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"Bad Bootle Ukip meff": Why does Liverpool refuse to love Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip politician makes much of his working-class roots. But he remains a political reject in his home city

Ask anyone from Liverpool what they think of Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, and you’ll likely hear one – or both – of two phrases almost entirely inscrutable to those unfamiliar with Merseyside. The first is “wool”, the catch-all slur for supposedly plastic Scousers from outside the city proper. A resident of Bootle in the neighbouring borough of Sefton, he fails the ultimate Scouse litmus test – he doesn’t have one of Liverpool City Council’s luminous purple wheelie bins.

The second, and most popular, is a Nuttall-specific insult that plays on those roots: “Bad Bootle Ukip meff [tramp].” Find a news story about Nuttall on social media, and chances are it appears below the line, on Twitter, or in the Facebook comments.

Even the Liverpool Echo, the city’s newspaper of record, quotes the phrase in its copy whenever the Ukip leader is mentioned, having first introduced the phrase to the world in a liveblog when he appeared on Question Time with fellow Merseysider Esther McVey. The original tweet, from an Echo reader, was as devastating as it was pithy. “They’re not proper Scouse,” it said of the pair. “Ones a orrible Tory wool the other is a bad Bootle UKIP meff [sic].” Nuttall later attacked the Echo for “highlighting some really biased, negative comments”, but the damage was done.

The events of the past week have thrown Nuttall's testy relationship with his home city into harsh relief. First the families of those who died 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives, questioned why he had never offered his support for the cause. Then, in an excruciating radio interview, he admitted claims on his blog that he "lost close personal friends" were untrue. The row provoked a justifiably furious reaction and the city's elected mayor, Joe Anderson, has called on Nuttall to resign as an MEP.

Nationally, however, the Ukip leader has put his Liverpudlian provenance front and centre of his bid to install the party as the “patriotic voice of working people”. Some Labour politicians worry that his folksy patter – and provincial pedigree – will help fuel a devastating flight of Northern and Midland voters to Ukip. So why is Nuttall so unloved – and so electorally unsuccessful – in Liverpool?

The city region, for the most part, is staunchly Labour, and voted to remain last June. But the derision the Ukip leader faces on Merseyside can’t be explained quite so simply.  A number of conflicting factors are at play - politics, class, religion, and the nebulous, evasive concept of Scouseness itself.

Nuttall was three times an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate in his home constituency of Bootle, a Labour stronghold. Even in 2015, when he came second, Nuttall could only muster 11 per cent of the vote, an increase of just 4.8 per cent on 2010. “Really, that was a poor performance from him and from Ukip,” said Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Liverpool University’s head of politics. “It’s a constituency with the type of demographics where they should do well, and it ought to be fertile territory for him, given that he’s from Bootle.” Appealing to the white working class is a key part of his platform, but he hasn’t ever managed it at home.  

Indeed, for all his genuine and permanently audible links to Merseyside, Nuttall is fighting under an unpopular banner. Ukip have never had a councillor here, and, according to Wilks-Heeg, probably never will, despite a near-total vacuum on the right (the Conservatives have not held a single council seat since 1998). Far-right populists have failed before. “We shouldn’t put Ukip strictly in the same basket as the British National Party and the National Front," said Wilks-Heeg. "But we do know areas which in the past voted strongly for those parties have been particularly fertile territory for Ukip, and those vote shares were never all that high – so they may well have reached their ceiling.”

Others resent the perceived glibness of Nuttall’s allusions to his roots. Like the comedian John Bishop, who grew up in Runcorn, Cheshire, he is often mocked for playing up to a stereotype of Liverpudlians that doesn’t actually exist. Brian Reade, the Scouse Daily Mirror columnist, likens him to Cilla Black and Jimmy Tarbuck – celebrities who “traded on Scouseness, but yet they were Thatcher-lovers, safe in their Berkshire mansions, preaching the absolute antithesis to what Scousers were going through”.  

Aaron Ellis, until last year a leading light in Liverpool’s Conservative future branch, agrees there is an instinctive, often class-based, hostility to vocal right-wingers. “The attitude I ran up against was that I was pretending to be 'posh'," he said. The memory clearly still rankles. "Growing up, I associated Labour with keeping working people in their place, because I aspired to go to uni and then I was told I was just being posh and a Tory.”

Working-class Conservatism, however, isn’t non-existent in Liverpool – it was, until the fifties, a Tory stronghold – and Reade says Nuttall has long been tolerated as an irritating, if largely harmless, representative of that constituency. “Up until the last couple of months, people treated him as a bit of a joke," he explained. "He was seen as buffoonish sort of figure who was trying to suck up to people from a different class from him – a rebelling against his roots sort of thing. "You see him walking around in this sort of faux grouse-shooting outfit!”  By this point in our converastion, Reade was struggling to suppress his laughter.

Liverpool University's Wilks-Heeg agrees that Nuttall’s image and nativist politics are at odds with an immigrant city where many locals identify as Scouse first, and English second. “Ukip really is, essentially, an English nationalist party," he said. "Liverpool, not being a terribly English city, has quite different political traditions and a different political culture.”

That political culture, well into the twentieth century, was a religious sectarianism fuelled by large-scale migration from Ireland – and the working-class Catholic vote (Nuttall says he is himself practising), for the most part, is still overwhelmingly Labour.

Peter Hooton, frontman of nineties band The Farm and a Hillsborough justice campaigner, attended the same secondary school as Nuttall, and says his politics are fundamentally incompatible with the city’s collective memory. “Ukip are to the right of Margaret Thatcher," he recalled. "Liverpool was a city riven with sectarianism – we were acutely aware of that as kids.

"Thankfully, it’s more or less died out, but for someone coming from Nuttall’s background, it’s unbelievable that he is the way he is politically. Did he not read any history books?”

All I spoke to described Nuttall, outspoken and uncompromising, as an embarrassment to a fiercely proud and staunchly Labour city. But now, says Reade, he must stop that embarrassment curdling into hate. “I haven’t met many people who are totally enraged by what’s happened with his Hillsborough story,” he says. “But he needs to be careful. He’s almost at the tipping point. One more incident like this, and he could become a hate figure.”

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.