Steve Rotheram: the most powerful Corbynista in the country?
The Labour party arrives on Merseyside after another difficult summer. The anti-Semitism scandal and rows over possible deselections have overshadowed the leadership’s efforts to project an image of a government-in-waiting. But as the party gears up for a crucial conference, Liverpool metro mayor Steve Rotheram believes Jeremy Corbyn could be on the cusp of reaching Number Ten – if only Labour can “stick together”. He talks to James Millar about party unity and why his administration could provide a model for a transformative government
Scouse Night is the hot ticket at this year’s Labour conference. Not just for the food and booze and inevitable football chat, but because something called Bongo’s Bingo is on the bill.
And Bongo’s Bingo may offer the best guide to the fortunes of the Labour party. “It’s this phenomenon that’s grown beyond all expectations,” Mayor of the Liverpool city region Steve Rotheram explains of the souped-up version of the numbers game more traditionally associated with old ladies. “It’s gone absolutely huge and spread to other areas. I’m sure it will get to London eventually,” he adds.
So it started in Liverpool and spread on a wave of unexpected support that could carry it all the way to the capital? Bongo’s Bingo may be a model for Corbynism in power. For Rotheram, directly elected to his role in spring 2017, is the most powerful Corbynista in the country.
The former MP for Liverpool Walton served as the Labour leader’s parliamentary private secretary following his victory in 2015, and while he supported his friend Andy Burnham in that first contest, he threw his weight behind Corbyn’s re-election campaign in 2016 while more than 170 of his colleagues backed a motion of no confidence.
That contest culminated in a tense party conference in Rotheram’s home city, after Corbyn’s comfortable re-election led to a round of soul-searching among the party’s centrists. But as he prepares to welcome the Labour leader and his legion of followers and fans back to Liverpool this year, Rotheram has no truck with predictions of a bloodbath on the conference floor following the party’s latest summer of infighting.
“It’ll be a jamboree,” he smiles. “If we get half the weather we got two years ago then everybody will be in the bars and on the terraces talking to each other, and I think that if we coalesce around the main messages that we need – which for me is that if we stick together there is a very real prospect that we could be the government whenever the general election is called – then there’ll be a general understanding of where people need to concentrate their efforts. It’s about knocking on doors so as many people as possible know that Labour is the party that best supports them.”
The last time Labour were in the city Rotheram was a local MP, but in the two years since he’s seen off Liverpool city mayor Joe Anderson and centrist Labour MP Luciana Berger in a bitter contest to scoop the party nomination for the metro mayor post and, inevitably, won the ensuing election.
Corbyn’s fortunes have similarly improved, and he returns to Liverpool with his position as leader unassailable. But as the left’s dominance in the party has grown, rumours of a possible split in the party have developed into a constant stream of speculation.
Those theories hit the headlines again when centrist-in-chief Chuka Umunna warned that moderates such as himself were being driven out of Labour by the hard-left. His request that the leadership “call off the dogs” sparked a backlash from party activists and the leadership team, with shadow chancellor John McDonnell branding the comments “grossly offensive”.
Rotheram has advice for Umunna: “You can always look at what you say in terms of the language. If people are upset about the language he’s used he perhaps needs to apologise. But I don’t personally take any offence.”
Accusations of anti-Semitism that have dogged Corbyn all summer have also been cited as potential grounds for a split. Rotheram draws on his experience as the Labour leader’s PPS rebuff that one. “I never saw Jeremy ever say anything that I could even remotely describe as racist in any of its forms. Not only that, but when he was under intolerable pressure he never reacted personally to the abuse that he was getting. I think that’s the measure of the man.”
Of course, others in the party feel differently. Frank Field, MP for the Merseyside seat of Birkenhead, quit Labour last month citing the anti-Semitism row and a culture of bullying by local party activists. Field’s CLP had recently passed a motion of no confidence in the MP after he voted with the government on a series of crunch Brexit votes. Perhaps surprisingly given his Corbynista credentials Rotheram isn’t keen on mandatory reselection votes, something Momentum activists are pushing to be debated at conference. Even more unexpectedly he talks approvingly of Tory plans in this area. “Zac Goldsmith was calling for recall and I was really interested in what he was talking about, but I’m not sure mandatory reselection is the way forward for me. I think there needs to be a more democratic way in which we as politicians are held to account.”
Despite claiming to work closely with the local MPs in his role as mayor, Rotheram admits he’s not spoken to Field since his walkout. “I didn’t speak to him an awful lot before he stepped down if I’m honest,” he says. “I would’ve thought that Frank may well be entering the latter stages of his parliamentary and political career anyway, so Frank needs to make a decision for himself and that’s what he’s done.” If Field had a change of heart would Rotheram welcome him back into the fold? “Pass.”
He’s more talkative on the topic of the mayoralty. Rotheram, a former bricklayer, is building something in the Liverpool city region. Given his Corbynite credentials it could almost be seen as a model for what a Labour administration might look to achieve nationwide. It’s a mantle he’s keen to take on. “We have got the opportunity to do some of them things that prove that Labour in government wouldn’t be a danger to business, and actually could make a real difference to people’s lives.”
He concedes that much of his first year in office has been taken up with putting in place the structures to make the mayoralty function, and then succeed. But he’s keen to talk up policy initiatives such as cutting public transport costs for apprentices, drawing up a Fair Employment Charter to encourage good practice among employers, committing the city region to be autism and dementia friendly and creating a digital “super spine” that will provide ultra-fast broadband for schools and businesses.
But there are still frustrations. Despite having some powers to increase skills among the school leaving population he’s keen to intervene earlier in education to beef up what he calls the “supply line” of skills. Yet the Department for Education won’t play ball. Similarly, he says apprenticeship take-up as halved since the apprenticeship levy was introduced. But again, when he tries to talk to government about a solution there’s no dice. “We’ve offered them the solution, we’ve offered to work with them and develop a flexible programme, which is true to the spirit of what the money is raised for, it’s absolutely ring fenced for apprenticeship skills, but it addresses the skills shortages in our area – which can only be beneficial to UK PLC – and yet two secretaries of state now have not taken us up on our very generous offer.”
Housing is another area he wants to work on. “We want to work with Homes England and we want to develop schemes that are deliverable. This is the period now where everything we do is about delivery. It’s not fanciful asks – ‘give us a gazillion pounds and we’ll do something’. We want to have very tight, tangible and specific asks of government that they can measure us on.”
And then there’s the issue of the railways, which have been crippled across the north by the inept introduction of a new timetable. Rotheram repeats his call for Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to take responsibility for the chaos and resign. “I think Chris needs to examine whether he’s best placed to act upon the transport needs of the whole country. I think if he asked himself that question he’d come to the same conclusion that many in the country already have come to, that he’d be better looking for something that he’s got significant competence at. I don’t know what that might be, he might be good at darts.”
The trouble is that Rotheram, and his neighbour as Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham, can call for action on the trains all they like. They don’t have the power to do much about it and the Tories in government may not be inclined to listen. Conversely it sometimes seems like West Midlands mayor Andy Street only has to ask to get his every wish granted. For example, Liverpool made a bid for the Commonwealth Games, but they were awarded to Birmingham, an area with a Conservative mayor. Only last month Liverpool politicians were up in arms at the news that Birmingham’s Midland Metropolitan Hospital is to get £300 million to complete work that stalled when Carillion collapsed. Liverpool’s Royal hospital is in the same boat but calls for it to get a similar bail out have not been heeded in Whitehall.
Doesn’t Rotheram wish he was a Conservative? “Not for one day in my life. I’m a glass half full sort of person so I look at it from the other end of the telescope. If Andy Street is getting something that can only be a benefit to the other mayors from whatever political persuasion they’re from.”
On the face of it Burnham and Rotheram are of the same political persuasion, but they come from very different branches of the Labour party. Rotheram a bricklayer, councillor and, according to his own telling, an MP by “fluke”. Burnham a special advisor who worked his way up to be Secretary of State for Health. When the Today programme is looking for a spokesperson for the north it tends to be Burnham, and not Rotheram, they call upon. Rotheram insists the pair get on, albeit there’s rivalry there.
And while he admits he’d like the full suite of powers that Burnham has, for example on health funding and policy, he emphasises that Liverpool is the only city to have powers over culture written into their city deal. “We’ve got a bit of catching up to do, but I think it’s them looking over their shoulder at what we’re doing not us looking enviously at our neighbours down the M62.”
And of course Rotherham is delighted that Labour conference has quit Manchester for Liverpool as its northwest base in recent years. “You can imagine how that went down in Greater Manchester!” he laughs.
The pressure is now on to deliver a conference better than anything Manchester could provide. But your verdict on that as events wrap up in a few days’ time with the traditional rendition of the Red Flag may depend on whether you come from the Burnham or the Rotheram wing of the party.