May 4, 2022

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 £65,000.

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 £40 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.