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10 December 2020

Is this the end for Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson?

After the combative mayor’s dramatic arrest on 4 December, his political enemies are circling.

By Jonny Ball

When Liverpool’s mayor Joe Anderson was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation on 4 December, #ChippyTits started trending on Twitter. Across the city, social media feeds were full of derisive memes riffing on the same theme – his first call at the police station would be to the Lobster Pot (a fish and chip takeaway in the city centre), while a hastily drawn poster depicted Anderson and Morgan Freeman starring in a new prison drama, “the Lambshank Redemption”. On a rainy day outside Liverpool’s palatial town hall, few passers-by are keen to stop and talk local politics, but one is keen to share a mocked-up WhatsApp video of a notorious local sex offender, “Purple Aki”, “welcoming Joe Anderson” to his cell.

Anderson, 62, was arrested as part of a year-long investigation into links between Liverpool City Council and local property dealers. On 10 December the mayor, who was elected in 2012, announced that he would take unpaid leave until “the police make clear their intentions with the investigation”.

According to reports in the Daily Mail and the Sun, Anderson was arrested alongside Derek Hatton, 72. Known locally as “Degsy”, the former Militant councillor, who was formerly deputy leader of Liverpool City Council, has made the unlikely journey from Marxist firebrand to wealthy Cyprus property developer via star turns in ads for Sekonda watches.

The episode is the latest in a series of controversies that have plagued the city council in recent years. In 2019, Elliot Lawless, a millionaire property developer with an Amis-esque character name, was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud, bribery and corruption. Nick Kavanagh, the council’s director of regeneration, was arrested as part of the same police probe.

 [See also: How Liverpool’s Covid-19 lockdown is stoking dreams of political independence]

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Arrests were also made earlier in the year in relation to a proposed skills training academy that hasn’t been built despite the council providing a multi-million pound loan. Dormant building sites across Liverpool are testament to a string of failed projects, featuring bankrupt developers, furious investors and accusations that the council has failed in its duty to exercise due diligence. Earlier this year, the Liverpool Echo reported that the north west’s organised crime squad were poring over the details of several collapsed multi-million pound schemes.

Two years previously, Anderson was interviewed under caution in relation to an investigation that saw the council’s former chief executive arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and witness intimidation. While the Crown Prosecution Service has yet to press charges, the investigation into alleged financial impropriety has prevented the city’s auditors from certifying council accounts for five years running.

These sagas aren’t the first to haunt Liverpool council’s reputation. A 1964 New Statesman article described the city – then run by the ennobled Marxist Bill Sefton – as “Cook County, UK”, a reference to Chicago’s infamous mayor Richard J Daley, the so-called “last of the big city bosses”. In the immediate postwar era, when Liverpool’s politics were still highly sectarian, the local Labour Party was dominated by powerful Catholic families who remained prominent for decades. In the 1980s, after the Catholic old boys had been replaced by Trotskyist entryists, Liverpool attracted new attention as its socialist council sought to defy Margaret Thatcher’s spending caps. The town hall was consistently dogged by claims of “jobs for the boys”. 

“We’ve been here before,” Peter Kilfoyle tells me, “particularly with Hatton being involved”. Kilfoyle, the former MP for Liverpool Walton, earned the nickname “Witchfinder General” for his work rooting out left-wing militants from the local Labour Party’s structures. 

There is an enduring animosity between Hatton and Kilfoyle, who once described the former as “mouth almighty” and a “total gobshite”. For several years, the former MP has maintained a blog that assiduously investigates alleged links between Merseyside councils and what he describes as “scam artists” and “career criminals” who “besmirch our city”. Anderson has become a frequent target of criticism.

Anderson and Hatton are two archetypal products of Liverpool’s idiosyncratic brand of Labour politics. Hatton, the former rebel councillor turned entrepreneur, has become a cheerleader for the mayor as Anderson attempts to keep the city afloat in the face of drastic cuts to its budget (Liverpool has lost two-thirds of its central government grant since 2010). Hatton endorses Anderson’s strategy of attracting inward private investment, encouraging developer-led growth, and pursuing the “Invest to Earn” policy under which the council expands its commercial property portfolio to supplement its diminishing income.

A 2017 profile of Anderson in the New Statesman described his tenure as giving rise to “a lurid strain of urban mythology”, with critics alleging he was “in receipt of free property from developers”. “Liverpool’s a terrible place for people coming up with all kinds of rumours,” Kilfoyle tells me. But rumours such as these were given succour when it was revealed that £89,000 in council funds had gone towards fighting a legal case against Anderson’s former employer, a secondary school.

The outspoken mayor has never shied away from controversy. His public rivalry with Steve Rotheram, the mayor of Liverpool City Region since 2017, has played out across the pages of the local press. “From day one,” Kilfoyle tells me, “Joe Anderson has tried to undermine [him].” 

 [See also: How Covid-19 pitted Liverpool’s homeless against one another]

Last year, at a Northern Powerhouse conference, Anderson told the New Statesman he would have “punched” a Conservative transport minister “in the nose” if he’d heard him claim austerity was over. After receiving praise from Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock for his compliance over the tier system and mass testing, Anderson compared hearing Tory congratulations as “like a viper showing its teeth to you”, and told the New Statesman he was “glad” Conservatives were “as rare as rocking horse shit” in Liverpool.

“Here is a place whose [politicians]… they’re all classic, the nearest things we get to American-style politics,” John Belchem tells me. Belchem is a retired professor of history at the University of Liverpool and author of Merseypride: Essays in Liverpool Exceptionalism. “The leaders have always tried to monopolise power from within their own party so that they’re not working through cabinet-style things or whatever. They really have had rigorous control.” In the wake of Anderson’s arrest, Richard Kemp, the city’s leading Liberal Democrat, has called for the council to abolish the post of mayor and adopt a committee system with more checks and balances.

“I’m as guilty as anybody about romanticising history”, Belchem tells me, trying to explain and contextualise the colourful recent past of local government on the Mersey. Some have alleged snobbery on the part of London-based council critics, exemplified by Private Eye’s “Murkeyside” moniker. But Belchem sees things differently. “Liverpool didn’t industrialise in the normal way, it wasn’t full of boring people who clocked on and clocked off steadily in factories. Here, there were people who sailed the world, or did casual, uncontracted day labour on the docks… and because there’s not been that regular formalised environment there have always been chancers…” The “Liverpool exceptionalism” of which Belchem writes is what gives the city its unique social and political character. Chancer or not, Joe Anderson has certainly contributed to that.