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How Labour broke Liverpool Mired in scandal, its council elections won't take place

Joe Anderson, before he was arrested (Richard Martin-Roberts/Getty Images)

Joe Anderson, before he was arrested (Richard Martin-Roberts/Getty Images)


May 4, 2022   5 mins

Liverpool is often held up as the epitome of a Labour stronghold — a city that bleeds Red, and always will. And in many ways, this view is justified: since 1997, all the city’s MPs have been elected under the Labour banner; the party has also dominated the council since 2010, and held the city’s mayoralty since its creation in 2012.

Unfortunately, however, Liverpool’s local Labour Party does not repay the city in kind. For the past five years, it has been mired in scandal, culminating in the arrest of former mayor Joe Anderson in December 2020, on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation. Now, that in itself isn’t a first for Liverpool — senior figures in the previous Liberal Democrat regime were also investigated by the police. But unlike previous scandals, Labour’s had wide-ranging ramifications for the city and its governance. And come Thursday, the consequences of this will be laid bare: as a result of a damning government inspection into Anderson’s behaviour last year, Liverpool Council will no longer be participating in this week’s local elections.

Anderson’s arrest in 2020 led to the commissioning of a Government “best value inspection” of Liverpool City Council, led by Max Caller. His report, published last year, found evidence of severe wrongdoing, ranging from repeated incompetence to corruption. The Labour leadership, he concluded, oversaw a climate of fear, harassment and bullying in Town Hall. As a result, our city has suffered the humiliation of having government-appointed commissioners oversee council decisions. For those who wanted to see Tories back in the Town Hall, this was not the way they had in mind.

Labour’s current state of ignominy was years in the making: it is not fair to paint Anderson’s downfall as the result of a few bad apples at the head of Labour. For years, a culture of impunity had developed around the mayor, always something of a political bruiser, which was accelerated following a decision in 2015 to scrap the mayoral select committee, a body that was supposed to scrutinise the mayor’s decisions and behaviour. Who’d have guessed that wouldn’t turn out well?

As a result of the Caller Report, the city faces significant changes to its local government arrangements. Previously, a third of the council’s seats were up for election in three of every four years. But Caller’s report found this frequency distracted the council from actually improving the lives of residents; they were too busy fighting the next electoral battle. The logic of this is not very sound — other councils manage such a pattern of elections without such scandal — but nevertheless the government has replaced it with a system of all-out elections, where every seat is up for grabs, every four years. The first will take place next year.

Chief among the reasons for this remarkable intervention — and for the chaos within Labour more broadly — is the lack of appropriate candidates among the city’s leading politicians. The current mayor, Joanne Anderson (no relation to Joe), was not the party’s first choice. She wasn’t even their third choice. Unlike Joanne Anderson, the original shortlisted candidates — all female — all had experience of running the city: Wendy Simon was acting mayor, Ann O’Byrne was a former deputy mayor, and Anna Rothery was a former committee chair and a councillor since 2006.

However, before the ballots could go out, Labour HQ halted the process, re-interviewed the candidates, and then, for some unexplained reason, took the unprecedented decision of restarting the whole process and banning the three women from recontesting. The local party claimed “there was a clear risk of political damage to the party”. Rothery took legal action against Labour, but lost, and had to pay the party’s legal costs of around ÂŁ65,000.

This chaos fed into Labour’s second weakness: its top team’s lack of political experience. The two eventual candidates are a case in point: Anthony Lavelle, who would have been the youngest mayor at 25 years old, and Joanne Anderson, who had only been a councillor for roughly 18 months. Anderson eventually triumphed, and promptly put together one the most inexperienced cabinets the council has ever seen — the city’s Liberal Democrat leader labelled them as “babes in the wood”. Of the seven cabinet members, four had less than three years’ experience as a councillor when they were appointed.

Unsurprisingly, this inexperience led to a number of policy missteps: the reversal of a cast-iron promise on a referendum on the existence of our mayoralty, instead opting for a public consultation; the introduction of a ÂŁ40 charge to collect environmental waste; and an omnishambles budget which saw seven Labour councillors rebel against their own party. Five of these councillors joined with three previously-Labour independents to form the Liverpool Community Independents. The LCI are now the third-largest party on the council.

And voters are starting to pick up on this chaos. Joanne Anderson’s term as mayor started at an all-time low — it was the first instance of the vote going to the second-round count in Liverpool’s brief mayoral history. Labour could only scrape together 38% in the first round, in the face of a strong independent candidate, Stephen Yip, who won 22%. Established opposition parties also took a hit, with both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens seeing a reduced vote share.

In next year’s elections, with no strong local challenger, my own analysis suggests that the Labour vote is likely to fall further. Compared to the 2018 local elections, Labour’s vote share in 2021 decreased in all but one ward, at an average of 14.5%. Two recent council by-elections support this prediction: last month’s by-election in Warbreck ward saw Labour’s vote share decrease from 68% to 48% and the Liberal Democrats’ vote rise by 31.4% — a 1,647 majority cut to just 38. The by-election in Everton, held at the same time, saw Labour’s Ellie Byrne win 62% of the vote, down from the 87% her father, Ian Byrne, won in 2018. (He had eventually resigned as a councillor after winning his seat in the 2019 general election; conveniently, his daughter was selected as the best candidate.)

So, what we’re left with is an inexperienced Labour cabinet, fighting among themselves and with the central party. Voters are increasingly turning elsewhere and the mayoral contest shows there’s genuine demand for a challenge to the Labour Party. The problem, however, is obvious: in the short term, there is no realistic alternative to a Labour government in the city. In 2021, even with falling support, the first-past-the-vote voting system gave Labour 74% of the seats on just 50% of the vote. The Greens, who won 14% of the vote gained one seat, and the Conservatives, who won 6% of the vote, failed to gain a single seat.

The upcoming boundary reform — forced on the city by Labour Party failings, let’s not forget — is likely to see more of the same. My own estimates found that the party breakdown on the council would remain largely unchanged. Neither will abolishing the mayoral system lead to meaningful change: we had just as many scandals under the council leader model. The third option, the committee system, is an open invitation for decisions to be made behind closed doors by a small number of councillors no-one has ever heard of. At least the mayoral system gives us an individual all voters can hold to account via elections, not just those voters who happen to live in the leader’s ward.

Yet there is one obvious answer to Liverpool’s problems, which would inject political competition into town halls across the country: proportional representation. The Welsh government has allowed local authorities to opt into PR if they choose. The Scottish government went one step further and chose the single transferable vote system — where voters rank candidates — for all local elections since 2007: as a result, Glasgow went from 90% of seats being held by Labour on 48% of the vote in 2003 to a much more balanced 57% of the seats on 43% of first-preference votes. In Liverpool, my analysis shows STV would even see the Conservatives return to Town Hall.

Such a scenario remains unlikely in the near-future. But the grim truth is that until something changes — until genuine party politics returns to the council — Liverpool is likely to lumber from one scandal to the next. The city has already lost one mayor; its council has been deemed incapable of carrying out its most basic function. In Liverpool, Labour isn’t working. And that doesn’t look like changing soon.


David Jeffery is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.

DrDavidJeffery

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Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago

Merseyside, like Scotland, has diverged culturally and politically from the rest of the UK over the past 40 years. And, as in Scotland, the result had been a governing political party which can always stoke up hatred of the Tories to distract from from the corruption and economic stagnation of the region over which it has presided.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

The good people of Liverpool have voted Labour for generations because that party best reflects their city’s character: cheerful, witty, outgoing and perpetually convinced that all its problems are someone else’s fault.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

Let’s face it, Liverpool is an Irish carbuncle on the backside of England. It has been thus for more than a century and no doubt will remain so for another. The cult of the victim reigns supreme.

Alice Breed
Alice Breed
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

This comment says more about you than it does about Liverpool!

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Alice Breed

Is my description unfair? I would have thought the facts are indisputable are they not? Or have I missed something?
I must say I haven’t been there for twenty or so years, so maybe a Renaissance has taken place since then?

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Ben 0
Ben 0
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

As a non-Liverpudlian but passionate LFC fan I would have to take issue with you Arnaud. I haven’t been up there for a while, but the transformation of the city centre and its wonderful architecture is something to behold. Compared to the squalor I recall from the early ’80s the centre of the city at least has been transformed beyond recognition. It’s just a pity their political system remains so dysfunctional. I really hope the city rises to the level of its football club (the red one I mean).

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Ben 0

I agree on the architecture, some of the finest 19th century Civic buildings in the country, and in particular the impressive St George’s Hall.
However the sectarianism is awful and only reminds one that poison of Belfast & Londonderry runs through the veins of Liverpool & (for that matter Glasgow).
This feature is completely alien to England and should have been sorted out, rather than indulged, years ago.

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Kevin Jones
Kevin Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Ben 0

A ‘passionate’ LFC fan who hasn’t ‘ been up there for a while’ …. The sheer passion!

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

I scanned this then read it again more carefully.

The only reference to actual policy I could see was the ÂŁ40 waste collection charge.

Otherwise it just seems like a party playground.

I fail to see how pr will fix this, just burden ratepayers with even less-accountable representatives.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

PR is mostly advocated by the losing parties and parties with tiny electorate, I am quite sure, for instance, that if the Lib-Dems won a majority in the present system they would let go their desire for PR, especially if they didn’t get a majority vote in the country.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

Socialism in action.

gerald smith
gerald smith
2 years ago

We visited Liverpool last weekend and were blown away by it. Absolutely fantastic architecture and setting, loads to do, and a really great energy about the place. A real English gem. The city centre and the docks anyway. Lots of development happening, lots of visitors, including people from abroad. Maybe the corrupt local politics doesn’t matter that much? Or maybe it could be even better.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  gerald smith

All done by grant money. Like almost everywhere with redundant docks near the city centre, this has transformed them into a great tourist area, but doesn’t tell you much about what is like for long term residents.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
2 years ago
Reply to  gerald smith

It’s certainly not ‘going to matter that much’ – if you’re only there for the weekend.
Egyptian politics won’t ‘matter that much’ if all you’re doing there is staying in a hotel complex in Sharm el Sheikh for a week. But if you have to live, work and bring up a family there…