September 26, 2022

As Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour gathers for its annual conference in Liverpool, one might be forgiven for seeing the city as a symbol of his party’s greatest strengths. After all, Liverpool’s five seats remained solidly Labour in 2019 while the “red wall” elsewhere crumbled. The party controls two-thirds of city council seats. Starmer has praised Steve Rotheram, city region mayor, for doing a “fantastic job”.

Alas, Liverpool’s past and present defies such simple analysis. The most mercurial of British cities is going through a renewed bout of self-doubt amid a sudden upsurge in gun crime, a takeover of the city council by government commissioners, and concern that the city is losing out on inward investment to its historic rival Manchester.

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Liverpool has a long history of political turbulence. Despite Labour’s current supremacy, the party’s control of the city came late: for more than 100 years, until the second half of the 20th century, the Conservatives were dominant. Since then, Labour’s grip has been intermittent and often marked by conflict and controversy.

A hundred and fifty years ago, the Mersey Estuary was powered by what would now be seen as a gig economy. Employment on the docks and in factories tended to be casual, meaning there was less of the craft-based industrial organisation seen in other places, which spurred the labour movement’s foundation in the late 19th century. The party’s hold on the city in fact owes much to Liverpool’s history of Irish immigration, which gave the city a complex and distinctive political culture — and is now a source of pride. Three-quarters of the population are estimated to have Irish roots, and Liverpool is often referred to as the “second capital of Ireland”. In the last century, the Irish have contributed to Liverpool’s success in football, culture and music and to a recovery — frustratingly incomplete — in self-confidence since its economic nadir in the Eighties.

Irish integration, however, was not easy. The city’s diaspora swelled as a result of Ireland’s Great Famine of 1845-9. But for those who survived the crossing in overloaded “coffin ships”, Liverpool offered little except damp cellars, hunger and disease. By 1851, the Irish-born accounted for 22% of Liverpool’s population (compared with 13% in Manchester and almost 5% in London). The influx swamped the city’s authorities and fed a groundswell of anti-Irish feeling. During the “Black ‘47”, William Henry Duncan, medical officer of health, described Liverpool as the “city of plague”, including cholera, typhoid and dysentery. He blamed the Irish, who “inhabit the filthiest and worst-ventilated courts and cellars, who congregate most numerously in dirty lodging-houses, who are the least cleanly in their habits, and the most apathetic about everything that befalls them”.

Competition for scarce work fuelled anti-Catholicism; indeed, it was the desire to keep Catholics away from power that allowed the Conservatives — and their partners in the Protestant Party — to dominate Liverpool’s politics for the century following 1841. The local party exercised a working-class form of Toryism, focused on helping those struggling with poverty. About a quarter of immigrants from Ireland were Protestant, and the Orange Order, through its lodges, provided a drinking club that helped to align working-class Protestants with Tory Unionism. Liverpool had 50 lodges by the early 20th century.

Sectarian violence started with the first Orange Order procession in 1819. Orangemen generally came off worst in the early years, but grew stronger. There were serious riots in 1851 and 1909, but as slums were cleared and religious observance dwindled, tension declined. Liverpudlians began to unite over the success of their football clubs — whose support is less sectarian than that of their Glasgow equivalents — and the global success of Merseybeat in pop music. (The Beatles all had Irish roots.)

Liverpool has long had a streak of exceptionalism. “Scouse not English,” say some. And as the diaspora came to see itself as more Scouse than Irish, Labour gained ground. Until a century ago, the Irish Nationalist Party (INP) was the dominant political force in Catholic wards. Journalist T.P. O’Connor became MP for Liverpool Scotland in 1885, a seat he held until his death in 1929. It was the only constituency outside Ireland ever to return an Irish Nationalist Party MP. But after the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, support for the INP in Liverpool collapsed. The party no longer seemed relevant once Ireland left the UK. The Irish Catholic vote could hardly go to the Tories, so most went to Labour.

There were divisions within Labour, however, notably between the Right-wing Catholic caucus and Left-wingers such as Bessie Braddock, a renowned campaigner on housing and public health. Braddock and her husband gained control of the party after the Second World War and moved Rightwards, while pushing the party in a more secular direction, in line with the decreasingly sectarian public mood.

Internal divisions lessened after the war, but Labour never had a secure hold on the city. It won eight of the 11 Liverpool seats in its 1945 general election landslide, though it slipped to three out of nine in the mid-Fifties as Labour’s local standing varied in line with national swings. It took control of the city council for the first time in 1955, but was not able to hold it consistently, due to a mix of its own performance and the party’s national fortunes. The Tories regained control in 1961-3, and for the last time between 1967 and 1972, after which Liberals under Sir Trevor Jones held power for some years, with Tory support.

It was a backlash against the Tories, rather than their own merits, that solidified Labour’s hold on the city. The recessions of the Seventies and Eighties badly affected Liverpool’s docks and manufacturing base. There was rioting in Toxteth in 1981. Support for the Conservatives, already fading, took a severe hit under Margaret Thatcher’s government when chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe suggested in cabinet that the city be allowed to go into “managed decline”.

Even efforts by Michael Heseltine, environment secretary, to regenerate Liverpool failed to repair the Tories’ image. He made public and private sectors work together, clearing derelict sites for redevelopment. The city centre was designated an enterprise zone with tax breaks and government support for investment and jobs in new sectors. Liverpool’s docks were repurposed as a tourist attraction with museums, hotels, shops and housing. Heseltine was no doubt seen as a non-typical Tory — which raises the question today of whether, even if “levelling up” measures are successful, it would benefit the Conservatives’ image in some northern cities.

And yet, Labour was still plagued by internal divisions. Liverpool’s city council, at this time, became dominated by the party’s Trotskyist Militant group, leading to a confrontation with the government over spending caps. Labour eventually succeeded in expelling members of Militant.

Still, Labour cannot take Liverpool for granted. The city’s politics have remained rumbustious. The Conservatives collapsed swiftly — Liverpool has not had a Conservative MP since 1979. And it has not had a Tory councillor since 1998, but it was the Lib Dems who won control that year under Mike Storey, arguing that Labour had delivered poor services and high council tax.

By 2010, voters had tired of Lib Dem rule and gave Labour another chance under Joe Anderson. He became Liverpool’s first directly elected city mayor in 2012, but stood down in December 2020 after being arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation, as part of an investigation into building and development contracts. He denies any wrongdoing. Mismanagement and suspected corruption remain a major problem in Liverpool’s local politics. In March 2021, government-appointed commissioners were sent in to run the council’s highways, property management and regeneration functions after an independent report found multiple failings. Irish influence is seen by some as encouraging an American-style “city boss” culture.

Joe Anderson was replaced by Joanne Anderson (no relation), the first black woman to become a directly elected mayor in the UK. But the political turmoil has continued. Her administration this year became embroiled in controversy about mistakes over the council’s energy bill, which will cost it millions. Recently, government commissioners took over all the council’s financial, governance and recruitment decisions. Ahead of that move, the chief executive resigned. As happened at national level with the Conservatives in recent months, Labour’s internal travails in Liverpool are distracting from the real issues the city faces.

Liverpool desperately needs some political direction. It is the third most deprived local authority in England, after Blackpool and Knowsley, according to the government’s indices of deprivation. The area around Stanley Park is home to two of the world’s wealthiest football clubs, Liverpool and Everton, but is one of the poorest places in the UK. Recent shootings, including the unsolved murder of nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbell, are an unwelcome reminder that parts of the city still have problems with gang violence.

Both the Conservatives and Labour appear to be struggling for ideas about how to solve Liverpool’s problems. Greg Clark, levelling up secretary (since replaced by Simon Clarke), appointed a “strategic futures panel” under Mr Rotheram to guide the council out of its problems. But aside from sending in commissioners, the Conservatives have not so far offered help to Liverpool along the lines of Heseltine’s efforts in the Eighties.

Starmer, meanwhile, supported the intrtoduction of commissioners. He told the Liverpool Echo he wanted to devolve spending decisions from Whitehall to the city. Next May, the council will ditch the role of mayor and replace it with a leader and cabinet model. Labour will need to elect a new leader to succeed Joanne Anderson, who is expected to stand down. “I have to acknowledge things have gone wrong,” said Starmer. “My focus is on ensuring that what needs to be fixed is fixed for the people of Liverpool, because I want this city to thrive.”

Does Starmer have a grasp on the local politics? He was criticised last year for writing in The Sun, which many Liverpudlians revile for blaming Liverpool fans for the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. And Labour’s plans for the city are vague. The party cannot simply reply on voter loyalty and Tory failure. At least the Tories have a levelling-up strategy, even though it is being radically revised under Liz Truss. Northern cities need more than platitudes, if they are to “thrive”.