“The party’s conduct of this selection is seen by many members as chaotic & demotivating ahead of crucial elections.”Alan Gibbons
The tortuous tale of Labour’s choice of candidate to be Mayor of Liverpool is approaching its conclusion. In the latest twist, the High Court has rejected a bid by one of the three originally shortlisted candidates, Anna Rothery, to challenge the party’s decision to exclude her. Mr Justice Cavanagh refused the application for an interim injunction, saying the party was entitled to make a “quintessentially political judgment.” In a statement, Rothery said that the panel “refused to provide explanations or documents to justify their actions” and expressed her disappointment that the court would not go behind these decisions to examine the evidence and motivations. This ends the prospect of any of the three original candidates becoming Labour’s flag-bearer in May.
Rothery’s case does, however, give us the only insight so far into the reasons for blocking any of the candidates. Gavin Millar, QC for the Labour Party said Rothery was removed because there was a “risk of political damage to the party.” There were concerns that she had “impugned the integrity of the other candidates” during a hustings event. What Rothery did at the hustings was to argue that, in light of ongoing investigations into alleged corruption, she – as the only candidate who was not part of the previous council leadership – was best placed to offer the city a fresh start and restore trust in local politics.
This will be seen by many as Labour removing a candidate for taking too hard a line on past failures of scrutiny, which seems a strange position for a party trying to emerge from a crisis to take. It also doesn’t explain why the other two candidates were also blocked. If, as some have speculated, it is because the party wanted a candidate with more distance from the previous administration, the decision to bar Rothery becomes all the more bizarre: essentially excluding her for making a statement that the party would appear to agree with.
The background to the latest developments lies in the arrest of the city’s directly elected Mayor, Joe Anderson last December as part of a police investigation. This led to a selection process which drew up a shortlist of three candidates: Acting Mayor Wendy Simon, former Deputy Mayor Ann O’Byrne and current Lord Mayor Anna Rothery. The three women have some fifty years’ experience of local government between them and had held two hustings as party of a lively campaign, with substantial trade union backing for the various candidates. Then, in a bombshell move, a Labour Party panel first delayed then postponed the process, advising all three women that they need not apply to be Labour’s candidate in the re-run.
With the three women prevented from standing, the party presented members with a new shortlist of two candidates: Princes Park councillor Joanne Anderson and Croxteth councillor Anthony Lavelle, still in his twenties. Both are relatively new to the council chamber. Many of the city’s 7,000 Labour Party members reacted with dismay. It was reported that some members of the Labour group called for a vote of no confidence in the selection process, though this did not materialise.
Opinion has been divided about this second selection with some saying it is time to move on and get behind a new Labour candidate and others, including left wing group Momentum, arguing that the fight should continue for transparency and fair process regarding the barring of the original candidates. That debate has now effectively been ended by the rejection of Rothery’s legal application, but the validity of the party’s apparent reason for excluding her remains fiercely contested – and still no reason has been presented for the barring of the other two previously shortlisted candidates.
Liverpool is Labour’s safest stronghold, with vote shares of up to 80% in many of the city’s wards, but the rumours circulating about the findings of an investigation by Government inspector Max Caller into the city council’s planning decisions could be electorally damaging, particularly in the south of the city. In the words of Acting Mayor Wendy Simon: “This will make for very difficult reading and will have ramifications for our organisation and the wider city.” It is even possible that Caller’s report could lead Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick to intervene.
As well as the usual opposition parties seeking to take advantage of Labour’s woes, the founder of a local charity, Stephen Yip, is running as an independent. The combination of these factors threatens to significantly weaken the foundations of Labour’s red citadel. The party’s conduct of this selection is seen by many members as chaotic and demotivating ahead of crucial elections.
In his election address, Lavelle, not considered to be on the left of the party, sought to capture the membership’s rumbling anger: “The national party has shown through their recent actions that they don’t understand Liverpool. I know a lot of you are angry about it. I’m angry too but we cannot tear ourselves apart and risk the Lib Dems or Conservatives running our city.”
It is hard to find anyone in Labour’s ranks, from whatever wing, who thinks the chaotic running of this selection will have done anything to improve the party’s prospects in May. Labour activists have their work cut out.