Born again: Liverpool returns to the polls

Jane Merrick returns to her childhood constituency, where turnout was the lowest in 2001 and 2005, and finds hope for our fight to maximise the vote
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Indy Politics

In May 1984, when I was a 10-year-old Liverpool schoolgirl, I waved a flag in front of the Queen. Not a Union flag, but a bright green banner on a wooden pole nearly as tall as me.

With about 30 of my classmates from the local junior school, I performed at the opening ceremony of Liverpool's International Garden Festival on the banks of the River Mersey. A line of smiling schoolchildren, from different racial backgrounds, green flags aloft in unison, we filed past the Chinese pagoda, the centrepiece of the garden, like a ragged version of a formation dance from that country.

One mile away from the scene of the Toxteth riots three years earlier, we were, I now realise, there to show the Queen and the world that Liverpool was a place of harmony, and emerging from decline. The garden festival was the idea of Michael Heseltine, then Margaret Thatcher's environment minister, to boost Liverpool's prestige. Outside the perimeter fence, the Militant Labour council and the Thatcher government were busy tearing the city apart, and would continue to do so for years.

The story of Liverpool in the 1980s has been well documented, but it continues to cast a shadow. The garden festival site has been derelict for years: burnt-out cars have replaced Japanese water features.

Last week, The Independent on Sunday launched a campaign, One of the Above, to get people to vote in the general election. Turnout fell nationally in the 2001 and 2005 elections, but nowhere was it lower than in Liverpool Riverside, the constituency with the garden festival and the place where I grew up. In 2001, 34.1 per cent of the electorate of this seat voted; in 2005, it rose slightly to 41.5 per cent, but was still the lowest in the country.

From the city centre in the north, through Toxteth and Aigburth, the middle-class suburb where I lived, Liverpool Riverside is a mixed constituency, but there was always political activism. So it is with mixed feelings of shame, and, six months pregnant, a nostalgia for the Liverpool of my childhood, that last week I returned there to find out why this activism has turned into apathy.

My family moved to Aigburth when I was five in 1979, three months after Mrs Thatcher became prime minister. When I was growing up there, politics burned through the city. In the 1983 and 1987 elections, Labour's red placards blazed from every front garden.

My upbringing was, like Gordon Brown's, an ordinary middle-class one. We never experienced the hardship of some in Liverpool, although my mother, a teacher, was one of those council workers who received her redundancy notice from Derek Hatton, the Militant leader, by taxi – recorded in history by Neil Kinnock's 1985 Labour conference speech.

Today, the wards that cover Aigburth have a higher turnout than the inner-city areas of the Riverside constituency, but low incomes cannot be the only factor driving down votes.

Riverside is always classed as a "safe" Labour seat, so perhaps people do not bother to vote because they know a Labour MP will always be returned. Yet there are safer seats with higher turnouts.

The sitting MP, Louise Ellman, who has represented Riverside since 1997, points to the high proportion of students, who may be registered to vote both in Liverpool and their home towns. (Liverpool's two universities are within the constituency boundary.) But she adds: "A lot of people don't believe voting will change their lives. They don't make the connection between decisions taken by the Government and their own lives."

In Lark Lane, a street of cafés, bars and art shops that forms the centre of bohemian Liverpool, I ask Jimmy Fearon, 45, a drummer, why turnout is so low. He immediately brings up the 1980s, and says that people became sick of both Labour and the Tories, in some cases hating the left more than the right: if Lord Heseltine were to walk through Toxteth today, Mr Fearon says, he would be undisturbed, while Mr Hatton would have glass bottles thrown at him. By the time Tony Blair came to power in 1997, voters in Liverpool had "given up the fight". "There has been nothing to fight for since then." But he senses a renewed appetite for democracy, now that Labour risks losing. "People aren't convinced by Gordon Brown, but there is a fear factor. The BNP is winning votes. And we don't want the Tories in power because they don't get us."

Next door to Lark Lane is Sefton Park, which links Aigburth on one side and Toxteth on the other. The park's Palm House, a grand Victorian glasshouse, was a favourite spot of ours for family picnics. But during the 1980s, at the height of the Militant's madness, it fell into disrepair, deemed a symbol of the bourgeoisie, even though it was used by the park's middle-class and working-class neighbours.

The Palm House has since been renovated and is a wedding venue. Today, guests are already gathering for a ceremony, posing for happy pictures. Next to them a group of park gardeners in fluorescent jackets is tending to a flower-bed. One of them, Neil Gorst, 34, from Toxteth, tells me he is not going to vote because "I don't believe in it". But he has strong views on the Government: "People are better off on benefits than working. There is a benefit for everything." So why is he working? "I want to work because I enjoy it. I am doing an apprenticeship, an NVQ level three in horticulture."

It's a short journey from Sefton Park to Toxteth, the former home of my childhood best friend. She lived in a handsome Victorian house on Kingsley Road, just off Princes Avenue, the centre of the 1981 riots. At the time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the "Granby Triangle", which took in Kingsley Road, was a thriving place. During one hot summer, my friend and I would sit on the windowsill of her first-floor bedroom, legs dangling 15ft above the street, listening to reggae from down the road. Some of the houses were boarded up, and there were the inner-city problems of drugs and unemployment, but there was a strong sense of community.

Today, as I turn the corner into Kingsley Road, I feel a wrench in my stomach at the sight of the windows of my friend's former home, and those of her neighbours' houses, replaced by metal grills. Her family has long gone, the front door is blocked by plywood, and a notice bearing Liverpool City Council's Liver Bird logo has been slapped in the centre of it.

These homes will be torn down as part of the Government's Pathfinder programme, introduced by John Prescott in 2002. It is designed to improve northern inner cities, but is hugely controversial: councils impose compulsory purchase orders on the houses; the families move out; the homes – some of them well-kept, smart properties – are demolished, and replaced by modern new houses built by private developers. But they are often smaller and uglier than the period homes that were there before. The recession has meant that development has slowed, so many homes will stand empty for years. Although I was aware of the Pathfinder scheme, it is horrifying to see a fond childhood memory condemned to demolition. The council tells me it is working in co-operation with residents on the design of new homes. But it does feel like the sense of community has been lost.

On the corner of Princes Avenue, in warm afternoon sunshine, I meet Ismail Dualeh, 74, who arrived in Britain from Somalia in 1968, and worked at the Ford factory before retiring. He has lived in this area for more than 40 years, and has seen the community change dramatically. I tell him about my memories from the late 1980s, and he nods with sadness. "Once the anarchy [of the riots] went away, it was beautiful around here," he says. Mr Dualeh's home, on Beaconsfield Street, off Kingsley Road, still stands but most of the houses on the street have been earmarked for demolition.

"On a beautiful day like today, I wake up to the sun coming through the windows. But then I smell the rats from the homes across the street."

Mr Dualeh usually votes Labour, but says people are disenchanted with all politicians. "Everyone is the same. When they stand for election, they promise things will change, but, whether they are Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, they never do."

I feel sympathetic to, but frustrated by, the despair. The story of Liverpool, especially areas such as Toxteth, often seems like a stuck record. Over the years, neighbourhoods have been showered by promises of regeneration but routinely left to rot. Parts of Liverpool Riverside have been improved beyond recognition, including the city centre, boosted by funds from the 2008 Capital of Culture, but others have got worse.

Yet perhaps there is hope from the new generation of voters. As I walk along Princes Avenue, I meet 18-year-old Darren Davidson, waiting for a bus. In the year that he has the vote for the first time, Mr Davidson, a computing student, doesn't know if he is registered, but he is desperate to vote. Who for? "That new guy – David Cameron. He talks about fairness, about making everything fit together, about people being ignored. I think there should be a change. And I want to vote because I don't want the BNP to come in because no one else is voting."

Liverpool Riverside isn't likely to become a Conservative seat on 6 May, but this is a significant moment. He wasn't even born when Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990. There is a new generation for whom the Thatcherite/Militant clashes of the 1980s are irrelevant, a relic of the past. Liverpool is gradually emerging from the shadow of those days. A young black teenager standing on the spot that saw the worst of the Toxteth riots can say he is voting Conservative. Sometimes we all need to move on.

And the garden festival site? There is a promise that it will reopen to the public next year as a huge wildlife garden, where I hope to take my child. If there is a parade of flag-waving schoolchildren at the opening ceremony, it won't be a cover to hide bitter political warfare. Sooner than that, on 6 May, I predict that Liverpool Riverside will no longer carry the label of the least represented in Parliament.

One of the Above Campaign: Four steps to the ballot box

1. Make sure you are eligible to vote by contacting the Electoral Commission. You can go online at www.aboutmyvote.co.uk or call 0800 3280280.

2. Get hold of a voting registration form and fill it out. It also lets you request application forms to vote by post, or by proxy.

3. Don't miss the deadline – you cannot register to vote any later than Tuesday 20 April 2010.

4. Vote – you'll be sent a card with details of your polling station and opening times.

Backing The IoS...

Professor Ellis Cashmore

Professor of culture, Staffordshire University

At a time when practically every new film is in 3D, our politicians are increasingly flat and superficial. Ming Campbell's fate serves as a caveat to others: impression management counts. I'll vote in the knowledge that I'm making a futile gesture. But I'd rather do that than make no gesture at all.

Peter Hook

Bassist, New Order

A great woman once said to me, "If you do nowt you get nowt." I went through my teenage years, came of age, didn't vote, ignoring her. I got a job, didn't vote, again ignoring her. Left my job, joined a band, ignoring her again. Funnily enough, it was only when I lost that cocoon, when New Order split up, that I realised what she meant. I realised I had a responsibility to act, to try to change things the only way you can – by actions, not words. There is always the thought that, whoever you vote for, the government gets in. But I am happy with myself for taking the time and the action to try to change the world – my world! I'm very lucky: I learnt in the end what she meant. I have a lot to thank my mother for.

Jane Asher

Actress

I feel very strongly about using my vote – especially being a woman. (I always picture those poor women starving themselves to death or throwing themselves in front of horses if I ever consider not bothering.) I annoy my children by insisting that they vote, too. They are part of a generation that feels it can't really make much difference to anything. What they miss, though, by being born so long after the war, is the awareness of how dangerous it is to take democracy for granted, and of how easily fascism or religious nuttiness can creep in. Just one look at the bravery of the recent voters in Iraq should be enough to remind us of how important it is to be able to choose if that right is ever threatened. How could I not take the trouble to stroll up to my local town hall when they have faced suicide bombers and death threats to make their choice?

Kathy Lette

Author

It's less than 100 years since Emmeline Pankhurst and the feminist co tied themselves to the railings and starved in prisons to ensure that British women would be treated as equals, instead of sequels. It would be a gross betrayal of their sacrifice not to exercise my right to vote which they won for me. Any woman who doesn't vote has kept her Wonderbra and burnt her brains. When it comes to politics, it's healthy to have chronic sceptic-emia, but a quick contemplation of the people in the world risking their lives to live in a democracy should induce an instant apathy-ectomy.

James Caan

Entrepreneur

Even if you are not aligned to any particular party, as a citizen you have a vested interest in who runs the country. If you are young and you aren't thinking of voting, you need to consider that it is in your self-interest to vote because the decisions made by government affect every aspect of your life – from the amount of money in your pocket, to the kind of values that permeate the society you live in, and the opportunities available to you and your children in the future. The next general election is crucial, and it will have a major impact on the direction of our country for many years. Also, as it is such a close contest with the prospect of a hung parliament, every vote can potentially make a huge difference to the outcome, especially in the marginals.

Reverend Paul Nicolson

Chairman, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust

I will vote because it is an exercise of my commitment to my fellow citizens, and because democracy is the best form of government there is, despite its weaknesses, of which there are many in the UK. It was a Conservative, Lord Hailsham, who coined the phrase the elective dictatorship, which I have seen practised: with the closed shop in the 1970s requiring employees to be sacked who did not join a trade union; with the poll tax in the 1990s which took 20 per cent out of poverty-level unemployment benefits; and in the cruelty of stopping the income of lone parents who chose to care for their children instead of going to work. But democracy secures for us the freedom of speech to campaign against its failures – and win, which is something worth voting for, if not dying for.

Alastair Campbell

Former spin-doctor

This election there will be fire. People think it will be a close election so that's likely to drive more people to vote, and the TV debate will attract people who might not otherwise get engaged. But because of the expenses scandal there is now a strong anti-politics feeling. I think this is one of the most important elections, certainly in my lifetime. Choosing who will lead Britain through the recovery is crucial. One of the few policy disagreements I had with Tony Blair was that we should have brought in compulsory voting in local and general elections. At least that may have encouraged people to take an interest in politics. But the vote is important, so the more people interested in politics and the more people voting, the better.

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