Liverpool: a war on party democracy

By Steve Latchford

“The Labour leadership has declared war on Party democracy in Liverpool.”

That was the conclusion drawn by one Liverpool Labour member on hearing the shortlists for three upcoming by-elections, all in rock solid Labour seats: Anfield and Clubmoor in the Walton constituency and Kirkdale in the neighbouring Riverside constituency.

Following the arrest of Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson and the Caller report into the operation of three Liverpool City Council departments, the NEC took charge of candidate selections. Many local members saw this as an opportunistic move to use problems at the Council to impose draconian measures on constituency parties which the current party leadership seems to view as a thorn in its side. CLPs will be made to adopt a delegate model and be unable to select their own candidates until 2026.

Anyone who thought this would result in the factional exclusion of the Left will feel vindicated. Locally-based, left-wing candidates who have sustained party organisation in Anfield and Clubmoor, members with impeccable records in their neighbourhoods – organising community groups, initiatives dealing with domestic violence, friends’ groups for local parks, Fans Supporting Foodbanks and youth events focused on climate change – were all blocked.

Indeed, being an activist rooted in your community seems to have been a sure-fire passport to rejection. Not one local candidate was even interviewed, while others with no obvious connection to the areas they now seek to represent were given the nod.  At a time when the party claims to be motivated by increasing diversity, working-class, young, women and LGBT+ candidates were sidelined. Such clearly flawed decisions raise serious questions about the fairness and integrity of the selection process.

None of this has come as a surprise to local party members. The key figure in the NEC panel was Luke Akehurst, who is is the prime mover in the right-wing Labour First and has tweeted this as a statement of faith: “Attacking the Hard Left is inherently also anti-Tory as history tells us their defeat is a necessary precondition of defeating the Tories.” With such hyper-factional actors running the show, it is little wonder that community-rooted socialists were blocked in favour of candidates unknown to local residents.

This is only the latest development in Liverpool Labour’s troubled story. Back in February, the race to succeed former City Mayor Joe Anderson descended into fiasco. As Corbyn-backed Anna Rothery’s campaign gained momentum, the contest was stopped on the eve of ballots arriving with members, and all three women candidates in the running were arbitrarily removed without explanation. A new shortlist of two was drawn up by the party leadership, paving the way for current Mayor Joanne Anderson’s victory.

Much worse was to come as Labour leader Keir Starmer went back on his promise at the leadership hustings in Liverpool not to conduct interviews with the S*n. A citywide boycott of Murdoch’s rag goes back to the lies it told over the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. For Starmer to write for it just eighteen months after promising not to during his campaign felt like a calculated insult, a slap in the face not only for members and voters in Labour’s safest seat, but for the families and survivors who are haunted by the toxicity of the S*n’s smears to this day. It was tantamount to being an act of political sabotage.

Contrast this situation to the hopes and aspirations in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 and 2016 leadership victories. In Labour’s safest seat of Walton, the Party membership increased fourfold. Thinly attended meetings were replaced with gatherings packed to the rafters. The faces at meetings and events became younger, more diverse. There was an injection of vibrancy. The atmosphere was welcoming and inclusive, buzzing with energy and ideas.

There was a torrent of activity as street stalls drew a regular turnout of twenty, sometimes  thirty members building support for local campaigns. Walton members were ever-present on picket lines, the Arriva bus drivers’ strike, the long battle to keep guards on Merseyrail trains, the successful campaign to prevent the overnight closure of two fire stations. Activity like this showed residents that the labour and trade union movement could fight and win for working class communities.

Labour members were fighting not only for bread, but roses too. There were poetry nights, book clubs and art exhibitions. The constituency party celebrated its local heritage with an annual Eric Heffer memorial lecture and a 600-strong march led by a brass band to the grave of Robert Tressell, author of the Ragged Trusered Philanthropists. It felt like a mass democratic socialist party based on the values of solidarity was being born.

With the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership following an election, these gains and this conception of socialist activity came under systematic attack. Instead of local initiative, bureaucratic control from above and arbitrary suspensions became tools to marginalise the Left. The membership was being hollowed out, not as a matter of accident, but of conscious strategy, as Luke Akehurst’s infamous tweet demonstrates. Far from being the ticket to electability Akehurst and his allies imagined, this approach has seen Labour languish in the polls and Starmer’s personal approval ratings plummet. It appears to be a price willing to pay for a Party leadership hell-bent on treating Labour’s strongest supporters with contempt.

Image: Liverpool Townhall. Source: Liverpool Townhall. Author: Miguel Mendez from Malahide, Ireland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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