Crash landing for Labour candidate parachuted into Liverpool

When you're campaigning in Merseyside, it pays to know who Bill Shankly is. Jonathan Brown goes in search of Luciana Berger

When London-born Luciana Berger was chosen as the Labour candidate to fight the seat of Liverpool Wavertree three months ago she was tipped as a rising star with a future ministerial career ahead of her. Unfortunately it was not long before things started to go horribly wrong.

There had already been rumblings of discontent within the local party at the imposition of an all-female shortlist for this eminently retainable heartland seat. Then the Labour leadership in London was accused of "parachuting" in the 28-year-old former student leader and one-time friend of Tony Blair's son Euan. The retiring Liverpool MP Peter Kilfoyle questioned her political experience, dubbing her a "student politician".

Asked by the local newspaper to answer four questions on her adopted city, Ms Berger stumbled, admitting she had never heard of the legendary Liverpool football manager Bill Shankly, nor did she know who sang "Ferry Across the Mersey" (Gerry & the Pacemakers), The actor and Liverpool celebrity Ricky Tomlinson threatened to stand against her after it emerged that during the candidate selection she had stayed at the house of the outgoing Blairite incumbent MP, Jane Kennedy. So far, so bad.

The gravest threat to Ms Berger's aspirations came with last week's dramatic wave of support towards the Liberal Democrats. Even before the leaders' television debate, Wavertree was down as the Lib Dems' number one target in the North-west. Labour's majority in Wavertree has shrunk steadily since 1997, fuelled by a boundary change which puts the Party's notional advantage over the Liberal Democrats at 3,000 votes. No surprise that Nick Clegg's very first stop on the electoral trail was to a Penny Lane community centre.

Ms Berger's relations with the media have also soured, and she has shied from the spotlight. She has been the target of intense journalistic curiosity, sparked by interest surrounding her connections to the Blairs and her widely reported gaffes. She was pictured getting out of a car with a personalised number plate – something unlikely to go down well with her would-be constituents in one of the country's most deprived areas – and is said to have been chased around a supermarket "Benny Hill-style" by a Sunday newspaper photographer after fleeing her constituency office.

But even journalists wanting a serious conversation about politics with Ms Berger are confronted by a gauntlet of Labour Party-imposed obstacles.

All attempts to contact her this week were rebuffed with the explanation that she was too busy meeting constituents. Inquiries about her campaigning movements were ignored. And when she was tracked down to a well-attended hustings meeting at a church, once again she declined the opportunity to converse with a reporter face-to-face.

After fielding written questions from voters alongside the other five candidates she was dramatically ushered out of the building through a side door by a phalanx of aides, one of whom had helped her into her coat, and into a waiting car. They drove off into the night.

The manner of her exit prompted amused smiles from the other would-be MPs, who were still mopping up questions from potential voters. A Labour spokesman claimed Ms Berger had been "upset" after being approached as she prepared before the event. He eventually agreed for questions to be put to her on email. But of the 17 questions sent to her via the Labour North-west regional press office, asking among other things about her close connections to Ms Kennedy and the controversy over her selection – as well as a few easy lobs asking for a joke and for her political hero, only three were answered.

Senior figures within the local party, speaking on condition of anonymity, have described the running of the campaign as "shambolic". There have been reports of up to 30 workers turning up to canvass but being left to sit around with nothing to do. Others are said to have objected to the quality of the material they have been asked to deliver. Local councillors asked to argue her case fear they are in danger of being sacrificed to save her.

One traditional Labour voice described the campaign as an example of the "worst excesses of New Labour". Opponents say that concerns over the quality of the candidate are now being realised. "They are afraid that if she is allowed a bit of freedom she will not only make a faux pas but run the risk of boring everyone to death," the source said.

The man most likely to benefit from Ms Berger's discomfort is the Liberal Democrat candidate, Colin Eldridge, a city councillor since 2004 who fought the seat at the last election. The growing rancour between the parties has given the battle the air of a crucial by-election. And Mr Eldridge has found himself in controversy when his girlfriend got a job at the council, although he was cleared of any wrongdoing.

He remains philosophical about the trials of electioneering. "If you stand for office you should go through the rigours of answering questions from the media and the public," he said. "Labour are doing their best to smear me but when you have been around for a long time and helped a lot of people they can see that you are a genuine person."

During the hustings Ms Berger staked her case on Labour's record in the country and in the constituency. She said that all the schools in Wavertree had either been rebuilt or refurbished, that spending on education had doubled and class sizes had come down.

She fiercely denied negative campaigning. "I was born with a very strong sense of duty and to help people less fortunate than myself," she eventually wrote in her emailed response (via a press officer) to the questions. "I want to help the many rather than the few."

She spoke of her determination to bring new jobs to Wavertree and criticised the Lib Dem record on housing in the city: "I want to fight Wavertree's corner in Parliament – be an effective voice, make a difference and be proud of Labour's achievements in Liverpool."

While the hustings audience were clearly impressed by their close encounter with democracy, not everyone's mind had been changed. Sheila Sharples, 71, said she had arrived a Conservative and would go home one. "I thought about voting Lib Dem but I was a Tory when I was 12," she said. Dan Prior, 37, a potential Lib Dem voter, said it was better to have a good outside candidate than a poor local one: "Luciana has shown she has understood the area in the short time she has been here. She understands the policies and has shown her commitment."

But local businessman Mike Lane, 57, was unconvinced: "She hasn't got a clue about any of the policies – and she didn't know who Bill Shankly was. Whatever happened to the working class people? They are parachuting these middle class people in."

Out in the leafy end of the Wavertree constituency on Allerton Road, there was little in the way of comfort for Labour. Retired journalist John Hubble, 77, said he had been involved in socialist politics all his life but was considering drastic action to register his disgust. "I will probably spoil my paper I feel so strongly. My wife feels the same. I don't take that decision frivolously. I know people who have died for democracy and I would as well."

Meanwhile Peter Kilfoyle, who is standing down from the neighbouring seat of Walton, said the local people were fighting back: "The main parties have lost their way. They see everything from a Parliamentary and Westminister perspective. It is all about getting people who will support their views in Westminister. On the ground there is a different perspective. People on the ground want their views represented. It is time for some kind of change."

Wavertree 2005 result

Labour Jane Kennedy 18,441, 52.4 per cent

Lib Dems Colin Eldridge 13,268, 37.7 per cent

Conservative Jason Steen 2,331, 6.6 per cent

UKIP Mark Bill 660, 1.9 per cent

Socialist Labour Gary Theys 244, 0.7 per cent

Democratic Socialist Alliance Paul Filby 227, 0.6 per cent

Labour majority 5,173 (adjusted after boundary changes to a notional majority of 3,038) Turnout: 35,171 (50.8 per cent)

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