More than once during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool I witnessed cheers and thumbs up from delegates at the sight of black cabs plastered with banners saying ‘The Sun: Not Welcome In Our City’, and it struck me that what is normal here is not elsewhere. In the six years I’ve lived in Liverpool, I’ve become used to the bright yellow posters in the window of every newsagent – ‘We Sell Newspapers But We Don’t Sell the Sun’ – and the ‘Don’t Buy the Sun’ stickers on fire hydrants and bus stops, on car windscreens and people’s front doors.
The Sun lied about Liverpool FC fans at Hillsborough and refused to apologise, and that was enough to bring everyone in the city together to condemn it. You can’t buy the paper anywhere: even Tesco doesn’t stock it. It is often assumed that the Sun, and right-wing tabloid news in general, represents the authentic voice of working-class people. Liverpool is the place where those claims come unstuck.
The World Transformed, a separate but sympathetic fringe event, ran alongside the Labour Party Conference. It was the site of many of the really knotty discussions about what a prospective socialist government might look like. At several of the sessions I attended, a large proportion of the audience had come from London. They seemed somewhat in awe of Liverpool’s general air of cheerful insubordination. I wanted to stand up and say: this is what you’re missing. There’s a world outside the vortex. We do things differently here.
But that would be only partially true. Liverpool may be home to the five safest Labour seats in the country, but there are also pockets of lasting antipathy to the party, nearly 35 years after the Militant-dominated council came up against the constraints on trying to introduce socialism in one city. The fairly affluent ward where I live has three Lib Dem councillors out of three, their positions bolstered by a transparently class-based dislike of Labour’s noisy city mayor, Joe Anderson.
Liverpool itself, along with Wirral on the other side of the Mersey, voted Remain by a clear majority in the 2016 referendum, but all the peripheral areas of the city region voted Leave. There are clear issues of class, geography and the perception of unequal dividends from decades of EU spending that have yet to be addressed by the near-invisible metro mayor, Steve Rotheram.
Anderson meanwhile grabs headlines with strong statements in support of the rights of trans people and against the ‘fascist thugs’ who defaced The List, a mural by the artist Banu Cennetoğlu, documenting all the people known to have died trying to reach Europe without papers between 1993 and 2018. At the same time, Anderson has made some questionable decisions about Liverpool’s urban landscape, insisting that shoddy student developments and buy-to-let apartment blocks are ‘the only game in town’ for a council that has seen its central government grant cut by more than two-thirds.
Visitors to The World Transformed, walking between its main venues in the city centre and the Baltic Triangle ‘creative quarter’, would have passed The List, pasted to the plain hoardings of a ‘New Chinatown’ which never materialised. Liverpool is nowhere near a socialist paradise, but it’s as near to one as I’ve lived in here in Britain, in part because of its refusal to accept that economic decline meant the inevitable death of the city as a place in which people can live convivially and raise families, where work doesn’t dominate lives (though the search for work where there isn’t enough of it still blights them). Liverpool, at its best, represents the future the rest of the country can't quite believe is possible.