Liverpool: A city up for a fight

“We are proud of Liverpool, and we will fight for it,” declared Cllr. Peter Mitchell when we met in the grand surrounds of the Liverpool Council Chamber ahead of the quarterly council meeting.

In the meeting that followed, the Labour-dominated council took the fight to the Government, led by seasoned political bruiser Joe Anderson, the directly-elected Mayor of Liverpool. In a powerful attack, Anderson drew a link between the recent spate of shootings in Merseyside – 50 in 2017 to date, with five murders in the last 18 months – and cuts to the Merseyside Police budget. “We need to say it loud and clear, and we need to say it to this Government, that you cannot cut the police any further”, urging those in the chamber “to come together, to mobilise, to organise a demonstration in support of our police.” Anderson is resolute in fighting for Liverpool’s voice to be heard in Westminster, and you get the sense he is not going to back down.

Another motion was passed that evening which explicitly called for the Government to “end austerity and return the £420 million that has been cut from this Authority so that public services can be restored to the levels they were at pre-2010.” With 80 out of 90 seats under its control, Labour has a firm hold of Liverpool City Council. Anderson intends to make full use of it when standing up for Liverpool in the face of Government cuts.

The readiness of Liverpool councillors to defend their city with such defiance mirrors past struggles which have shaped Liverpool’s identity. These events provide the context which frames the strength of feeling that I witnessed during that meeting.

First, the lengthy fight for justice for the families of those that lost their lives in the Hillsborough tragedy.

At 11am on 26 April 2016, 27 years after the disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives at the FA cup semi-final, the second coroner’s hearing finally delivered a verdict of unlawful killing, quashing the original inquest’s verdict of accidental death. The verdict also stated that the behaviour of Liverpool fans did not contribute to the disaster.

The fight for justice was principally for the families of ‘The 96’, but it also unified a city in a fight against ‘The Establishment’. Chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, Margaret Aspinall, who lost her 18-year-old son in the tragedy, summed up the view of the city when she said; “Let’s be honest about this – people were against us. We had the media against us, as well as the establishment. Everything was against us. The only people that weren’t against us was our own city. That’s why I am so grateful to my city and so proud of my city. They always believed in us.”

When we discussed Hillsborough, Lord Mayor Malcolm Kennedy explained, “I think you have to be a Liverpudlian to get it; to really get it, you had to be there.” This is certainly true, but spend time in Liverpool and you can still see and feel the legacy of the tragic events that took place in 1989. As a survivor of the Leppings Lane stand at Hillsborough, the sadness that can be heard in Peter Mitchell’s voice, and seen in his eyes, when he recounts the disaster is truly harrowing. Liverpudlians knew that the authorities were telling lies; they knew there was a cover-up by South Yorkshire Police; they knew that The Sun newspaper was tarnishing Liverpool’s reputation using headlines based on lies.

Four days after the tragedy, The Sun newspaper ran “The Truth” front page story which made untruthful allegations that Liverpool fans had “picked pockets of victims”, “urinated on brave cops” and “beat up PCs giving the kiss of life”, citing comments made by unnamed South Yorkshire Police officers and Irvine Patnick, then Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam. This resulted in a boycott of The Sun by large numbers of Merseysiders, costing the newspaper millions of pounds in lost revenue.

New campaigns such as ‘The Total Eclipse of The S*n’ and ‘Shun The S*n’ have sprung up in response to the latest inquest with the aim of eradicating the newspaper from the city altogether. Swathes of posters and stickers can be seen in shop windows, a fleet of around 70 taxis (and growing) are adorned with the campaigns’ logos, ten local councils have passed motions in solidarity with the campaigns, and Liverpool FC has banned the paper’s journalists from all club premises.

Malcolm Kennedy told me, “If they [Liverpudlians] feel justified in having been treated badly, nobody is more powerful in defending itself.” That the city has the energy and character to continue to fight for justice epitomises its determination. As one poster proclaims, “You picked on the wrong city.”

The second feature which explains the Council’s readiness for confrontation is a deeply-held hostility towards the Conservative Party, which stems from Liverpool’s fractious relationship with the Thatcher government in the 1980s.

There is a distinct anti-Conservative sentiment detectable in the city. This is reflected in June’s general election result, which returned exclusively Labour MPs. The Liberal Democrats have controlled the local council in the past, so the city is not blindly pro-Labour, but has long been anti-Conservative. No Conservative councillor has been elected since 1998, and the party returned less than 4% of the vote in the 2016 local election. Indeed, I saw a bright red t-shirt on display which proclaimed; “Still Hate Thatcher”.

A less obvious impact of The Sun boycott has been the elimination of a key beacon of the UK’s right-wing media narrative from the city. The Liverpool Echo and Daily Mirror, both left-wing rags by inclination, enjoy the highest circulation. It is interesting to consider to what extent the paper’s absence has influenced voting patterns. One councillor suggested that this has contributed to the formation of a more left-leaning electorate.

Part of the animosity stems from what most Liverpudlians deem a callous industrial strategy during the Thatcher years. Liverpool, once home to the largest and most advanced port in the world, which created a vast wealth, had fallen out of favour. It is estimated that 50% of manufacturing jobs disappeared from the city between 1972 and 1982, and large parts of the city had fallen into disrepair.

Although Liverpool was a victim of structural changes in the British economy, Thatcher’s policies were seen to be making a bad situation worse. Confidential conversations which took place following the devastating Toxteth riots in 1981 – and released thirty years later – laid bare then Conservative Chancellor Geoffrey Howe’s attempts to dissuade Thatcher from pursuing Michael Heseltine’s inner-city investment policy; “Isn’t this pumping water uphill? Should we go rather for ‘managed decline’? This is not a term for use, even privately. It is much too negative, when it must imply a sustained effort to absorb Liverpool manpower elsewhere – for example in nearby towns of which some are developing quite promisingly.” Ultimately, Heseltine’s £100 million economic regeneration proposal was downsized in favour of a £15 million scheme.

The term “managed decline” stuck, and continues to be forwarded by Liverpudlians I spoke to as a reason for their continued distrust of the Conservatives. There is a sense that the central government-imposed cuts to Liverpool City Council’s budget are an extension of the Conservatives’ neglect during the Thatcher years.

However, to characterise Liverpool as a city always on the defensive would be misleading. Today, Liverpool exudes an air of confidence that is being used to reshape the city.

The 2008 City of Culture award was symbolic of a cultural and economic renaissance. Liverpool had ridden an economic wave under New Labour and had the confidence to celebrate itself, simultaneously challenging outsiders’ negative stereotypes of the city. Locals speak fondly of 2008 as a turning-point during which the city stepped back onto the international stage.

Tourist numbers have surged over the last decade – Liverpool City Region welcomed 62 million visitors in 2016 – with the value of the visitor economy growing on average 8% per annum. Coachloads of day-trippers are drawn to Liverpool One, the 42-acre city centre shopping development, which was at one time the largest retail-led private development in Europe. Not so long ago, people went to Manchester for their retail therapy.

Bold regeneration projects have become the norm. The controversial Mann Island development, which sits in front of Liverpool’s iconic Three Graces on the waterfront of the River Mersey, is home to Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, and RIBA North and Open Eye galleries. Architecturally audacious, and not without its detractors, Mann Island’s black modernism is starkly juxtaposed to the white classicism of the Liver Building.

There is a hunger for regeneration and growth, and the city is enjoying its reinvention. A confidence, bordering on indignation, characterises its ongoing confrontation with UNESCO, which has threatened to withdraw the World Heritage status afforded in 2004 to Liverpool’s historic centre and docklands. UNESCO claim that the plan for the £5.5 billion Liverpool Waters regeneration scheme on 60 acres of redundant docklands to the north of the Three Graces fails to safeguard the area’s Outstanding Universal Value. In its current form, the development will be home to a new ferry terminal, a “house of music, arts and culture”, new Everton FC stadium, and athletes’ village for the city’s bid to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

One councillor told me that this amounts to “a threat from the chattering classes who don’t have to deal with the day-to-day dereliction [of the docklands]…we will not be threatened or take lectures.” Concessions have been made to the design of Liverpool Waters, but it seems clear from my discussions that Liverpool is intent on pressing ahead, with or without UNESCO designation.

Scousers are unfailingly proud of their city. As one adopted Scouser explained to me, “They think this is the best city in the world. No. They know this is the best city in the world.” There is no doubt that the people of Liverpool will continue to fight to show us why.

Many challenges lie ahead for Liverpool. How to plug the withdrawal of EU funding, deal with local government budget cuts, stem increasing levels of gang crime, and ensure investment into the city centre finds its way to the many deprived neighbourhoods, besides others.

Whatever the future holds, we can be sure of one thing: Liverpool is a city up for the fight.

Photos: Liverpool