Careerism on the Mersey
James Harvey reports on the manoeuvrings and stitch-ups that have happened in the wake of the arrest of elected mayor Joe Anderson
Following his arrest on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and of witness intimidation, Liverpool’s elected mayor, Joe Anderson, withdrew from the elections scheduled for May this year.1 The news of the arrest, Anderson’s withdrawal and allegations of corruption threw the city’s Labour councillors into confusion, out of which three possible candidates - current acting mayor Wendy Simon, former deputy mayor Ann O’Byrne and ‘lord mayor’ Anna Rothery - tossed their hats into the ring to be Labour’s mayoral candidate.2 All three began energetic campaigning, with Rothery positioning herself as the candidate of the official left and picking up the support of many local Labour activists. She also got the backing of Jeremy Corbyn, who hailed her as a “deep rooted” campaigner and hoped that she would be the city’s first black woman mayor.3
So far, so good - until Labour announced that it was “pausing” the selection process and told party members that all three candidates had been ruled out.4 Out of this debacle a new shortlist of two emerged - councillors Joanne Anderson (no relation) and Anthony Lavelle - which is now being put to a ballot of party members ending on March 29.5 Not even their best friends would describe these two as experienced campaigners or heavyweight candidates. Neither of them are even vaguely on the left: their main qualifications seem to be those of rather uninspiring careerist councillors who toe the party line and will not rock the boat.
The response of local party members has been one of outrage. There have been calls for emergency Constituency Labour Party meetings to discuss protest motions and demand that the mayoral candidate selection process be suspended until the decision to remove Simon, O’Byrne and Rothery from the ballot is reversed. Even the officially sanctioned candidates have had to acknowledge the questions that remain about “the difficulties” surrounding Labour’s mayoral selection process.6
The feeling that the whole process is a political stitch-up by the Starmer leadership is widespread in Liverpool and beyond. In a letter of protest to Keir Starmer, left Liverpool MPs Dan Carden and Ian Byrne were joined by other MPs such as Clive Lewis, Richard Burgon, Belle Ribeiro-Addy, Zarah Sultana, Ian Lavery and Claudia Webbe, along with left union leaders and black activists, in criticising the way the selection process has been handled by the party bureaucracy and calling for the excluded candidates to be restored to the ballot papers sent out to party members.7 The latest instalment in this sorry tale was this week’s news that Anna Rothery’s legal action in the high court to force Labour to reinstate her on the mayoral shortlist had failed.8 However, this is far from the end of the story. Even if Starmer gets his way and eventually railroads the Liverpool CLPs to his carefully chosen shortlist, serious questions remain.
The first concerns the nature of local government in Britain and the mayoral system itself. The left has always been opposed to Bonapartist offices like mayors and presidents, arguing that, even if elected, these offices are actually the antithesis of political democracy: whether in Europe or the United States, Marxists historically have advocated elected councils in local government, and national assemblies and parliaments, rather than concentrated executive power, as the essential republican, democratic form.9
The relatively new post of elected mayor in Britain deliberately copies the big-city boss politics of the US or the local powerbrokers in French and German cities. Building on ‘the Heseltine model’ developed under Margaret Thatcher, the elected mayors and cabinets introduced by the Cameron government were designed to concentrate power and decision-making, and so further undermine the few remaining democratic and accountable elements in local government.10 In addition, another negative feature of these elected mayors is their role in providing a useful launch pad for aspiring Labour careerists or former ministers trying to rebuild their reputation and powerbase. Thus, for most of the candidates involved in the current Liverpool shambles the position of elected mayor is just the next - rather lucrative - step in their ‘political career’. So, the one clear answer to this selection mess which will get wide support in the Liverpool Labour Party is: fight for real local democracy - abolish the mayor!11
The most immediate issue, however, remains the nature of democracy within the Labour Party itself. At all levels the nomination process is thoroughly undemocratic, with Labour’s national and regional bureaucracy having the power to decide who will go through to the shortlist without giving any reasons for their decisions. Speculation and rumours continue to surround the decision to remove Wendy Simon, Ann O’ Byrne and Anna Rothery from the shortlist, but it is likely that the Labour leadership’s main fear was that the candidate identified with the left, Anna Rothery, would win and that someone bearing Corbyn’s imprimatur would eventually become the mayor of Liverpool.
This carefully controlled and effectively closed type of ‘candidate selection’ is as far from open democracy as you can get. It is all of a piece with the ever-tightening controls that Starmer and the Labour bureaucracy are exerting throughout the party. The uproar and opposition that this has caused in Liverpool and elsewhere is only to be expected: Labour Party members have the right to decide who shall be the party’s candidates, not the appointed officials acting on the instructions of Keir Starmer. These elementary democratic demands for accountability, open selection and recall have long been a staple of the Labour left since the 1970s.
However, these issues take on a new urgency in the light of stitch-ups like that of the Liverpool mayoral selection. The purging of socialists from local authority candidate panels, the closing down of political debate and the suspension of CLP officers who allow critical motions to be tabled are simply part of a wider attack on the left and the democratic structures of the Labour Party. The response of the left in the Liverpool CLPs has been justifiably strong, but, to date, only two of the city’s Labour MPs - Dan Carden and Ian Byrne - have joined in the opposition to the manoeuvres of the leadership, and the majority of Labour councillors have kept a strict silence, as they wait and see which way the wind is blowing.
This type of diplomatic silence is only to be expected of the careerists and place-seekers who predominate in the Labour group on the council, but many supposedly ‘left’ activists have also kept their counsel too. As the witch-hunt has shown, careerism and opportunism are not confined to the Labour right: the official left has more than its fair share of collaborators and traitors, who are willing to aid the right. Many of these former leftwingers have secured comfortable positions in the Labour bureaucracy as trade union officials or working for MPs, from where they join in attacks on the left and work with the Labour right to shut down opposition and stifle democracy.
According to Skwawkbox, the panel that barred Anna Rothery included a number of such former left ‘fixers’ and ‘aides’ with links to local Labour MPs Kim Johnson and Paula Barker.12 Similarly comrades on Merseyside will be aware of the role of the former leading member of Workers Power, Mark Hoskisson - now chief of staff to Mick Whitley, Labour MP for Birkenhead, who initiated the attacks on the Wavertree Four that resulted in their initial suspension and the later expulsion of two comrades from the party.
The role of these former leftwingers in the witch-hunt and the attempted stitch-up shows that our battle for party democracy must go much further than ensuring a real mayoral selection process in Liverpool. We have to take our battle to both the Labour right and their fake left allies if we are to stand any chance of defeating Starmer’s purge and defending even the most basic democratic standards in the Labour Party.
If we fail to stop these attacks in Liverpool, it will simply encourage the leadership to open up more assaults on democratic selection procedures and accountability throughout the party as a whole.
‘Abolish the mayors’ Weekly Worker January 21 2021.↩︎
Interestingly, all three of the original shortlist favoured abolishing the post of mayor and returning to an elected leader of the council.↩︎