The story of how the Labour Party put its most loyal city at risk

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If you had suggested to me in November 2020 that the next Mayor of Liverpool might not be wearing a Labour rosette – I would have probably had a good laugh.

But a series of truly remarkable events in the ensuing three months have suddenly made that seemingly ridiculous notion a real possibility.

Some of those events were out of the wider party's control, but some have been problems very much of their own making.

Here I take a close look at how the Labour Party put its most loyal city at risk.

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Arrests in Liverpool

On the morning of December 4, 2020, numerous police officers turned up at the Old Swan home of the Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson to arrest him.

The 63-year-old, who has run the city for a decade, was held on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation – four other men are arrested at different locations as part of the same operation.

The move would send shockwaves around the Liverpool and set in motion a hugely turbulent few months for Liverpool City Council and its ruling Labour group.

Shortly after news broke of Mayor Anderson's arrest, the Labour Party moved quickly to place him under an administrative suspension, pending the outcome of any police investigation.

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Anyone with knowledge of these types of investigations will know that they are rarely concluded quickly – and it was pretty clear from the start that Joe Anderson would not be Labour's candidate heading into the spring elections.

He had been selected to run for a third term in office ahead of what were supposed to be mayoral elections in May 2020 – but of course those votes were delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A new mayor needed

When Mayor Anderson's police bail was extended at the turn of the year, he publicly conceded he would not now be the party's candidate for mayor – kicking off a new selection process.

If the Labour Party wanted to move on from the hugely difficult news surrounding the mayor's arrest and a subsequent government inspection of activities at the council then what came next was absolutely not the way to do it.

The party shortlisted three sitting councillors, the Acting Mayor Wendy Simon, former Deputy Mayor Ann O'Byrne and current Lord Mayor Anna Rothery.

While some had expected the party to move away from councillors for the position, others celebrated the creation of an all women shortlist and campaigning got underway.

There were two hustings events and all three candidates were in full campaign mode.

Anna Rothery, who admitted she was the outsider in the race because of a lack of cabinet experience, secured the key backing of prominent left wing party figures like Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell as well as the influential Unite union.

Shortlist suspended – then scrapped

Things looked set for a tight election and ballots were due to be sent out to members on Wednesday February 17 – but when the day came, nothing arrived.

It wasn't long before news broke that the process had been suspended due to 'unforeseen circumstances', with all three shocked shortlisted candidates called back for new interviews.

This is not something that happens very often.

The candidates were re-interviewed on the Friday, but rather than being told of any changes or updates that night, they were left to face an anxious three days of complete silence from the national party.

It was on the Tuesday that Labour would make its most controversial move yet in announcing that the shortlist had been scrapped, nominations would be reopening and the three previously selected women would not now be considered for the post.

There was no public explanation – there still hasn't been.

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It's hard to put into words how much confusion and anger has spread around the city, the membership and the ruling group in the wake of this chaotic decision.

Cllr Rothery announced she would be taking legal action, members across the city said they would be leaving the party altogether.

One councillor remarked that the national Labour Party had managed to unite the notoriously divided Liverpool Labour group in anger at how it had handled the situation.

While there continue to be many theories about why Labour took this dramatic step, it is perhaps difficult and unfair to those affected to speculate too much at this stage.

But what cannot be denied is what a complete mess the party has made of this situation and how much damage it has done to its standing in what most would regard as its most loyal city in the country.

Liverpool and Labour

Whether it is for local or general elections, Liverpool tends to come out in force for Labour.

Passionate members and activists pound the streets, knock on doors and deliver leaflets all over the city on behalf of the red rose and even during the party's crushing General Election defeat in 2019, Liverpool remained a Labour powerhouse.

But you get the feeling things could be very different this time around.

It is hard to imagine those same members campaigning with such enthusiasm for a party that has presided over this embarrassing mess and offered so little in terms of an explanation for its actions.

And the city's councillors, so often leading the charge with door knocking and leaflet rounds, remain furious at how their colleagues have been treated.

One councillor, Liz Parsons, couldn't hide her fury in a video interview, alleging that the national party was 'sh****** on members in Liverpool.'

Some of that ruling group then pushed for a vote to remove the mayoral position altogether, arguing that a move back to a leader and cabinet model before the election would give them back the power to vote in their own leader and hit back at the national party.

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Consensus had been building around that move within the often fractured councillor group, but legal advice warning that this would open up the council to potential action (they voted against such a move in January) changed many minds and last night's Labour group meeting saw a motion calling for the vote defeated.

This was just another messy twist in the chaotic saga surrounding the Labour Party in Liverpool.

So the mayoralty will remain for now and we don't know who may now be brought forward as a candidate, but whoever it is will face an almighty challenge.

The party's reputation in this usually proud Labour city is in tatters, members are furious, voters are seriously unimpressed and there is a growing feeling that a credible independent candidate – such as respected city charity boss Stephen Yip – could now stand a very good chance of electoral success in May.

Labour was already facing a tough task in restoring trust with voters after the arrest of its sitting mayor – but the manner in which it has handled the subsequent selection process will surely have only put more people off.

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