Show Hide image

What next for Joe Anderson, Liverpool's fighting mayor?

Mayor Joe inspires gratitude and loathing in almost equal measure. Can he stay on brotherly terms with the new metro mayor? 

Joe Anderson, Liverpool’s shaven-headed mayor, has filed two very different reports with Merseyside Police in recent weeks. In one, he accused the former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie of racially abusing the Everton footballer Ross Barkley in a column that compared the part-Nigerian star to a gorilla. The other concerned a spurious allegation on Twitter – for which there is no evidence – concerning Anderson and a sixteen-year-old girl.

This dichotomy sums up Anderson’s vexed relationship with his city. A passionate and unapologetic defender of Liverpool on the national stage – picking fights with everyone from David Cameron to the UN – he is a divisive figure within the city. But spend an hour in his company and one thing becomes clear: the man known as “Mayor Joe” is master of all he surveys.

For now, that is. When I meet Anderson in his ornate riverside office on the fourth floor of the Cunard Building – the second of Liverpool’s “Three Graces” – he is facing the biggest challenge to his control of the city’s politics to date. Steve Rotheram, the Corbynite MP for Liverpool Walton, is all but certain to become the first mayor of the Liverpool City Region in the elections on 4 May. As in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands (this will likely become a “Tory fiefdom” under the Conservative Andy Street, Anderson says), the new metro mayor will control strategic policy areas such as transport and housing. Anderson, who led the push for Merseyside’s new mayoralty and ran unsuccessfully for the Labour nomination, could now be usurped by Rotheram, who was once his junior on the city council. Not that Anderson sees it that way.

“Yeah, there will be a tinge of sadness that it wasn’t me, having done all the work,” he says with a shrug. He is quick to reassert his authority. “But y’know, eh, that’s life! I’m in a great position – and was at the time, by the way. I’m the Mayor of Liverpool. One of the biggest cities in the UK, one of the most famous cities in the world, and I’m the mayor!”

Anderson, who is 59 and much smaller than TV pictures or local people’s taunts would suggest, insists that he gets on well with Rotheram. But one could forgive him for harbouring at least some resentment. The job could have been the zenith of his unlikely rise – from merchant seaman to council leader, with stints along the way as a pub landlord, union convenor (he is a rough contemporary of Unite’s Len McCluskey) and social worker. As the inaugural and hitherto only elected Mayor of Liverpool, he has recast local government in his own image. Doing so has entailed brokering deals with the Tories.

The sight of a Labour mayor of Liverpool breaking bread with David Cameron and George Osborne was anathema to some. Anderson, however, firmly believes in his approach to the deep budget cuts imposed by the central government. (The city’s grant has been cut by 58 per cent since 2010.)

Thumping the table with a meaty index finger, he launches into a forthright defence of his record. “There’s a lot of jealousy and a lot of antagonism before me, because they want me to chain myself to Downing Street railings and set an illegal budget. And I won’t do that. I’m pragmatic. I deal with the problems on a daily basis. They talk about fighting the Tories. Every day, I fight the Tory cuts by thinking of different ways of doing things. I won’t be browbeaten or bullied by people who want to personalise attacks on me.”

Many do. Anderson has paid a personal price for his high-profile job as mayor. His willingness to court private-sector investment has fostered resentment in some quarters. Does he think that some Scousers don’t know what’s good for them? “Yeah, I do! I do, I genuinely do. It frustrates the hell out of me.” His critics, he says, ought to get a grip. “The mindset of the people in this city is that we get enough council tax to pay for everything that we want. They live in a dreamworld.”

Mayor Joe’s dominance of the city has given rise to a lurid strain of urban mythology. Critics allege that he is in receipt of free property from developers given contracts by the council. In fact, he has lived in the same terraced house for 25 years. Yet some scent a whiff of corruption and the mayor resents the perception that he is somehow “milking the system”. A protracted, unedifying and council-funded legal dispute with a school in a neighbouring borough that dismissed him as a learning mentor hasn’t helped his cause (he says his conscience is clear and maintains that the decision to pursue the case was not his).

The attacks are vicious and often baseless. “I’ve had attacks on my family. I’ve had excreta sent through my door. I’ve had blood on letters. I’ve had a letter telling me that they were gonna slash my wife’s face. I’ve had all of that.”

He is in frequent contact with the police, and his children have urged him to quit Twitter, on which he is often attacked – as, among other things, a “piecrust-snorting wizard” and a “corrupt humpty-dumpty-looking nonce”.

He admits that the abuse hurts, even if it is outnumbered “ten to one” by praise. He is not giving up, however. He has said that he would like to stand in Rotheram’s Westminster seat at the general election – not “some jolly”, he insists, but the best way to continue the fight. But if he isn’t successful there, as he has reminded constituents, he will remain in control of the council.

He says that he will work constructively with Rotheram, an old friend. “The project itself is too important for personalities. We’ve gotta make a success of it.” Whether they will is another matter. 

Editor’s note, 4 May 2017: This article was updated to clarify the allegations made against Joe Anderson on social media

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution

Show Hide image

After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

0800 7318496