Liverpool’s political earthquake falls short of seismic

By Steve Latchford

There were huge expectations of a political earthquake in Liverpool in the run-up to the four sets of elections this week. In the event, the tremors struggled to register on the Richter scale. While Labour suffered a comprehensive drubbing in Hartlepool and many other places as the Party’s policy-free narrative fell on deaf ears, Liverpool – particularly the red north of the city – largely bucked the national trend, along with the city mayors Andy Burnham, Steve Rotherham, Welsh Labour, and other successes in Salford, Trafford and Preston. It is telling that the few good news stories had the common thread of clear, proudly socialist, community-centred politics running through them.

On May 2nd the breathless Liverpool Echo headline read: “Liverpool is at a crossroads and everything could be about to change.” By May 7th the same newspaper was coolly reflecting: “Liverpool’s opposition miss huge opportunity as Labour stay on top.”

Labour’s biggest test came in the highest profile of those elections, to elect a Liverpool City Mayor. While Labour enjoyed an overwhelming majority in its strongest of strongholds, the circumstances surrounding the campaign could hardly have been more unfavourable. Just before Christmas, the arrest of the then Mayor Joe Anderson sent political shock waves across the city. The ensuing Mayoral selection descended into fiasco as Labour suspended the process at the last moment and excluded the original candidates Wendy Simon, Ann O’Byrne and Corbyn-backed Anna Rothery – who, if elected, would have been the first black woman elected as leader of a major UK city.

That accolade instead fell to Joanne Anderson, who became Labour’s candidate after a new shortlist of two was drawn up by the party. As Liverpool Labour was still reeling from the chaos of the botched selection, a final hit came in the form of the Caller Report exposing failings in the running of the City Council and the intervention of government-appointed commissioners.

Step forward popular charity executive Stephen Yip as the independent, anti-corruption candidate to win 21.8% from a standing start and no prior organisation. He reduced Labour’s vote from 52.6% in 2016 to 38.5% and forced the contest to a second round for the first time, a reflection of concern over the Caller report. The 14-point fall in Labour’s vote sends a wake-up call to the Labour leadership not to take its stronghold on the Mersey for granted. Voters always have somewhere else to go.

That is little consolation to the main opposition parties. The Lib Dems’ Richard Kemp, admittedly a rather colourless figure, fell back from his 2016 performance and was relegated into third place. The Greens’ Tom Crone also saw a drop in his vote share. Labour might have suffered a significant blow, but it was far from a fatal one as the usual opposition parties struggled to capitalise.

It was a similar story in the City Council elections. As the Echo’s Liam Thorp observed: “the events of the past few months in Liverpool have been seismic – but for whatever reason the election that followed them has not been.” In normal times, the Lib Dems might have been encouraged at taking three seats in the south of the city – Mossley Hill, Cressington and Childwall – from Labour. In the circumstances, it could be said that with the ball at their feet, the goal gaping and the keeper at the other end of the pitch, the ball rolled rather lamely out of touch. Labour’s vote share in the event has declined from 58.77% to 48.11%. Labour might be fortunate that the opposition parties were so inept at exploiting its troubles locally and nationally.

So Labour in Liverpool has proved remarkably resilient, but Stephen Yip’s strong showing should warn against complacency. New Mayor Joanne Anderson was right to apologise on behalf of the Party and administration for the findings of the Caller Report. She has said Labour will be: “wholeheartedly determined to put the city on a restorative path after a difficult year.” This is a pledge the new Mayoral administration and city councillors will have to fulfil if Liverpool is to remain Labour’s red city.

Image: Liverpool waterfront. Source: FlickrPicture postcard Liverpool. Author: Beverley Goodwin, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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