Leading Article: Much history in one person

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The Independent Online
BEFORE the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, Liverpool Council consisted of a small group of wealthy self-elected men. No doubt many of them owed their prosperity to those mainstays of the city's economy, slavery and the related trade in sugar, cotton and tobacco: by the end of the 18th century, Liverpool was responsible for more than half of Britain's slave trade and almost half of Europe's.

Nowadays the council has 99 members, elected by universal franchise rather than solely by male ratepayers, as stipulated in the 1835 Act. One of the 99 is Petrona Lashley. As deputy mayor, she stands to become Lord Mayor next year if successfully re-elected in May. Ms Lashley comes from what is, thanks to the slave trade, one of the longest-established black communities in Europe. As it happens, she came to Britain as a young woman from the receiving end in the Caribbean rather than from the port where many slaves jumped ship or came ashore as servants.

Her earlier life was evidently not easy. According to an article in the Liverpool Echo, Ms Lashley was convicted on prostitution charges in the Seventies, and as recently as 1990 for obtaining property by deception, for which she was reportedly fined pounds 500. She has implicitly admitted the prostitution charges by expressing surprise that so much attention should be given to spent convictions, 'the majority of which happened 20 years ago'. But she remains determined to assume the Lord Mayorship.

At least where her activities as a prostitute long ago are concerned, she is right to do so. Prostitution is not in itself an offence, only loitering or soliciting in a public place makes it so: a provision intended to protect the public, but one that smacks of hypocrisy and penalises the lower end of the trade. The charge of deception a year before she was elected is more worrying.

Certainly Ms Lashley knows all about the rougher end of life in Liverpool, and about the continuing prejudice against the black community highlighted in the Gifford report after the 1981 Toxteth riots. The role of Lord Mayor is almost wholly representational. Arguably Ms Lashley embodies a great deal of the city's history and experience.

This saga tells us much about the state of Liverpool and the status of local government after 15 years of centralising Tory prime ministers. In a Green Paper in 1991 Michael Heseltine, the then Environment Secretary, mooted the notion of directly elected mayors and paid councillors. Nothing happened. The idea of full-time, directly elected mayors was taken up by Labour local government spokesman, Jack Straw, early last year. It raises difficulties, but deserves serious consideration. In all cases such as Ms Lashley's, this reform would put the issue of suitability where it belongs: in the hands of the electorate.