In 1981, the violent arrest of a young black man near Granby Street in Toxteth, Liverpool, led to nine days of rioting. Scores of buildings were destroyed and hundreds were arrested in disturbances on a scale previously unseen on the UK mainland. Milk floats were set alight and pushed into police lines, and the northern city saw the first deployment of tear gas outside of Northern Ireland.
“I hate us always talking about the riots,” says Joanne Anderson, Liverpool’s Mayor, when we meet at the council’s palatial Cunard Building on the Victorian waterfront. Liverpool has certainly come a long way in 40 years, but the events of 1981 were a turning point in the city’s post-war history.
Not only did they furnish its reputation as the era’s definitive “problem city”, the unrest was so severe that the “dries” in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet – the term coined by the former prime minister for adamant supporters of her hard monetarist policies – seriously considered abandoning it to a process of strategic, “managed decline”. The phrase is still infamous in Scouse political folklore.
“We’re very touchy about the term,” says Anderson.
At 50, she’s a local government novice. Having worked as a business consultant, a diversity and inclusion adviser and a civil servant at the Crown Prosecution Service for most of her professional career, Anderson joined the Labour Party in 2015 – “because of Corbyn”, she says. She served as a councillor in a Toxteth ward from 2019 and became Mayor a mere two years later.
Her relative political inexperience perhaps worked to her advantage. The 2021 mayoral leadership contest took place under a cloud of recriminations; the former mayor, Joe Anderson (no relation), the centre of a police investigation for corruption, had stepped down, triggering the contest. The national Labour Party barred three original candidates from standing. One, Anna Rothery, who won the endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn, took the party to court and lost. The judge heard that Labour barred her candidacy as it represented a “clear risk of political damage to the party”. Anderson went on to win the contest against another new candidate the party found acceptable. To date, Labour has not given a full explanation as to why the original candidates were disqualified.
Anderson now finds herself at the helm of a city with a long political memory and fractious political cultures, but the Mayor is keen to paint a picture of a thriving, cosmopolitan town that has reinvented itself since the dark days of Thatcherism. In 2008, Liverpool was awarded European Capital of Culture, a milestone in the journey to shedding an image that still leads visiting football fans to taunt home crowds with renditions of “In your Liverpool slums” and “You’ll never get a job”.
“Our city is like every other city,” says Anderson. “It’s got its contradictions, but most people who visit have a real emotional connection to it and absolutely love it.”
This weekend, MPs, lobbyists, and Westminster’s suited and booted will descend on the grand Pier Head for the Labour Party conference to sip too-warm wine at drinks receptions in the regenerated Albert Docks.
But despite the superficial prosperity of the town centre, the city has recently – and once again – made headlines for all the wrong reasons. A spate of fatal shootings has left four dead, including a nine-year-old child. It’s not the first time a minor has fallen victim to gang warfare in Liverpool – Olivia Pratt-Korbel was shot in the chest by a total stranger on the 15-year anniversary of the day that 11-year-old Rhys Jones was killed by a stray bullet.
“It’s absolutely devastating,” says Anderson, “I’m heartbroken… but it’s not just Liverpool that has these problems. I think when anything like this happens, people think things have got worse and I’m not sure they have.”
But on top of the shootings, the city also finds itself in the throes of political crisis. Anderson’s predecessor loomed large over local Labour politics for a decade. He clashed heads with many, including Steve Rotheram, the Mayor of the larger Liverpool City Region. It was no secret that the original Anderson coveted Rotheram’s position. For her part, the current Liverpool Mayor says she enjoys a “positive” relationship with the City Region Mayor. “I’m sure he’s delighted with the relationship compared to the one he had previously,” she says.
Enjoying comfortable supermajorities on the council, Joe Anderson stepped down in 2020 following a major scandal that resulted in his arrest on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation. His son, a local property developer, and the former Marxist firebrand Derek “Degsy” Hatton were also arrested. No charges have so far been brought, and a police investigation is ongoing.
As a result of the affair, however, the government published a damning report into the workings of the local authority, finding a “serious breakdown of governance”, a culture of bullying and intimidation, and a “continued failure to correctly value land or assets” in dealings with developers. Last year, government commissioners were sent from Whitehall to oversee the operation of council departments deemed to be in the most egregious breach of best practice. And last month, their powers were extended across the entire local authority after a new report deemed the council’s progress on cleaning up its act “inadequate”. What this means, in effect, is that the current council leadership, including Mayor Anderson, is now under full government supervision, with decisions over governance, recruitment and financial decision-making transferred to the government-appointed commissioners.
“They’ve got a damn cheek,” says Anderson. “We’re being held to higher standards. I certainly find that as a black, female politician as well – being held to higher standards.” Anderson claims that staffing problems and difficulties recruiting experienced officers is hindering council performance.
Yet there’s no doubt Liverpool council has its own, specific, problems. Earlier this year, the deputy mayor and the council’s finance director resigned following a series of bureaucratic errors that saw its annual energy bill skyrocket by £16m due to a failure to renew fixed-rate contracts. Commissioners described this as just one example of “systemic failings”.
And in March, at the last meeting to set a budget for the city, the ruling Labour group split. A breakaway party of eight former Labour councillors refused to back a spending package that imposed £25m of cuts. They formed the Liverpool Community Independents. Composed of Corbynite left-wingers, including Rothery, the group vocally opposed both the commissioners’ presence and Labour’s national and local leadership, including Joanne Anderson.
“They’re not worth my time,” she insists. “I’m not going to worry about them because they’re just playing games.” The council has lost two-thirds of its central government grant since 2010, leaving little option but to make savings, she says. “We don’t want to make cuts when we don’t have to.”
But the split evoked more memories of the 1980s, when a Labour council, under the influence of Trotskyist internal factions, refused to pass down cuts and deliberately set deficit budgets in excess of revenues. The idea was to put the city on a collision course with the government. The result was the dismissal and surcharge of 47 councillors and their suspension from the Labour Party. The so-called Militant Tendency era still echoes through Liverpool’s political culture. During Corbyn’s tenure some old faces were said to have reappeared in ward and constituency Labour Party meetings, determined to relive the old struggles.
When the dries of Thatcher’s cabinet discussed “managed decline” it was opposed by the more paternalistic One Nation members of her government, the kind of Tories missing from the cabinet of the new PM Liz Truss. It was these “wets” who won the day. One of the cabinet’s most able members, Michael Heseltine, was appointed as “minister for Merseyside”, tasked with addressing the fallout from the city’s sky-high unemployment, its poverty, and the decline the docklands and traditional industries.
In a note to the prime minister headed “It took a riot”, Heseltine outlined the scale of his task. He described the city’s secular economic decline, strained relations between the police and the people of Toxteth, and the discrimination suffered by what he called “the only black community” in a predominantly white city. It was in this community that the era’s economic headwinds were most keenly felt, he said.
Today, Liverpool is run by the first black female mayor in the country and the redevelopment of the city centre and the docks is testament to anything but decline. Toxteth itself is still a deprived area, but has started to attract students, artists and creatives in a first potential wave of gentrification. Anderson is characteristically optimistic about the city’s prospects under Liz Truss, but there’s more than a hint of sarcasm when she says it’s because the PM is “married to a scouser” (Truss’s husband grew up in one of south Liverpool’s leafier suburbs).
Maybe the Mayor worries that the end of the Boris Johnson era means an end to prospects for “levelling up” cities like Liverpool? “I never saw anything that made me want to jump up and down about levelling up anyway,” she responds.
But with a Thatcher tribute act in No 10, stubborn levels of deprivation outside of the central districts, an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis and a political culture of dysfunction and factionalism still rife, the difficulties of managing this turbulent port are as evident as ever.
“I wouldn’t blame [Heseltine] for failing,” Thatcher once wrote in her diary. “Liverpool has defeated better men than Michael.”
It may well defeat Anderson, too.
[See also: Councils will crumble under Jeremy Hunt’s spending cuts]