Does Liverpool risk triggering a breach between Labour and its biggest affiliate?
Of all the elections being contested on May 6, one of the easiest to call should have been the Liverpool mayoral race. On both previous occasions, Labour won on first preferences with a lead of at least 30%. Labour holds all four parliamentary seats with majorities of at least 27,000 or 60%. It is not quite one-party territory – a fifth of the council seats are held by other parties or independents – but it’s close enough.
However, all is not well within Liverpool Labour, to put it mildly. The current mayor – Joe Anderson – was arrested late last year on charges of bribery and witness intimidation. He will not be contesting a third term. Labour’s selection process to replace him has now been thrown into further turmoil as all three candidates initially shortlisted have now been removed from the process by the national organisation – a move that appears to have gone down badly with local activists and councillors.
“So what?”, you might think. It’s not unusual for local parties to be ridden roughshod over by the national bureaucracy and nothing serious ever comes of it. Indeed so. But that might not the case this time.
What makes it different is the role of Unite, which is indirectly linked to the Anderson affair via the Flanaghan Group, which is building Unite’s new hotel/conference centre in Birmingham (for which the cost has spiralled from an initial estimated £7m to £74m). That company is a frequent contractor of Unite and its boss, Paul Flanaghan, was one of those arrested alongside Joe Anderson and his son (who also had a contract on the Birmingham project). The arrests relate to an investigation into the development of land in Liverpool and are completely unrelated to the Unite’s Birmingham scheme, other than involving some of the same people doing a different project.
We don’t know why the three candidates were removed and we should be wary about speculating, given that two of them, Wendy Simon and Ann O’Byrne, served in Anderson’s administration: both were previously cleared to run. One newer consideration is the inspection report into Liverpool council – summarised by its Chief Executive as being into “what’s happened in Liverpool with regard to property management, regeneration, highways, contracts and planning over the last five years” – is expected to be published within a month and be critical. Clearly, that carries political risk to those most closely involved in those decisions.
But it’s the third candidate, Anna Rothery, where the real potential for discord within the Labour movement lies. She has threatened legal action for having been removed. No-one appears yet to have said who might fund such action but Rothery won the backing of Unite and the endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn when she was gunning for the nomination, and Unite’s general secretary, Len McClusky, a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, has been a frequent critic of Keir Starmer’s leadership and decisions.
The question is, what next? One possible outcome is that Labour finds one or more people wiling to run and the selection process, a candidate is chosen, the former applicants grumble or even take legal action but ultimately the crisis fizzles out with a new Labour mayor elected, one way or another.
But the other alternative is that one of the excluded candidates – Rothery would be the most obvious – runs as an independent. If she did, she would surely retain the support of the many Labour-left endorsements she already has and the pressure within Unite would be to contribute to that campaign, a move which could lead to the union having to sever links with Labour.
That does pile several ‘ifs’ on top of each other but none is of itself unlikely and the scenario would build its own momentum, as it were. It is certainly not implausible.
Indeed, one thing that makes it more plausible is that Unite is currently holding an election for their general secretary, with Len McClusky standing down. With the usual low turnout in these elections (none of the last four votes has exceeded 16%), leftist activists carry disproportionate weight and as in US primaries or UK leadership elections, candidates tend to be pushed away from the centre by their voters. Whether prompted by Liverpool or more general concerns, disaffiliation is a possibility.
Most great changes do not have a single, great initiating effect; they are the consequence of many events and incidences coming together at the right time and in the right way so that their combined effect produces that change. Of itself, Anderson’s arrest and the need to find a new Labour candidate would not normally be anything like sufficient to break a long-established party from one of its largest and oldest affiliates. But times are not normal and the conjunction of so many aspects already pushing the two apart mean that there is the potential for Liverpool to make the critical difference.
To do so would be a serious strategic blundering mistake. But such things are often clearer in hindsight than when the blood is up.