Liverpool’s imperfect storm

By Alan Gibbons

Sometimes you come to a crossroads.

Going back means sacrificing every principle you ever held. Every other avenue before you leads to consequences not of your own choosing. This was my situation and that of six other Labour colleagues at the Liverpool City Council budget meeting on March 2nd. It would lead to my expulsion from the party on Good Friday.

Because of the undemocratic and authoritarian whipping system, we had a simple choice back in March. Either we voted for deep cuts to the adult social care budget, accepted an environmentally unacceptable Green Bin charge and made the prospects for four libraries less secure, or we voted against them and put our Labour membership at risk. That there were £30.7 million reserves, up by £10 million, made the budget even more unpalatable.

For many years, Labour councillors have reluctantly – and sometimes more enthusiastically – voted for cuts budgets. This changed on March 2nd. We could not vote to make the lives of the residents we represented worse so we voted against the budget. We had proposed alternative proposals in the Labour group, but to little effect. Though we wrote repeatedly to the Labour group leadership, asking for a thoroughgoing debate on their merit, all we received was a curt response that they were “not robust”.

In the event, seven of us, Alfie Hincks, Alison Clarke, Rona Heron, Lindsay Melia, Joanne Calvert, George Knibb and myself broke the Labour whip. Lindsay was to resign as a councillor. George resigned from the Labour Party. The remaining five were suspended. There was nothing planned or factional about this move. Until the evening of the budget meeting, we didn’t even know how many councillors would vote against the measures. Given that we were open about our decision and the reasons for it, we expected a prompt response from the Labour Party, setting out the consequences of our actions.

It never came.

Realising that we were likely to be left in limbo for months, diminishing the political impact of our vote, we gave the Labour Party an ultimatum: tell us what you plan to do or we set up an independent group with three former Labour colleagues, Sam Gorst, Anna Rothery and Sarah Morton.

The weekend before the expiry of our ultimatum, surprise surprise: I received the long-awaited response from the Party. It wasn’t related to the budget vote, however. It was a miserably thin list of charges relating to contacts with left groupings. In February I had been placed under investigation for an interview I did for Socialist Appeal a year ago, before its proscription. It seems it is OK for the Labour leader to write for the S*n, but not for a Labour councillor to write for a socialist publication. In 2016 and 2017 I had done two events at the SWP’s Marxism Festival. One was a debate with National Education Union members, the other a lecture about Nina Simone. I was expelled for discussing ideas with fellow socialists. McCarthyism goddamn.

My expulsion on such spurious grounds had nothing to do with the rule book. Labour is happy to admit Tories and former members of Change UK, handing them important jobs. Rather, it was clearly a way to undermine the impact of Tuesday’s pending announcement to establish a new independent group on Liverpool City Council. The decision on my expulsion was leaked from within the Labour group, an act of immaturity, amateurishness and spite that amounts to class-sneak politics.

The political context of events in Liverpool is familiar to many socialists, but it is worth reminding this audience of the train of events. It began with the arrest of Mayor Joe Anderson. Though he has still not been charged with anything, he is suspended from the Labour Party and, more importantly, had to vacate the post of Mayor. To block left candidate Anna Rothery, the Labour Party declared all three contenders for the Mayoralty unsuitable. The reasons for blocking Anna were unconvincing to say the least. We still don’t know on what grounds the other two were excluded.

Joanne Anderson (no relation) won the ensuing election, but the independent Stephen Yip made a strong showing from a standing start, a warning that Liverpool Labour’s hold on the city might not be as secure as it seemed.

Following Joe Anderson’s departure, the Caller Report found grave flaws with three council departments and unelected Commissioners were sent into the city to supervise its running. Little has come out of the Commissioners’ tenure except a backdated 50% pay rise. The glare of scrutiny didn’t fall on those who had served in the Cabinet during those periods or the council’s senior officers, however. It was the rank and file of the Labour Party that came under the spotlight, with tight NEC control over the local organisation being imposed.

The NEC took over from the local panel as the body that had the final say on candidates. Sheila Murphy, who had left Labour to join the Centrist sect Change UK, became its Liverpool campaigns organiser. The local CLPs were forced to abandon the all-member model and adopt the delegate one which is easier to manipulate through often poorly attended trade union branches and societies.

As a result, local and socialist candidates were overlooked in the Anfield, Clubmoor and Kirkdale by-elections, adding to the huge bitterness felt by Party members at Keir Starmer writing for the despised S*n. Memories of what the Murdoch rag said in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster remain raw.

This cumulative crisis had an impact in the recent Warbreck by-election. Despite an excellent, young candidate in Sam East, the impact of the Green Bin charge and a lingering suspicion of possible corruption around council affairs saw a big swing to the Lib Dems in a safe Labour seat. Labour hung on by a whisker.

For the first time in years, Liverpool Labour faces serious questions over its dominance of the city. There is a perceived sense of drift about the current Cabinet.

So what next for the ex-Labour councillors? The eight are in process of establishing an independent grouping. In May 2023 there will be all-out local elections, held in new, mainly single-member wards. This may reduce the capacity of party machines to determine the outcome of the ballot. Each of the newly independent councillors will make a personal choice whether to stand again. Beating candidates running on a party ticket is ferociously difficult, but socialist ideas will be given an unusually prominent public platform.

For Liverpool Labour, the party nationally and the broader Left, the stakes are high.

Alan Gibbons is the independent socialist councillor for Warbreck.

Image: Alan Gibbons. Source: Kevin Walsh, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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