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Liverpool is preparing to host the Labour conference in the wake of bitter infighting between party factions. Will the ‘reddest city in the UK’ find a way to unite behind Corbyn?
The incident, according to the report by Merseyside police, occurred between the hours of 5pm on Monday 11 July and 9am on Tuesday 12 July. A window had been broken at Sherlock House, in Manor Road, Wallasey, on the other side of the Mersey from Liverpool.
Normally, such a minor incident would not invite much police attention, especially not in Wallasey, home to dockers and their families in its heyday but now suffering from decades of unemployment and neglect. Petty vandalism is not uncommon. But Sherlock House was no ordinary crime scene. As well as providing office space for small businesses, it houses the constituency party headquarters of Labour MP Angela Eagle. The window was broken only hours after she had formally declared she was to challenge Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership.
Some members of Eagle’s constituency party had already expressed unhappiness with her failure to back Corbyn, and had threatened a vote of no confidence in her. That day, the BBC reporter Reeta Chakrabarti told viewers: “The mood here in Angela Eagle’s own constituency is bitter. It reflects the atmosphere in Labour right across the country, with deep tensions caused by conflicting views as to what the party should stand for. A party suspicious and divided.”
The broken window almost immediately became a point of division between supporters of Corbyn and Eagle. Eagle’s camp blamed members of the hard left. Corbyn’s countered that it could just have been a random act of vandalism.
It has been an extraordinary summer for Labour on Merseyside, even by the standards of a party marked by splits and bouts of infighting. The area has been at the epicentre of many events in Labour’s history, and in the last few months it became so again. While much of the drama was taking place in and around Westminster, there was unrest and discord outside the capital, and nowhere more so than Liverpool and its surrounding area. All the stresses and strains of a party shifting inexorably to the left are visible in the city and in Labour constituency parties such as Birkenhead, Wallasey and Liverpool Riverside, one of the biggest and most leftwing constituencies in the country.
Labour’s annual conference is being held this weekend in Liverpool. Corbyn’s message, assuming he wins the leadership election – and Labour MPs are already behaving as if he has – will be one of reconciliation and a little contrition. But the tensions will be painfully evident. The official gathering is at the conference centre at Kings Dock, but Momentum, the organisation set up by Corbyn supporters after his election last September, will be holding a parallel conference 15 minutes’ walk away at the Black-E arts and community centre.
Beatles songs blare out from buskers all day long in Liverpool’s Mathew Street where the Cavern club was originally situated. But there is much more to Liverpool than just the Fab Four. Its people are loud and opinionated, proud of their history and intensely loyal to their hometown. It is one of the great British cities that grew rich on transatlantic trade – in Liverpool’s case, the slave trade. Like Glasgow and Belfast, it has a history of radicalism, political upheaval and ideological divides.
For three months, as part of a new experiment in collaborative reporting, I have been reporting on Labour in Liverpool at grassroots level, and publishing weekly updates on the Guardian website. I chose Liverpool because of the seminal part it has played in the history of the British labour movement. It can lay claim to be the reddest city in the UK. From here, it is easier to see the impact of decisions made in the Labour leader’s office in London or at the party headquarters or among MPs at Westminster. Only when sitting down with grassroots Labour members does it become evident just how widespread and deep is the anger with MPs over the attempted coup against Corbyn. And there is anger, too, over the decision by London headquarters to suspend almost all party activity for the duration of the summer. And anger over the massive purge, mainly of leftwingers, which is ongoing.
All this looks very stark on Merseyside. Constituency Labour parties that had once gone about their business peacefully have become fractured, engulfed by allegations of infiltration by hard-left groups, of homophobia, antisemitism, intimidation and bullying.
So much energy has been wasted on infighting at a time when Liverpool is desperately trying to cope with the impact of Conservative spending cuts. On one of my early trips to the city in the middle of June, I spoke to Councillor Peter Mitchell, one of 12 Liverpool councillors who backed Corbyn last year. We met in the council offices, housed in the magnificent Cunard Building on the Mersey waterfront. Built by the Cunard shipping line in the 20th century, it is a reminder of the days when Liverpool generated huge amounts of wealth. Today, most of that wealth is long gone. Although the city centre is enjoying regeneration, with smart pubs and restaurants, it still suffers from large pockets of deprivation. Mitchell put spending cuts at 58% in real terms over the past six years. “Liverpool received the biggest cut of any core city in the country,” he said. “Fact.”
Mitchell represents one of the most notorious areas in Liverpool, Croxteth, which made national headlines almost a decade ago when an 11-year-old boy was shot dead in a car park in an act of gang violence. A year later, a BBC journalist had a gun pointed at her while reporting from there.
Croxteth has improved since then, but deprivation is still all too evident. I visited a community centre there, run by Sharon Lee. “We get a lot of people coming through who have been affected by the spending cuts and do not know where to go,” she said. “Our food banks in Liverpool are overwhelmed. It is not just people on benefits. It is people who are on zero-hours contracts.”
At a time when Labour should be confronting the Conservative government over council spending cuts, it is instead consumed by its own future. The incident at Eagle’s office seems to be a fitting metaphor for Labour’s summer. A broken window in Merseyside. A shattered party across the country.
Anyone on the left in Liverpool knows the area’s political history and takes pride in it. Little of the wealth from the transatlantic trade filtered down. Living conditions have been unremittingly harsh, from the 19th century to the present day.
In 1911, during an early show of trade union strength, there was a transport strike. A rally in the city centre attracted tens of thousands. Police baton-charged the crowd for 30 minutes, leaving many injured. A few days later, soldiers opened fire, killing two people. Winston Churchill, then home secretary, and fearful of further unrest, deployed the cruiser HMS Antrim on the Mersey and put more troops on the city’s streets.
In 1926, Liverpool played a prominent role in the national general strike. Merseyside’s workers had prepared in advance for the dispute and an estimated 100,000 joined the strike. When a number of trams started running, strikers in Wallasey and Birkenhead attacked them and brought them to a halt.
In 1984, two years after the local party had adopted the policies of the Trotskyist group Militant, Labour controlled Liverpool city council. Nowhere else in the country did Militant achieve as much power. Derek Hatton, who became deputy leader of Liverpool city council in 1983, challenged the Thatcher government over spending cuts, arguing that the council could not deliver essential services. In 1985, the council set an illegal budget committing it to an extra £30m in spending, putting the council on a collision course with the government and Labour at national level.
Neil Kinnock, in one of the best-remembered speeches of his career, denounced the actions of Liverpool city council at the party’s 1985 party conference. “You can’t play politics with people’s jobs and people’s homes and people’s services,” he said. In the aftermath, many Militant members were permanently expelled from the Labour party, including Hatton.
In 1989, the city was left reeling when 96 Liverpool football fans were crushed to death during an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough stadium. The police and the Sun newspaper blamed the disaster on the fans. A swell of citywide solidarity brought an inquiry and eventual vindication in April this year, when a jury at the new inquests determined that the deaths were a result of gross negligence.
The Liberal Democrats ran the council in the late 1970s and again between 1998 and 2010. But Labour dominance has since been restored. It has won 80 of the 90 seats on Liverpool city council and 14 of the 15 parliamentary seats on Merseyside.
And then there was the brick.
The vandalism at Angela Eagle’s office was the first item on the agenda when Labour’s ruling national executive committee (NEC) met in London on 12 July. Discussion about the broken window dominated the first part of the meeting, the main purpose of which was to was to decide whether Jeremy Corbyn would be allowed on the leadership contest ballot. To avoid any possible recriminations, the NEC decided to hold a secret vote. Corbyn won by 18 to 14. Just before 8pm, he left the meeting at Labour headquarters to speak to the press and a noisy group of supporters. Two of Corbyn’s team also left.
With the Corbynite majority reduced at the NEC meeting, a decision was reached that would have repercussions for the party across the country. The NEC ruled to deny the 150,000 members who had joined the party since 12 January a vote in the Labour leadership contest.
The public line was that no one knew whether the 150,000 were pro- or anti-Corbyn. But in private, the party headquarters knew they were overwhelmingly pro. So as far as Corbyn’s team was concerned, the ban was aimed at stopping him. The decision to restrict the vote created resentment, and a clause allowing anyone prepared to pay an extra £25 to vote caused even further anger. The suspicion among Corbyn supporters was that this was aimed at impoverished members who would struggle to find £25.
In a move that caused more bad feeling, the NEC decided that “all normal party meetings at CLP and branch level shall be suspended until the completion of the leadership election”, effectively the remainder of the summer.
The Stork pub in Birkenhead has a strong sense of history. It opened in 1840, and many of its original, ornate features have been retained. On Wednesday 13 July, Labour party members gathered in one of the pub’s larger rooms at about 5pm. It was a sunny evening and the windows and doors were left open to let in some air.
What ensued felt like a moment from the past: a spirited political debate, animated but courteous, ideas bouncing back and forth, each being listened to politely. Technically, the meeting was a breach of party rules. The Birkenhead constituency party, like others around the country, had been informed in an email from party headquarters in London just hours earlier that all such meetings were now banned.
The Stork meeting felt like an act of defiance by the members. But the initial reason for it was more prosaic. The evening had been intended as a meet-and-greet for new members. The constituency party official whose job it was to look after them, Sarah Evans, was concerned that they may not have received the message about the cancellation of the gathering, and that they would arrive in the pub to find no one there. She decided to go along anyway, just in case.
About half a dozen people turned up, bemused when they were informed that the meeting had been officially cancelled. They were even more confused when a number of older members began to drift in. In the end, about 40 people packed the room. Such meetings might have been banned, but party headquarters could not stop informal ones taking place. At that moment, London felt very far away.
Some questioned whether the ban on meetings had been imposed because MPs feared facing angry constituency members protesting about the botched coup against a leader less than a year in office. Or was it in response to the incident at Eagle’s office?
It was the first Labour party meeting for Anne McCluskey. She had been brought up in a Labour family, but was only joining the party now, at the age of 46. “I was not a fan of Jeremy Corbyn. However, I do not like what has happened,” she said. “He was voted as leader only a year ago and it looks like mutiny.” McCluskey was also not happy about being told that she would not be able to vote in the leadership contest.
The discussion passed to John Mather, who sounded even more annoyed. He had joined Labour in 1979, left in 2003 – the year of the Iraq invasion – joined the Greens in 2015, and returned to Labour when Corbyn was elected. He described the denial of a vote in the leadership campaign for the 150,000 new members as “an affront to democracy”.
I was curious to see what the reaction had been elsewhere on Merseyside, so I went on to an impromptu meeting in New Brighton, part of the Wallasey constituency. If Birkenhead was an act of mild defiance, the Wallasey meeting was an insurrection. It was all amicable enough, each speaker was given a hearing without interruption, but at the end, a vote of no confidence in Wallasey MP Angela Eagle was passed by 54 to nine. A second vote unanimously rejected the £25 membership fee, which one of those in the hall denounced as “a surcharge on democracy”.
After the meeting had wound up, at around 9pm many people headed to a nearby pub, where the discussion continued. Among them was Sarah Henney, who works in digital marketing. She was not, she said, “a leftie” but was upset with the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) over the coup attempt, and the way some MPs had referred to Corbyn supporters as Trotskyists, rabble and dogs. “I would not call myself a Corbynista. I am just a working mum,” she said. “What other organisation would hold its members in such contempt?”
In the middle of this, Carmel Nolan – who lives on Merseyside and worked as press secretary to Corbyn during his leadership campaign last year – was talking on the phone with the Labour leader. She called for quiet and put Corbyn on speaker so that he could address the pub. The speech was uncontroversial, some bland remarks about bringing about economic and social change. It was not what he said that mattered, but that he was saying it to a group of Labour members and supporters on the day that party headquarters had suspended official gatherings.
Corbyn enjoys a majority on every party committee but one: the procedures committee. If that sounds boring and bureaucratic, it is not. The committee runs what are known as “purge panels”, which sign off on each suspension or expulsion. The panels are small, with only three members, but there is a non-Corbyn majority on each. Software is used to scan social media for key words, in order to track down potential infiltrators from revolutionary leftwing parties, people who have expressed support for other parties, or have used inappropriate language such as “Blairite scum” to describe party members.
One of the people caught up in Labour’s purges is Liverpool children’s author Alan Gibbons, who wrote a poem to commemorate Corbyn’s visit to the city on 1 August.
This week, Gibbons told me his application for Labour party membership has been declined. A former member of the Socialist Workers party who had become disillusioned with the organisation in the 1990s, he was attracted to Labour by Corbyn and applied to join six months ago.
Assuming that he was a member, he attended a meeting of the Liverpool Walton constituency Labour party (CLP), which he said he had enjoyed. Then he received a letter saying that his application had been rejected because a tweet had been found in which he had expressed support for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, a leftwing grouping opposed to public spending cuts and in favour of renationalisation of the railways – both policies that are espoused by Corbyn.
Gibbons was even more incensed by the treatment of his daughter, Rachel, aged 25, who has been purged too. “She has never been a member of any other party. She has only ever voted Labour,” Gibbons said. She was suspended for retweeting two tweets from the Greens, one in support of a teachers’ strike and one a comic video about the Conservatives, simply because she found it funny. “Maybe it is because of her association with me. They are excluding people on spurious grounds,” he said.
An official Labour spokesperson, asked last week about the number of individuals who have been investigated and suspended, said the figure is a secret. But the Guardian has learned that the original number of those identified for potential suspension was 70,000. By August the purge panels had become overburdened by the sheer number of new members. Mistakes began piling up. People who had joined from the Greens found themselves being suspended, even though Labour MPs have said that they welcomed former Green members into the party.
In the end, 60,000 cases were dropped. But that still leaves 10,000 people who have been suspended or told they are under investigation. Among them is the vice-chair of the Wallasey CLP, Paul Davies. Davies is reasonably well known in the Labour party in Merseyside. Decades earlier, he took part in a selection contest in Birkenhead with the sitting MP Frank Field and – according to Peter Kilfoyle, then Labour’s north-west organiser – Davies won. Although Kilfoyle insisted that Davies was not a member of Militant or any other grouping, Field remained the Labour candidate.
And there he was again, involved in controversy, under investigation. Katherine Buckingham, head of disputes and discipline, wrote to him on 2 August saying: “The national party has received complaints that you have used Labour party membership data to deliver promotional leaflets on behalf of a third party (copy attached) to the houses of party members in Wallasey, which may constitute an unauthorised use of the data of Labour party members. The Labour Party takes allegations of breaches of data protection extremely seriously.”
Davies was told that a response was required by the next day. The “third party” was a meeting being organised in Wallasey Town Hall on 2 August for Labour members and supporters, sponsored by the Wirral TUC. Davies informed party headquarters that he had been in London on the day cited in the complaint and attached his rail tickets.
It is not just Davies who is under investigation. The whole Wallasey party was suspended on 20 July pending an investigation into allegations of homophobic remarks at a party meeting. It means that Wallasey will not be able to play a full part in this weekend’s conference.
The Liverpool Riverside CLP has so far avoided suspension, even though it has a reputation for being even more fractious than Wallasey. The MP Louise Ellman, in an interview at her parliamentary office, said that before Corbyn became leader, party meetings had been respectful. Corbyn’s election in September last year, however, she said, had brought an influx of new members, some of whom she blamed for argumentative behaviour and verbal abuse.
Ellman, who is chair of the Jewish Labour Movement and vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, has complained officially about antisemitic remarks at Riverside party meetings, where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is frequently raised. The Jewish Chronicle said that Ellman blamed “activists from the hard-left group Momentum”. Ellman, who joined the vote of no confidence in Corbyn in July, put the membership of the Riverside party at 2,000 and said the antagonistic atmosphere at meetings could be attributed to only eight or nine people.
The changing nature of the Riverside party is reflected in its nomination for leader: last year, it backed Yvette Cooper over Corbyn. This time around, with the help of new members, the vote was 117 to 37 for Corbyn over Owen Smith.
Last week an anonymous pamphlet was published titled “An Investigation into Far-Left Infiltration of the Labour Party in Liverpool since September 2015”, by members opposed to Momentum and supportive of Ellman. It showed just how fractured the Riverside CLP had become. Under the sub-heading “A party within a party?”, it says: “It is not difficult to spot the obvious parallels in the respective conduct and practices of Liverpool Riverside Momentum and Militant in the 1980s. The group are actively recruiting to the local party with the objective of reshaping and ‘democratising’ the structure of the CLP to reflect their objectives. Throughout, (sic) internal discussions and memos they speak as though they are distinct from the Labour Party and speak of it as ‘other’ and on occasions refer to themselves as the ‘left opposition’ within the local party.”
The pamphlet said that more than 20 members of Riverside Momentum have been reported to the Labour party compliance unit for actively supporting and nominating other political parties as recently as this year. It names 11 key figures, saying that the vast majority have been “hard-left activists” who have been operational in political parties and organisations hostile to the Labour party – some of whom have been involved in hard-left politics for decades.
In the Liverpool Echo on Wednesday, Ellman drew a direct link between Militant and Momentum, calling for the suspension of the group. “Momentum are clearly operating against the best interests of and, in many instances, in direct opposition to the Labour party,” she said. “Neither the Labour party nor the people of Liverpool can afford to travel down this road again.”
I saw the vicious side of the left on Merseyside in 1986, when Labour headquarters put up George Howarth as the party’s candidate in what was then Knowsley North. On a dark, wet night, on his way into a party meeting, he had to run a gauntlet of angry activists – not necessarily Militant, but definitely from the hard left – baying at him, the police holding them back. That was intimidation.
But over three months in Liverpool and Merseyside, this summer I never saw anything remotely approaching that. I have also covered Momentum since it was formed last autumn. At the head of the organisation are veteran leftwingers, such as Jon Lansman – one of Corbyn’s closest advisers and a man well-versed in party infighting – but there are also young activists such as James Schneider, Momentum’s spokesman, and Sam Tarry, who is press spokesman for Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Both Schneider and Tarry are committed to Labour building a broader social movement on the left. They do not bear any resemblance to the leftwing activists who turned up in Knowsley North that night in 1986, or to Militant.
The Guardian organised a pub meet-up at the Fly in the Loaf, in the centre of Liverpool, which is part of the Riverside constituency, to discuss the state of the party. About 80 people turned up, with a mixture of views, from Blairites to Momentum and even former Militant members. For its full 90 minutes, the meeting was conducted in a respectful, comradely fashion.
Merseyside has one of the largest and most active concentrations of Momentum members. I have met a lot of the younger ones, such as Ross Quinn, Momentum’s spokesperson on Merseyside. I have also met Elizabeth Hayden and Ed Mustill, who were named in the pamphlet about far-left infiltration. They are all too young to have been engaged in decades of hard left politics and come across as idealistic and passionate.
Chris Jones, an academic who is also named in the pamphlet, said this week that he had been involved with groups such as the Socialist Workers party – though not, as the pamphlet claimed, the International Marxist Group. His past membership is not something he hides or is ashamed of. He started his political life in the Labour party and returned 12 months ago. He found the tone and tenor of the pamphlet objectionable, the idea that being in the Labour party was inconsistent with supporting workers involved in disputes or a campaign to save a hospital.
Peter Kilfoyle is well placed to put the present tensions in context. He was sent by Neil Kinnock to root out Militant from Liverpool in the 1980s – this earned him the nickname of Witchfinder General. One of a family of 14, he worked on the Liverpool docks before becoming a teacher and then Labour regional organiser for the north-west of England in 1986. In 1991, he was elected MP for Liverpool Walton, and he held on to the seat until 2010. He was also one of a quartet of advisers who Tony Blair turned to in 1994 when he was considering running for the party leadership.
Sitting in the lounge of the Hard Days Night hotel, Kilfoyle said: “I don’t see any real comparison with Militant, which was a tightly organised, highly motivated group with a particular ideological stance – quite clear and with a strategy which had been well thought out and which was inimical to the interests of the Labour party. I have never seen anything remotely to suggest that Momentum is anything like that.
“I see it more as a reaction to [the new Labour group] Progress, representing the rightward elements of the Labour party, and Momentum taking up the cause of the left. It is as simple as that.”
On 15 July, four days after Eagle announced her challenge to Corbyn, police arrested a 44-year-old man in Paisley on suspicion of threatening, via email, to kill her. He was questioned by Merseyside police and is out on bail. On the same day that the broken window was reported, Eagle’s office also disclosed that she had changed the location of a planned campaign visit to Luton that evening because of alleged threats. Many in Eagle’s CLP back her claims that she has become a victim of verbal and online abuse. One of her supporters, Liscard councillor Bernie Mooney, has also been subjected to hundreds of vile emails and phone messages.
But was there a brick? I asked Merseyside police, who said that the person responsible had not been found. The police statement on the day did not mention a brick, only that “damage was caused to the front ground-floor window of an office”. I went to Sherlock House to speak to one of the businessmen who shares Eagle’s office, and who reportedly was the first person to spot the damage. I met him in the reception area. He was reluctant to speak about it. Had there been a brick? He would not say, though he did add that there had been a lot of assumptions about the incident.
Within an hour, as I was walking along Bold Street in the centre of Liverpool, I received a phone call from Imran Ahmed, head of communications on the “Angela for Labour Leader” campaign. He asked why I had gone to Sherlock House and said that the Guardian was treating the incident as if it was Watergate. He informed me he had banned party staff at the constituency office from speaking to me and that Eagle would not be speaking to me either.
The first reference I have found to a brick is in a press release that Ahmed sent out after 1pm on 12 July, under the headline “Violence and threats in past 24 hours”. It reported: “A spokesperson for Angela Eagle said: ‘A brick was thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s constituency office in Wallasey either overnight or this morning.’” (See footnote.)
As well as the newspapers and television crews who turned up at Sherlock House, the Merseyside police and crime commissioner Jane Kennedy judged the incident important enough to merit a visit. Kennedy, a former Labour MP, was quick to apportion blame. “What concerns me is there are those on the hard left creating a climate by their words that some people think gives them the green light to do these kind of things,” she said.
With no evidence to connect the brick to either side, Eagle herself called on Corbyn to get his supporters under control.
The row over the brick upset both sides. A window damaged sounds minor. A window “bricked” is much more incendiary. It hints at a faction out of control, prone to violence, out to smash the party. The response of the left wing of the CLP was a sense of outrage over the instant association of their views with violence.
Liverpool is important to Corbyn, who has praised the city’s radical tradition. The city marked a turning point for him in last year’s contest. When he started his leadership campaign, no one in his team – not even Corbyn himself – thought he had any chance. The realisation that he might win came at Liverpool’s historic Adelphi Hotel. Hundreds – unusual at that time for a political event – turned up to hear him deliver an anti-austerity speech.
When he returned to Liverpool on 1 August, on the campaign trail for yet another leadership contest, thousands turned up for a rally in the city centre on a rainy night. A few days earlier, Owen Smith, Corbyn’s challenger, had attracted 300 at the most.
So what will happen at the Labour conference? Corbyn is scheduled to speak at the Momentum rally as well as Labour’s. His team views Momentum as the future, a modern alternative to what they consider to be outmoded campaign techniques. They want the Momentum campaign to be community-based, a social movement that engages with a wide range of groups and local issues.
Assuming Corbyn wins, he will have the leader’s office, the support of members, the backing of the unions and, from October, a majority of one on the NEC. He can then begin his takeover of party headquarters.
The story of Labour and Liverpool still has a long way to run. Croxteth councillor Peter Mitchell was by Corbyn’s side when he addressed the crowd in August. He will be with him again on Saturday for what is expected to be a celebration of his renewed leadership.
Mitchell recognises that it will be difficult for Liverpool city council to make ends meet next year and is pushing for the government to return funds to the city. He said that Corbyn will lead this campaign.
But for Mitchell, the party has already moved to the left. He noted the doubling of membership since Corbyn had taken over and the anti-establishment mood across Europe and the US. “It is a desire for a different kind of politics, for a different message,” Mitchell said. “And I believe Jeremy is the only person who can bring forward a government of the progressive left.”
• Clarification, 15 December 2016: In this article, Ewen Macaskill wrote: “The first reference I have found to a brick is in a press release that Ahmed sent out after 1pm on 12 July…” In fact, the reference to the brick was made in the Guardian’s live blog at 11.45am on 12 July: “A brick was thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s constituency office overnight, BuzzFeed reports. This happened after she confirmed on Monday that she was challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership.” A subsequent internal investigation by the Labour Party said it was “highly likely” that the brick thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s office was related to her leadership challenge.
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