to say:

“I will refuse to make any further cuts to our budget because we are now at the stage where doing so will mean closing down vital services that people rely on. We have worked hard under enormous pressure to keep our libraries and children’s centres open because they affect the life chances of people in Liverpool, these new cuts would mean losing those services and I’m just not going to do it.”

For the first time in a generation, the language, if not the fact, of defiance is in the air. This is where the politics of the campaign come in. It was widely thought just a week ago that this was a straight fight between Wendy Simon and Ann O’Byrne, with echoes of the previous feud between Joe Anderson and Ann.

Everything started to change in the second week of the campaign when first Shami Chakrabarti then former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn endorsed Anna Rothery.

In a video message, Corbyn said: “”I’m absolutely delighted to support Anna Rothery as our candidate to be Liverpool’s Mayor. She will be fantastic, the first black woman to become Mayor of Liverpool. Somebody deeply rooted in all of Liverpool’s fantastic communities and somebody who believes the Labour movement is empowered when it’s a community-based, community-organised and community-led party. Anna is the one to do that and I absolutely hope that she is selected and elected as our candidate to be Mayor of the fantastic city of Liverpool.”

Anna had previously called for Corbyn to have the whip restored and for members suspended for passing motions supporting him reinstated, the only candidate so far to do so. Just a few days ago the right of the Labour Party seemed firmly in the ascendancy, despite a strong performance by the left-wing Grassroots Voice slate in the recent National Executive Committee elections. Since the victory of Keir Starmer in the leadership election a year ago and the wave of suspension of left-wing members, there has been something of an exodus of socialists from the party. The energy and excitement of the Corbyn project, the mass rally of 10,000 people on St George’s Hall plateau in 2016 all seem a long time ago.

Now the contest is very much a three-horse race and it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that a candidate strongly associated with the Corbyn project and its policy agenda could win.

Alan Gibbons is Secretary of Liverpool Walton Constituency Labour Party, candidate for Warbreck ward and a member of Momentum’s leading body, the National Coordinating Group. His suspension from the Party for permitting a motion supporting the return of the whip to Jeremy Corbyn was recently lifted.

Image: Anna Rothery. Author: RichieMac, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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