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Joe Anderson: The left’s answer to Boris Johnson? Mayor of Liverpool makes national mark

The city’s first elected leader tells Oscar Quine why he is determined to fight Conservative fire with fire

When Boris Johnson told a lecture theatre in London before Christmas that The Beatles owed their success to the capital, his Liverpool counterpart, Mayor Joe Anderson, wasted no time in demanding an apology for what he called “another embarrassing gaffe”.

In his quick-footed pugnacity – which also led him to trade bitter and well-publicised blows with Prime Minister David Cameron last week – Mr Anderson strikes a similar figure to Mr Johnson. He too is a charismatic, larger-than-life leader popular with his citizens, becoming the first directly elected Mayor of Liverpool in 2012. Only now, however, is he becoming a similar national figure.

While Boris is an old Etonian-Oxonian, Mr Anderson comes from more humble roots. Born in 1958 to a merchant seaman and a cleaner, he grew up in a tenement. At school, he was, he tells The Independent, “a poor attender because of problems at home”. Unable to afford the gas bill, his family would often cook on a camping stove. “I’m not one of those who grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he says.

Leaving school at 16, he joined the merchant navy and then P&O ferries. It was aboard the ships which took him from Gdansk to Port Elizabeth that he began to educate himself on a diet of political biographies –Labour’s NHS-founding minister Aneurin Bevan being a particular influence. He became a social worker for Sefton Council and was elected to the council in 1998 before becoming its leader 12 years later.

A self-described socialist, he says that taking the reins as the first round of Government cuts came in was “a nightmare”, which is far from over. “We’ve already had £176m cuts, with 1,600 jobs lost. Now we’ve got to find another £156m. In total over the six years, we’ll have lost 56 per cent of our funding from Government.”

It’s a duty that led him to spar with David Cameron last Friday in opposing op-eds in the Liverpool Echo. The PM, Mr Anderson said, “plans on stabbing us in the back”. Mr Cameron hit back in an interview on local radio, saying: “I don’t think Joe does his city any favours by just endlessly talking down the money that Liverpool gets”. Mr Anderson then branded Mr Cameron’s comments “ignorant”.

Liverpool, which is one of the poorest cities in the UK, is also the worst-off in terms of cuts in funding. This is compounded by low council tax receipts – 78 per cent of homes in Liverpool pay at the lowest bands, compared to just 17 per cent in Greater London.

His critics echo Mr Cameron’s sentiment. Richard Kemp, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats in the city council, said that his “screeching” was resurrecting the stereotype that Liverpool is the “whinge city”, adding: “I’m not minimising the problems. I’m saying, what’s the most effective way of communicating those difficulties. And doing it through a megaphone is never the best way.”

Local Government minister Brandon Lewis said: “Joe Anderson’s priority should be cutting the waste that is endemic in the public sector, rather than asking taxpayers to empty their pockets to pay for more municipal bureaucracy. Liverpudlians pay far too much in council tax already and extra central funding is on offer to Liverpool if it freezes bills next year, but no doubt they will refuse it again.”

Unwavering, Mr Anderson has sent train tickets to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles with the offer to review the city’s finances in person.

Yet with more than £4bn in private and public investment since 2000, Liverpool has grown faster than any city outside London. Surely a world-class metropolis can stand on its own two feet?

Away from the developments, says Mr Anderson, it is a tale of two cities. “We’ve got, I think, 10 of the most deprived wards within the top 20 so there is a real disconnect between the prosperity and those in poverty. My job is to get those people into work and to benefit from those opportunities.”

The man who staged the first ship sit-in at Liverpool Docks cites former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s claim to be “a socialist in a modern setting”, in realising he must harness business. “We can still have all those principles and still have all those values but the reality is that you’ve got to be able to earn it to spend it, to have it to distribute it,” he says.

It is down on Liverpool’s waterfront – which helped it to become known as the Second City of the Empire – that Mr Anderson has focused this attitude. The city put pen to paper in March 2012 on a £5.5bn deal with Peel Holdings to build skyscrapers on 60 hectares of redundant dockland. The centrepiece of the Liverpool Waters development will be the 55-storey Shanghai Tower, set to dwarf the iconic Liver Building.

However, a major investor Stella Shiu – described on a website affiliated with Liverpool council as a “high-ranking member of the Chinese government” – was uncovered late last year by the Financial Times as having gone bankrupt in 2008 while at the helm of companies which have since been dissolved. Critics say the council did not practise due diligence on the deal, but Mr Anderson denies any procedural failings.

The accusations extend to the council’s finances. In 2012, the Echo branded them a calamity after 30 per cent of internal audits found the council had been open to “significant error or abuse”, with two problems identified risking losses in excess of £1m.

At his best, Mr Anderson is a brilliant people politician. But critics argue that in his rush for development, Mr Anderson has overlooked the details. Liverpool, they say, does not have the inhabitants to fill the shiny new edifices.

As always, Mr Anderson is resilient: “My election mantra was that Liverpool’s best days lie ahead and I still firmly believe that.”

Life in brief: Joe Anderson

1958 Born in  Dingle,  Liverpool.

1974 Leaves school without any qualifications.

1978 Joins P&O ferries and becomes a steward of National Union of  Seamen.

1983 Marries wife Marg. They have four children.

1992 Studies social work at Liverpool John Moores University and becomes a social worker.

1998 First elected as a city councillor.

2010 Becomes Leader of Liverpool City Council.

2012 Wins mayoralty  of Liverpool. Awarded  the OBE.