Remember those glossy A3 posters of Keir Starmer during the Labour leadership campaign a year ago? Remember the accompanying slogan: integrity, authority, unity? Many hard-working Labour activists here in Liverpool will be struggling to recognise those values now that a party panel has decided to call off the selection process for city mayor and exclude the three original candidates from reapplying.
Doubts over Starmer’s leadership have been mounting for months. Many Labour supporters failed to warm to the new leader’s support for Boris Johnson’s Covid strategy as the death toll rose to the worst in Europe and some of the worst economic damage in any developed country was inflicted. There was growing dismay as Labour distanced itself from the teachers’ unions over the reopening of schools, while many were alienated by a series of abstentions on key votes, including the “spycops” bill.
The dismay turned to anger as Labour removed the whip from former leader Jeremy Corbyn then suspended local members who passed motions of support, actions that were seen as authoritarian and damaging to party unity. The events this week in Liverpool are seen by many as part of a continuing factional crackdown on the Left of the party, an episode that has seen some 70 members suspended. I had my own minor part in this story, suspended for two months for permitting a motion regarding Jeremy Corbyn to be discussed by local members.
The Liverpool mayoral selection was triggered by the arrest of city mayor Joe Anderson as part of an investigation into building and development contracts in Liverpool. An initial panel chose an all-women shortlist of three: acting mayor Wendy Simon, former deputy mayor Ann O’Byrne and current Lord Mayor Anna Rothery. But then the process was suspended and the candidates re-interviewed.
Few expected the next twist in this tale. On Tuesday, a letter to Liverpool’s 6,000 party members stated that, “after careful consideration”, the selection process would be rerun and the three women originally shortlisted would be blocked from re-applying. Labour, the email said, “needs to select the right candidate who can deliver an election win, stand up against the Conservatives, lead Liverpool out of the coronavirus crisis and fight for the regeneration and the resources that the city desperately needs”.
This bemused local activists. The rumour mill suggested that the panel’s decision may have had something to do with investigations sparked by the arrest of Joe Anderson, but nobody was suspended and no information was forthcoming – and that wouldn’t explain why Anna Rothery, who never held a cabinet or executive role under the previous leadership, was also excluded. What was happening?
Labour supporters were soon expressing a number of suspicions. Many saw the move as part of an authoritarian crackdown on the Left. Rothery had secured the backing of Jeremy Corbyn and many figures on the Left of the party and was running an increasingly impressive campaign. This was associated in the minds of some with a double standard in favouring women-only shortlists when it was convenient, but rejecting one made up of three women with half a century of experience as councillors. Still more saw it as part of the party’s perceived failure to support its black and ethnic minority members. The Labour Black Socialists Group quickly condemned the removal of the sole black candidate, Anna Rothery, who would, if elected, have been the first black woman mayor in the UK.
Labour’s actions threaten to demobilise an already alienated and wounded party membership and cause chaos in Labour’s red city, its safest stronghold in the country. Again and again, you hear the phrase: “This time they came for the wrong city.” In her statement, Rothery says: “If the decision stands then I will be left with no choice but to challenge it legally.”
To some, the party’s actions are reminiscent of the worst of the Blair era stitch ups, and the reaction has been unsurprisingly furious. During the leadership campaign, Starmer tweeted that, “local party members should select their candidates for every election”. That promise is not being kept in Liverpool.
It is a truism that Labour needs a strong coalition of all wings of the party to win a general election. Labour has been slipping in the polls recently and that seems to be down to discontent with the leadership’s political direction on the party’s Left and among many of the trade unions that fund its campaigns. There are growing calls for a recall conference to debate what is increasingly seen as a crisis.
After a year of Keir Starmer’s leadership, large swaths of the membership think the party has to change course and change course quickly, or else risk sliding into an electorally disastrous civil war.
Alan Gibbons is a children’s author, Momentum NCG member and member of Liverpool Walton CLP