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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.”

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

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.