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  1. Politics
1 July 2024

The People’s Republic of Liverpool Walton

It’s the safest seat in the country. What’s behind the gigantic Labour vote?

By Jonny Ball

In 2018, the Russian presidential election produced an entirely expected victory for the incumbent Vladimir Putin, who won 78 per cent of the vote. The process was widely condemned by observers and beset by allegations of fraud and ballot stuffing.

In Liverpool Walton in 2017 and 2019, we saw an even more emphatic result – minus the vote-rigging and the Potemkin competition between regime-controlled candidates. Labour’s Dan Carden won around 85 per cent of the ballots cast; higher than even an autocratic Putin cares to muster for himself in the pantomime theatre of a managed democracy.

On July 4 we’re likely to see a similar result again in a slightly redrawn Liverpool Walton, the safest seat in the country.

“I don’t know anyone who votes Tory” says Paula, Carden’s constituency secretary. “I think it’s Thatcher. She wanted to wipe Liverpool off the map. And we don’t forget easily, do we?” she laughs.

I’ve met Paula and Dan outside St Nathanael’s Church. Inside, a charity, the Open Doors Project, is hosting a community lunch for vulnerable locals. The church is full. Dozens are queuing.

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Everyone I ask is voting Labour. “I want to get these scumbags out”, says one woman, after I interrupt her meal, but she’s more than happy to chat.

The prime minister “looks like a Thunderbird” to boot.

But there’s no enthusiasm here for Keir Starmer. I’ve now interrupted an entire tables’ lunch to ask about the election. The future PM is “a waste of space”, I’m told by several voters as Carden sits beside me looking sheepish. “I thought Tony Blair was a Tory with a red rosette, and Starmer is the same”, says another.

An older gentleman chimes in to say “the Tories haven’t given us anything as a city… I think they want us all dead. Off the map.”

A few, not many, Liverpudlians groan at this kind of politics. They want to break from the cycle of reflexive Tory-bashing, which is all-pervasive. A local blog, the Liverpolitan,once begged its readers (and journalists writing about the city) to “stop banging on about Thatcher and the Toxteth bloody riots”.

But they are fighting a losing battle. Thatcher and the Boys from the Blackstuff years are brought up independently by virtually everybody you ask about politics. The seminal decade, the 1980s, has become the backdrop to Liverpool’s populist modern origin myth – core to local identities, and key to the cohesive, all-in-it-together spirit of a great northern city.

This isn’t so much a story that nefarious outsiders have invented to satisfy readers in middle England, but a story we tell about ourselves to anyone who will listen. Our big-name UFC fighters talk about the crimes of Thatcher in interviews. Local playwrights wax lyrical about the privations of the era. It’s the impetus behind the city’s anti-Tory football chants and the ritual booing of the national anthem by Liverpool fans.

I’ve interviewed several leaders of Liverpool council over the years, and all of them, unprompted, have told me some version of modern Scouse Genesis: the Eden of the great Second City of Empire, Beatlemania, Merseybeat and Keynesian full employment policies; all interrupted by The Fall of traditional industries, “managed decline” as the infamous strategy proposed by the chancellor Geoffrey Howe, and Liverpool becoming a hollowed-out case study of economic dysfunction.

Then there’s the heroic resistance in the form of council rebellions (which remain controversial), the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (which doesn’t), the city’s total boycott of The Sun newspaper, followed by its cultural renaissance like a Phoenix from the ashes after the turn of the millennium.

None of this is made up. Paula is right: if you want to know why every single one of the five safest seats in the UK are in the Liverpool metro area then you need look no further than the strength of Scouse Genesis. It’s why Dan Carden will rest easy on election night, and why the Tory candidate will struggle to retain their deposit.

Carden is approached by several people as we sit and eat in St Nathanael’s nave. He seems well-known and well-liked. Our paths have crossed before: he was in the year above me in school. I tell him this as soon as we meet because it’s not often you can wave the old school tie having been to a state school on Merseyside, even one of the posher old Christian Brothers’ institutions.

“I remember having to read the prayers every so often”, he recalls. “I was more of an atheist back then. I’m less so now.”

He does seem to have undergone a subtle conversion. At 37, he’s still young for an MP after seven years in the Commons. He came into politics under the wing of “Red” Len McCluskey, another of Liverpool’s socialist sons, when McCluskey was general secretary at Unite the Union.

His father Mike was the last in a long line of Carden males to work on the docks, and was heavily involved in the legendary, 121-week strike of the 1990s.

A few years ago, Walton’s constituency Labour Party was a Corbynite stronghold. That has now changed, a former member tells me, after a wave of resignations, expulsions, and defections to a small Community Independents party.

But Carden’s political pedigree didn’t prevent him being promoted twice to the Labour front bench under Starmer, only to see him resign his positions on both occasions (first to vote against the Policing Bill, and second to vote for a ceasefire in Gaza).

He tells me he would serve again happily: “Third time lucky”, he jokes.

He was once a member of the Bennite Socialist Campaign Group, but left earlier this year, “for no particular political reason”. But Carden tells me he’s now much more open to Blue Labour’s communitarianism, which combines leftwing, egalitarian and participatory approaches to economics with a belief in faith, family and flag. He’s in regular contact with Maurice Glasman, the Blue Labour founder and New Statesman contributor.

That kind of politics is probably more congruent with Walton than full-blooded Corbynism, with all of its cultural baggage and heavy focus on niche foreign policy positions. Back at the Open Doors Project, the gentleman enjoying his lunch told me that the former Labour leader and independent candidate in Islington North was better than Starmer “as a person”, but Corbyn “didn’t half back the terrorists”.

According to Labour Together polling, which divides voters into segments determined by their political values, 24 per cent of Walton residents could be grouped with the “activist left”, tending to be younger and more liberal. But a further 19 per cent are part of the Red Wall-style “patriotic left”. Then there’s 24 per cent who are classed as “dissillusioned suburbans”, and a further 14 per cent “English traditionalists”.

If there’s a constituency which most aptly gives the lie to Suella Braverman’s jibe that Labour is the party of the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating, wokerati”, then it is here, where Labour is hegemonic.

Until recent boundary changes, Walton was home to two Premier League football clubs (a unique accolade in the House of Commons). But the transnational wealth that’s now thoroughly enmeshed in the beautiful game has yet to trickle down and outwards across this patch of Liverpool. It is a poor, working-class area in a poor, working-class city. Measured by indices of multiple deprivation, which include metrics such as income, employment, education and health, it is classed as the very poorest of England’s 543 seats.

Val, a constituency caseworker, has her work cut out. Her inbox is inundated with pleas from residents in dire straits. Poverty is endemic in large parts of the constituency, and levels of need have increased dramatically since 2010. Charities like the Open Doors Project in St Nathanael’s are stepping in as the provider of last resort beneath a frayed social safety net.

This kind of grassroots social infrastructure has kept a struggling community going for fourteen years. For people and for areas like this, Labour needs to deliver. Otherwise, to recall Paula’s words: “We don’t forget easily, do we?”

[See also: The Lammy Doctrine]

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