A colour the city can't forgive: Liverpool split after future first citizen's crime record is revealed

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The Independent Online
'IF SHE were forced to stand down, it wouldn't take much for the community in Toxteth to decide that Liverpool still had nothing to offer them, to take to the streets and have another bloody riot maybe. We could be back to 1981 with a vengeance.'

Harry Rimmer, leader of Liverpool City Council, is worried. Next May, Petrona Lashley is due to accede to the post of Lord Mayor from her current role as deputy. But that has been thrown into question by last week's revelation that she has a criminal record: three (spent) convictions for prostitution in the Seventies, and one for obtaining property by deception in 1990, the year before she was elected to the council.

Petrona Lashley is black, which has givenher case an incendiary quality. Mr Rimmer, and everyone I spoke to in Liverpool 8, believes that racism lies behind the leaking of her criminal record. 'Certain people in this city simply cannot stomach the idea of a black Lord Mayor,' said Sam Semoff, a (white) volunteer at the Ponsonby Centre, a drop-in service in Granby, the ward that Ms Lashley represents. Mr Rimmer thought that even the way the Liverpool Echo broke the story was racist: 'That picture of her on the front page, when she is black]'

But there is an irony about complaints that Ms Lashley is being crucified for her colour: because the fact that she is black is at least as significant to her sympathisers as to her opponents. Her unanimous nomination as Lord Mayor by the Labour group was a symbolic gesture. Liverpool is a notoriously racist city, and Ms Lashley is its only black councillor (the black population accounts for 9 per cent of the total). The idea that she might become first citizen was seen as a cause for hope both by blacks and the Labour Party.

Mr Rimmer accepts that Labour has traditionally reflected the city's institutionalised racism; and in the years of domination by Militant, relations between Labour and the black community groups broke down almost entirely, when the council imposed a race relations adviser, Sampson Bond, in the teeth of opposition from local people. Judge Gifford, in his report on the Toxteth riots, concluded that this appointment 'led to grave setbacks in the promotion of the interests of Liverpool's black people'.

Ms Lashley isa hard-working, personally popular councillor: it was impossible to find anyone with a bad word for her last week. 'She is the sort of person who will immediately put a plate of food down in front of you when you walk in her house. She puts herself out to help people,' said Mr Semoff.

Her supporters would like to excuse her criminal past as the inevitable consequence of a hard life and over-generous personality ('If she did that to feed her children 20 years ago, it's got to be admired,' said Delroy Burris, who stood for the council as an independent during the Militant years). As for the recent conviction, they argue, it was for helping a young Nigerian to obtain a passport so that he could visit his parents in America. Ms Lashley herself told the Liverpool Echo that it was 'a nave good deed to help somebody who was desperate'.

Father Peter Morgan, the Catholic parish priest in Granby, agrees that Ms Lashley is being victimised, in the sense that 'people are given knighthoods who do much worse things; who spend public money putting other people out of work'. But he doesn't share the view that the story would not have come out if Ms Lashley had been white, and he warns against an inverse racism that would excuse criminality on the grounds that she is black.

On the other hand, Peter Bassey, who works at a legal-aid centre in Toxteth, thinks that 'if you wait for someone from this community to be squeaky- clean before they can hold office, you'll wait at least a generation'.

Ms Lashley was born in Barbados and came to Britain in the Fifties when she was 17. She trained as a nurse in Hampshire, where she met the man who became the father of her four children; she moved to Liverpool because the ships he worked on docked there. She worked as a nurse at the homeopathic hospital, brought up her children, and became an equal-opportunities officer in the NHS, and later with the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Trust.

In Liverpool, she became part of the oldest black community (with Cardiff) in Europe. At the apex of the triangular trade between West Africa and the cotton plantations, its black population was founded by slaves and servants 300 years ago. Within Liverpool 8, a predominantly white area (although the locals rather disdain such distinctions, pointing out that most black people in the area have at least one white grandparent, and are known to blacks elsewhere in the country as 'redskins'), they pride themselves on their lack of racism. No point, they say, when if you see a black child and a white child together, the chances are they're brothers.

Butbeyond Liverpool 8, black people are under-represented in all aspects of the city's life. Mr Rimmer admits that although there are hundreds of city council employees 'you can practically count the black faces on the fingers of one hand'. Lord Gifford's report concluded that 'racism . . . is potent in Liverpool today'. Father Morgan says that where black people have attempted to move out of Granby - to Everton, Kirkdale or Anfield - they have often had to come back.

When Ms Lashley's story broke last Tuesday, local politicians of all parties rallied to support her, although a handful of Liberal Democrats (the main opposition, and so dominant that they alternate in holding the post of Lord Mayor) have since distanced themselves. One, Cathy Hancox, says: 'This is a very Catholic city, and there may be people who will stand on the moral high ground. I am not interested in the prostitution - if that is something she did to put bread and butter on the table for her kids, fine. But I am worried about whether groups like the Scouts will want to invite her to functions.'

On the streets and the radio phone-ins, opinion was divided, often by age. One woman in her sixties said that you couldn't have an ex-prostitute as Lord Mayor: what would happen if she had to shake hands with the Queen? Most people seemed less concerned with the prostitution than with the recent deception. But now that Ms Lashley has explained her side of the story, it may be that the city will give her another chance. Certainly she does not seem inclined to step down.

Rumour rages as to wherethe information could have come from. The police have checked their computer, and insist it wasn't them, but someone would have needed the relevant dates even to go through court records, which would be the only other way. Her friends feel furious that someone deliberately collected this information and gave it to the papers, but at the same time they feel heartened by messages of support. 'It brought tears to my eyes to hear white people ringing in to support her on the radio,' said Mr Burris. 'I felt good about walking the streets of the city.'

(Photographs omitted)