Labour is hiding its failures (Richard Martin-Roberts/Getty Images)

May 3, 2023   5 mins

Before Liverpool can bask in the joy of hosting next week’s Eurovision Song Contest, it must first contend with tomorrow’s local elections — and the rounds of mudslinging that have come with it. Take one of Labour’s election pamphlets, pushed through the letterboxes of residents in the south of the city. Disguised under the banner of Garston Resident News, the leaflet mined old social media posts belonging to independent councillor, Sam Gorst, who had been expelled from the Labour Party in December 2021 for associating with Labour Against the Witchhunt, a group opposed to “the purge” of pro-Corbyn supporters for alleged antisemitism.

Under the headline “Sickening”, Gorst was criticised for historic posts in which he called Queen Elizabeth “a useless bitch” and the Jewish former Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger, who eventually resigned from the party, a “hideous traitor”. The pamphlet also claimed that he lived in a “leafy” area and insinuated that he had jumped the queue on social housing, although that accusation is contested.

But if the intention was to make an opponent look bad, Labour may have shot itself in the foot. A joint statement released by the Liberal Democrats, The Liverpool Community Independents, The Green Party and the Liberal Party described the leaflet as “cynical”, “dishonest” and “shameful”. Their calls for a clean fight, however, have fallen on deaf ears, not least because the mud is being thrown in all directions amid widely reported allegations of Labour corruption and incompetence.

In recent years, Liverpool has been rocked by scandals. Former mayor Joe Anderson was arrested in 2020 on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation as part of what is still an ongoing police investigation into property deals in the city. Four others were also arrested as part of the same probe, including ex-Militant Tendency firebrand, Derek Hatton. While Anderson denies any wrongdoing and none of the men have faced charges, the Government felt compelled to send in an inspection team led by Max Caller in 2021 to evaluate Liverpool Council. The result was damning: his Best Value Inspection report revealed serious failings in governance, a dysfunctional culture of intimidation, poor performance and wasteful spending. As a result, much of the authority’s work is now overseen by government-appointed commissioners.

Yet even this hasn’t solved things. Last year, for instance, £5 million was thrown away over a failure to renew an electricity contract on time; in February, a Liverpool Echo investigation revealed councillors were having their parking fines cancelled on the down-low; a scandal involving alleged fraud, corruption and council-run car parks also rumbles on.

In cities with a more contested political complexion, one might expect such failures to be severely punished at the ballot box. But this is Liverpool, and ousting Labour is the toughest of political challenges. Whatever happens tomorrow, the Conservatives won’t win a single seat.

Still, as Labour’s reputation has deteriorated, new political opponents have started to emerge. Labour has run Liverpool since 2010 and boasts 60 of the city’s 90 councillors. But it once had far more. Last year, eight former Labour councillors formed a new political grouping called the Liverpool Community Independents after they were suspended by the party, the majority for refusing to vote for budget cuts. The group leans to the Left of Liverpool’s new breed of increasingly Starmerite candidates imposed by the NEC-appointed fixer, Sheila Murphy. It’s tempting to say that in the context of Liverpool’s various shades of red politics, voters are being offered only the illusion of choice — but according to the Community Independents’ acting leader, Alan Gibbons, these elections are not about Left and Right, but “about right and wrong”.

Another emergent group is Liberate Liverpool, which promises to focus on “community-led regeneration” over the self-interested “agenda of crooked politicians in the town hall”. Billing itself as a grassroots political movement of entrepreneurial socialists, this not-a-party party is putting forward 30 candidates on an ostensibly anti-corruption platform. However, it’s worth pointing out that everyone is playing the same game — the Liberal Democrats, who as the second largest party in the city stand to be the biggest gainers in the upcoming elections, are promising to “clean up Liverpool”.

Founded three months ago, Liberate Liverpool is backed by property developer, hotelier and one-time reality star Lawrence Kenwright. You may remember him as the star of the BBC series, The Grand Party Hotel, in which eager troops of stags and hens flocked to the city to taste the Signature Living brand of “affordable luxury”, with its double bunk-bed party pads equipped with flamingo ceilings, communal hot tubs and room names such as “WTF” and “OMG”. Despite playing a prominent role for Liberate Liverpool at its public gatherings, Kenwright has decided not to put himself forward for election, likely in part because his personal brand is somewhat divisive. In a city scarred by the rusting hulks of incomplete developments, where backroom property deals between public officials and a small coterie of the blessed became the norm, a large dose of scepticism now greets anyone working in the property sector. Kenwright’s patchy record of bankruptcy, history of architectural mutilation, and preference for leather beds, silk shirts and gold-sprayed thrones make him a strange choice to lead an anti-corruption drive. As one seasoned political campaigner told me: “If Lawrence Kenwright didn’t exist, Labour would have to invent him.”

But while it’s easy for Liverpool Labour to pick at the man, it’s harder to pick at the politics, simply because Liberate Liverpool is a blank canvas with a tendency to say what it thinks people want to hear. Its manifesto, for instance, has made broad pledges to “end austerity” and to “eradicate zero-hour contracts from the local economy”, which are beyond the power of any local government to implement. And yet, despite this, its promise to root out fraud and corruption in public office does hit home. The question is whether Liberate Liverpool is equipped to deliver it.

Despite their limited election prospects, it hasn’t taken long for Liberate Liverpool to make enemies. Employing all too familiar tactics, the city’s Left-wing and centrist progressives have already denounced it as a witless incubator for the far-Right. Last week, the Twitter account “LGBT+ Socialists” published a photograph of Dylan Cresswell, a former organiser for the English Defence League, standing next to a Liberate Liverpool sign at a city centre stall. The context is unclear, but proximity is taken as guilt. There are other mooted connections to the far-Right, including Barry Maguire, the candidate for the Fazakerley North ward, who is known to have taken part in the recent anti-immigrant protest in Knowsley. Maguire has also been outed as an anti-vaxxer, and one of his campaign posters was seen warning of the threat of 15-minute cities, viewed as code for conspiracism.

Labour activists have been quick to take advantage of this. Labour Councillor Harry Doyle, Liverpool’s Tourism lead and chief political spokesperson for all things Eurovision, tweeted: “Looks like Liberate Liverpool is the new feeble attempt to normalise supporters of the BNP, EDL, National Action and the likes…” Elsewhere, there has been talk of Liberate Liverpool posters being torn down. But trying to characterise Liberate Liverpool as an enabler of the far-Right seems far-fetched. It’s far more likely that the movement is still a bit of a disorganised mess, which hasn’t yet managed the tightly choreographed slickness that the main parties take for granted. It’s plausible that an anti-corruption message could prove attractive to Right-wing candidates and conspiracists, but it’s just as likely to appeal to the Left because anti-corruption is a nonpartisan issue.

Even so, it wouldn’t be surprising if Liberate Liverpool do not win a seat. The general expectation among voters going into this election appears downbeat. Despite their troubles, Labour remains the favourite to hold on to power, albeit with a reduced majority. Indeed, rather than empower the opposition, there is a firm suspicion that Labour’s negative tactics are designed to lower turnout; to dishearten those voters who may lean towards change by convincing them that all sides are equally compromised. Better the devil you know, after all.

Beyond the hopes of its emerging political challengers, then, tomorrow’s elections are something of a test for Liverpool and its powerful incumbent. A test to see whether, in this supposedly most socialist of cities, Labour can continue to hide its failures behind the twin bogeymen of anti-Toryism and the rise of the far-Right — or whether its voters have had enough.

Paul Bryan is the Editor of Liverpolitan, an online magazine focused on the Liverpool City Region.