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
This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution