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Liverpool love affair

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

6 min read

Labour has a long – though far from unbroken – relationship with Liverpool. But while some conferences made the party 'Come Together’, others did quite the opposite

The Labour leader knew he had to face down his left or face electoral oblivion as he prepared for the party’s conference in Liverpool. The communist faction had tabled motions including the abolition of the monarchy, nationalisation of banking, the seizure of all farms over 150 acres, and a £100m loan to Russia.

Instead, Ramsay MacDonald pushed through a ban on communist members joining local Labour associations.

After the conference, MacDonald said the decision would be worth an extra million voters: Labour gained 136 seats at the next election.

And yet it would be 86 years before the party returned to the city. It’s fair to say Labour’s conference love affair with Liverpool has not been all red roses.

The fledgling party had first met in the city 20 years before the 1925 showdown when 700 delegates of the Labour Representation Committee discussed enfranchisement, a minimum wage and universal free school meals. Motions were approved to show solidarity with Russian trade unionists and striking German miners. Another decision committed the party to the overthrow of capitalism.

By the next time that Labour held a conference in Liverpool – having toured various other cities including London, Belfast, Newport, Leicester, Birmingham, Glasgow, and so on – the party had tasted government, briefly, and suffered a general election setback after the publication four days before the poll of what turned out to be a fake letter that implied Moscow was planning a communist takeover if Labour held on to power.

In 1926 they went to Margate, beginning a tradition of visiting small coastal resorts with plenteous hotels and boarding houses and bracing sea air – places like Scarborough, Morecambe and Llandudno – before settling, in the main, on Brighton and Blackpool. 

When Labour went to Manchester in 2006 for Tony Blair’s last conference as leader it was only the second time since the Second World War that they had not met at the seaside, the other being London in 1974.

Perhaps that gave them the taste for an urban conference. The Tories were also abandoning the seaside – they have been in Manchester or Birmingham since 2008 – but it raised eyebrows when Labour announced it would be going to Liverpool in 2011. The city, a powerhouse of trade unionism and home to such formidable Labour figures as Bessie Braddock, Eric Heffer and Jack Jones, was nonetheless seen as troublesome. 

In his conference speech in 1985, Neil Kinnock denounced the Trotsky-inspired Militant group on Liverpool city council after it set an illegal budget. Derek Hatton, the council’s deputy leader, and Terry Fields, MP for Liverpool Broadgreen, were among those expelled from the party.

Liverpool is often claimed to be ‘the reddest city in Britain’ but that hasn’t always been true

A regeneration miracle was happening on the waterside in Liverpool, however, sparked by the revival of the Royal Albert Dock in the late 1980s. In 2008, when the city was European Capital of Culture, the Liverpool ONE shopping centre opened on Paradise Street, close to the new arena and convention centre on King’s Dock. The Liberal Democrats were the first to take their conference there, followed by the TUC and then Labour under Ed Miliband. The leader suffered the misfortune of a five-minute cut to the TV signal midway through his speech but the conference as a whole was felt to have been a success.

Liverpool is often claimed to be “the reddest city in Britain” but that hasn’t always been true. The Walton constituency was Tory in the 1950s and before the Second World War; Wavertree was Tory up to 1983; Garston was Tory until 1974 and also went blue for Margaret Thatcher’s first term; and West Derby was represented by David Maxwell Fyfe, a Conservative home secretary, for 19 years until he became lord chancellor in 1954. All have Labour majorities of more than 27,000 now, while Liverpool Riverside’s is 37,000. After the Liberal Democrats ran the city council from 1998 to 2010, it is again controlled by Labour with 61 of the 85 seats.

When the conference returned in 2016, the people’s flag, or at least its leader, was deepest red. Jeremy Corbyn, elected as an outsider the previous year, had just survived an attempted coup by moderates and was now optimistically hoping to unite the party. John McDonnell, the second most famous Liverpudlian Macca, had returned to the city of his birth and summoned the Beatles in his conference speech. Come Together was his intended tune, though there was a dash of old favourites like Taxman, Revolution and his own remix – Three Days a Week.

“In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine,” the shadow chancellor said, although “Imagine no possessions” did not seem like a slogan to woo Middle England. 

Meanwhile, the conference seemed to be splitting three ways: many from the Momentum grassroots group never went near the main centre and enjoyed their own “The World Transformed” festival in the Black-E arts centre 15 minutes away, while the moderates, as well as the chief whip, were seen at the Cavern Club during McDonnell’s speech watching Michael Dugher, the former shadow culture secretary, play Beatles songs. Get Back and For You Blue sent a not-so-subtle Blairite message.

Two years later, when Liverpool again hosted Labour, the dichotomy seemed more pronounced. Which was the official conference? The one in the convention centre with speeches from a platform and delegates wearing suits and lanyards, or the third The World Transformed festival, which claimed to have attracted 10,000 activists to experience folk music, quizzes, craft displays and a keynote speech by the French socialist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon?

Again, Macca was the star act on the main stage. McDonnell got an easy standing ovation by invoking the blessed memory of Saint Bill of Anfield. His praise for “my hero” Mr Shankly, the former Liverpool football manager, was the preamble to a more tub-thumping, openly leftwing speech in which he bashed the bankers, promised to “reprogram the Treasury” and cried for a return of clause IV. He left to Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. Except, as we now know, it didn’t. Even Shankly selected a few rightwingers.

Now here we are again in Liverpool for the second year in a row under Keir Starmer’s leadership, the party’s mood, if not the world, transformed by the collapse in the government’s poll numbers. Last year, Angela Rayner told the delegates that they no longer had to choose between “values and competence”, a revival of Blair’s third way with red hair and a Stockport accent. 

This year, a lot more policy flesh needs putting on the bones. Next time Labour holds a conference in Liverpool, it may for the first time be as a party in government.

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Read the most recent article written by Patrick Kidd - Lords reform: Backwards, not forwards

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