Liverpool: The city so often at war with Westminster
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When Boris Johnson announced Tier Three restrictions for the Liverpool City Region earlier this week it appeared that one of the longest running battles in British politics had been brutally re-opened: The Tory party versus Merseyside.
The Region’s mayor Steve Rotheram rejected the suggestion that he had agreed with government plans to lockdown saying the decision had been imposed upon the area. In principle, council chiefs knew the local spikes in Covid meant Merseyside was going to face some form of restrictions or lockdown.
But they had called for the extension in furlough and financial support for those in the hospitality sectors whose jobs would be at risk. Liverpool City Council mayor Joe Anderson starkly suggested that restrictions could fatally imperil a 20-year economic resurrection of the region. The council had called for the restrictions two weeks ago, but wanted the government to maintain the principles of March’s economic support packages.
Since the 1980s Liverpool has been increasingly a fertile space for rampant anti-Conservative sentiment. The collective hatred for Margaret Thatcher, partly driven by her government’s role in the 30-year legal battle surrounding the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989, has ceased to dissipate among a significant proportion of people on Merseyside.
Rightly or wrongly, the Tories have long been seen by many in the region as active and enthusiastic architects of the destruction of Liverpool economically. Council sources now fear that pubs will be closed until Christmas despite a promised monthly review, and that the extension of the furlough scheme but capped at 67% of earnings will not be enough for many of those on little more than minimum wage. It means the new lockdown will be seen by some as a vindictive act designed to hurt a city that has not been slow to show two fingers to the Conservative Party. Many Scousers still associate the Tories with Geoffrey Howe’s so-called ‘managed decline’ policy of Liverpool in the 1980s, which was mooted in the wake of the Toxteth Riots in 1981. It was seen as indicative of a government that had no time for a bolshy and politically anarchic city that offered little electoral assistance.
Liverpool prior to the riots had experienced an incredibly rapid economic fall from grace. It had gone from major port city of the British empire to provincial also-ran in less than 30 years. When the Trotskyite Militant faction of the Labour Party democratically won control of Liverpool Council in 1983 and immediately took on Thatcher and the Tories by building more council housing and freezing rents, the battle lines were set. Many on Merseyside still see these factors as fundamental in the city’s relationship with Westminster and the Conservatives.
But away from the chaos of the 1980s, Liverpool began a rebirth that influences the current debate around Covid restrictions. In the mid-1990s, first under a Labour-controlled council, then a Liberal Democrat-led administration and then Labour again, the city was reborn as a tourism and short break centre. Driven by Beatles and football-related tourism, the boom has been aided by a raft of new hotels, tourist attractions as well as older museums and historic city buildings that are the products of the mercantile imperial past.
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Tourism figures are impressive. Beatles-related tourism accounts for £200m every year, and people attending football matches at Liverpool and Everton contribute more than £150m to the local economy alone. Liverpool’s renaissance came largely through the European Union. A walk around the city centre or the adjacent towns of Birkenhead or Bootle, sees you pass innumerable plaques marking the contribution of European aid, largely from the Objective 1 funding pool, which is for reducing regional imbalances and assisting disadvantaged areas. A local source notes that Liverpool was thrown two life jackets: Objective 1 money and the European Capital of Culture status in 2008. Neither came from Whitehall or Westminster. The region successfully projected an image of a competitive global city, comfortable in competing for investment and divested of the hated ‘Self Pity City’ tag the Sunday Times created in 1993.
Liverpool is ranked in the top five of British cities for tourism and in the top six for shopping. But this brings a high dependence on minimum wage service sector jobs, threatened by Covid restrictions and the diminished financial support of the government.
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City authorities say more than 20,000 jobs could be lost. The hospitality industry is the bedrock of a transformed economy. Liverpool City Council relies on that sector for 48% of its business rates and hospitality employs 48,000 people and generates £3bn for the local economy. Since Covid restrictions were introduced in March there has been a 3,800% increase in redundancies in the hospitality sector.
In the Liverpudlian folk memory, the city resurrected itself by exploiting its own unique culture and did so by embracing a self-dependence that eschewed any of the economic support from Westminster that it was once characterised as depending upon.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg, a reader in politics at the University of Liverpool, says: “There is a strong anti-Conservative mindset, partly to do with Thatcherism and the policies towards Liverpool associated with the ‘managed decline’ that have emerged in cabinet papers from that time.
“But Hillsborough and the government’s handling of it in trying to blame the fans touched people across the city region and ingrained anti-Tory feeling. That became part of the political mindset.
“When you bring Boris Johnson into the mix with his gaffes, not least the Ken Bigley episode, you can see how the anti-Liverpool narrative took root.” Bigley was a Liverpudlian engineer killed as a hostage in Iraq in 2004. When TV captured people in the city centre weeping when his death was announced, Johnson, then editor of the Spectator, responded by publishing a column in the magazine decrying Liverpudlians of wallowing in “the mawkish sentimentality of a society that has become hooked on grief”.
It is hard to underestimate the extent to which Margaret Thatcher also plays into the folk memory of many of those from the Liverpool City Region, including those born long after she left office. Young fans of Liverpool FC regularly sing “Maggie’s in the Mud” a chant that celebrates the former prime minister’s death.
However, for many on Merseyside, the immediate Tory legacy in the Liverpool City Region remains poverty and economic calamity. The age of austerity has done little to change this view. Many of the most economically challenged neighbourhoods of the city region are suffering from both the extreme effects of austerity policies while also being among the worst hit by high rates of Covid infection.
Liverpool City Council has had to find £466m in savings since 2010 – £60m in 2020. In areas of high deprivation, libraries, child-care centres, and leisure centres have either been shuttered, absorbed into the charitable or social enterprise sector or sold-off for redevelopment.
This has all come at a time of an explosion of food bank reliance in communities where many people are employed on minimum wage in the hospitality and service sector economies.
Solicitor Donna Scully is the co-owner of the legal and insurance company Carpenters that employs nearly 1,000 people in Liverpool and Birkenhead. In recent years, she has been one of the public faces of the Fans Supporting Foodbanks campaign which has seen football fans collecting food for foodbanks and homeless shelters across Britain.
“When David Cameron said he thought austerity had prepared people for the pandemic I was outraged,” she says. “I could not think of anything more offensive.
“With the furlough scheme coming to an end, redundancies are going to affect people who are already using foodbanks. Many of these people work in hospital and services – they are the working poor. Unemployment is a timebomb waiting to go off in these areas and Covid has exaggerated the effects of austerity in Liverpool.”
Fairly or unfairly, it is little wonder that many in the city feel particularly victimised by this administration.