‘What happened here was disgusting’: Liverpool’s Labour mayoral candidate talks scandal, socialism and Sir Keir’s Brylcreem

Joanne Anderson speaks to Colin Drury in Liverpool as she aims to become first woman of colour to lead a major British city

Monday 03 May 2021 08:56
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Joanne Anderson in Liverpool’s Bold Street
Joanne Anderson in Liverpool’s Bold Street
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couple of days before I meet Joanne Anderson – the Labour candidate aiming to be the new mayor of Liverpool – I’m told she is a ball to spend time with.

“Really?” she guffaws when I mention this today. “I mean, I don’t take myself too seriously but I’m not a comedian or anything.”

A moment’s consideration. “Although everyone in Liverpool thinks they’re funny, don’t they? I might have a bit of that in me.”

Anderson – today dressed in a leather jacket and skinny jeans – is not your average politician. She’s a 6ft tall, working-class black woman for starters. She is both a self-professed Corbynista (“What was wrong with communist broadband?” she asks) and about as straight-talking as you could wish for.

When I ask at one point if she agrees with her friend and fellow city councillor Sarah Morton who caused a small storm last summer by calling Keir Starmer a “brylcreemed shitehawk”, she responds by telling me off for such a tabloid question. “I don’t know if he uses Brylcreem,” she adds.

We are talking over coffee and street food in the city’s teeming Bold Street. Under normal circumstances, perhaps, the Labour candidate to be mayor of Liverpool might not generate too much interest outside the city itself.

But there are two major differences this time round.

The first is Anderson herself. If the 50-year-old mother-of-one wins Thursday’s election, she will become the first woman of colour to ever lead a major British city. She would, just by her very existence, her supporters say, kick open a door that has remained shut for far too long. How does that feel?

“I think there’s that thing, you cannot be what you cannot see,” she says. “So I do think this will impact on girls thinking about what they can and cannot achieve… And just by being in the room, as a black woman, it will make a difference to the tone and culture here.”

An equality and diversity consultant by profession, she has only been a councillor for a couple of years and, in her personal life, has twice been declared bankrupt. But she had no qualms about running for what is one of England’s biggest political jobs outside Westminster. “Without me standing,” she says, “it would have just been more blokes arguing.”

She shakes her head and shoots a look: bloody politics, eh?

The second point of note is the background context. That is to say, the fact that Liverpool City Council is currently mired in a scandal so rotten government commissioners have been sent in to oversee large chunks of it.

The previous mayor Joe Anderson (no relation) is currently under police investigation on suspicion of bribery (strongly denied), while, in March, an eviscerating inspection – the Caller report – detailed an astonishing culture of dodgy contracts, sketchy scrutiny, dysfunctional management and institutional intimidation. Some estimates suggest more than £100m of taxpayers’ money may have been wasted.

Joanne Anderson

With all that in mind, why should anyone vote Labour here ever again?

“Absolutely,” nods Anderson, whose father is half Liberian. “What’s happened here was disgusting... It disgusts me when so-called socialists act out of greed. But, as a Labour Party member, I can sit there and moan and bitch, or I can try and do something about it.”

Will she apologise? “Yeah, I will,” she answers. “I’ve been a councillor two years so am I personally responsible? No. But I will absolutely apologise on behalf of the party. I expect that behaviour off Tories. Not off our own.”

She will not comment on Joe Anderson himself but does tell a story of being asked to set up a race taskforce. “It would have been accountable only to him,” she says. “I’ve done this work long enough to know you don’t change the culture of an organisation by being accountable to one person.”

She declined the opportunity. “And I knew I wouldn’t get anything ever again,” she adds. “You couldn’t say no to Joe.”

In spite of the scandal, she will still probably become mayor.

Polling has suggested some shift from Labour on the back of the controversy. But the numbers would have to be monumental for Anderson to lose. This is a city as a one-party state. Some 72 of the 90 councillors here – and all five of the MPs – are Labour.

“It might be a contest rather than the usual coronation,” one expert, Jon Tonge, professor in politics at Liverpool University, tells me later. “But it will almost certainly be a contest Labour still wins.”

If (when) she does, Anderson says her immediate aim will be to create a “world-leading” system of governance to ensure nothing like the Caller report ever happens again. She is promising annual citizen’s audits, boosted scrutiny and an excess of transparency. She is blunt in saying she believes certain senior councillors here enabled the past’s toxic culture. “They will not be in my team,” she says decisively. “There will be a shake-up.”

What else? She wants fewer cars on Liverpool’s roads, plans to launch a care charter and will aim to create a real living wage. Every policy will undergo a so-called triple-lock check: is it good for inclusion, the environment and social values?

Oh, and she also wants to get rid of the position of elected mayor. She believes the system – the brain-child of ex-Tory chancellor George Osborne – is too open to abuse. She wants a return to the old council-leader format and has promised a referendum on the issue by 2023.

“I’m fully committed to sacking myself,” she says.

Liverpool

Anderson’s own political identity can probably be traced back to her single mother. A formative childhood experience was seeing her mum throw herself on the bed when Margaret Thatcher won the 1983 election. “She goes: ‘We’re emigrating to Australia’, dead dramatic like – but then we actually did, we moved out there,” she recalls.

They spent just two months down under before coming back. “Australia back then for a white woman with a black child…” Anderson drifts off, leaves the sentence uncompleted. “We never regretted it,” she says after a moment.

Growing up in Liverpool’s disadvantaged Netherley area in the 1970s and 1980s wasn’t easy, either, it’s worth saying, but there is nowhere Anderson would rather be from. “With some women, class comes first; with some women, gender; with some women, race,” she says. “But for me, number one in my identity is Scouse. I’m Scouse first and foremost.”

She became an equality and diversity consultant in her twenties and has spent almost 30 years working with everyone from the Crown Prosecution Service to Merseyside Fire and Rescue, while also raising her son (17 and 6ft 8in tall).

When it emerged last month that she had twice been bankrupt, her opponents – which include Lib Dem Richard Kemp and Tory Katie Burgess – suggested it showed she could not be trusted with the budgetary responsibilities of leading a city of half a million people.

“It’s just a backward accusation to compare someone who becomes bankrupt because they lost work to someone who is not [financially responsible],” she says. “People who say that are quite judgey because they’ve never been in my position, have they? Being a single parent and working... you make choices. Does my kid go without or do I manage with some credit? That’s completely different to budgeting for a city council.”

She says that she herself does not want to engage in political mud-slinging, although she’s more than capable of deploying a withering put-down. When the conversation turns to Stephen Yip, an independent candidate who has promised to take less than a third of the post’s £83,500 wage, she rolls her eyes. “We could all do that if we had a million-pound house, couldn’t we?”

Anderson, for what it’s worth, lives in social housing in the Princess Park council ward she represents.

“Becoming mayor hasn’t been my burning ambition in life,” she says as the conversation draws to a close. “I was really happy with my life before. But... I felt I could stand up and do something for the city I love.”

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