I come from Hartlepool, a former port town with lots of similarities to Liverpool. But I’ve made the latter my adopted home for the last 15 years.
Tell anyone, anywhere in the world that you’re from Liverpool and they’ll reel off a number of facts they know about the city – football, music, politics. In fact a mate who’s currently working out in Bangkok but lived in Liverpool for many years recently happened across a fellow Brit, while playing cricket of all things. He spent the next hour discussing a mutual knowledge of Liverpool and how there are very few places in the world where the word ‘lid’ does not necessarily relate to something you put on the top of a jar of coffee.
Tell anyone that you’re from Hartlepool and they’ll mention only one thing: monkeys. Legend has it that, long ago during the Napoleonic wars a French ship was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool. The only survivor was the ship’s monkey – ships had monkeys in those days, apparently – who was washed up on the shore.
Having never seen a Frenchman or a monkey before, the Hartlepudlians (for that is what they’re called) came to the not unreasonable conclusion that what had washed up with the flotsam and jetsam was a French spy. That being the case the monkey was tried and hung by the neck until dead. Hence the legend of Monkey Hangers was born – destined to follow Hartlepool folk around the world for the rest if their days.
Most Hartlepudlians – or Monkey Hangers if you must – take this on the chin – even to the extent that the Hartlepool United Football Club mascot is called H’Angus. He is, if you hadn’t already guessed, a monkey.
I mention this because, when it was decided that Hartlepool should have its own elected mayor, the mascot stood for election to the position alongside representatives of all the three main parties – and promptly won the election.
The promise of free bananas for school children got lost somewhere between the election manifesto and H’Angus, or Stuart Drummond as he is better known, taking office; as did a heroic pledge to build a rail track to Durham, something that would have cost somewhere in the region of about five billion quid by my reckoning. But Drummond did not campaign or court votes – he didn’t try. He was, purely and squarely, a joke candidate.
I interviewed Drummond at the time. He seemed fairly shocked but vowed to the best job possible – no doubt encouraged by an attractive salary. The anger of town MP Peter Mandelson amused me for weeks. People still puzzle about exactly how a town of 100,000 people came to repeat what seemed like a simian-based feat of idiocy, but after my despair had worn off I came to see it differently.
People in Hartlepool were never going to vote for a Conservative or Liberal Democrat mayor – and their anger with the ego-fuelled nonsense and tribal battles at the Civic Centre, where Hartlepool’s council people waged petty wars and commissioned self-aggrandising projects, was palpable. And, while Mandelson had been duly voted in as the Labour MP, there was no real fondness for him; his arrival was greeted with a certain amount of irritation that a party bigwig had been parachuted into a safe seat.
Drummond is no chump – he has since been re-elected twice, albeit on turnouts of barely 30%. But I hardly see the role as a success – and I view the Hartlepool mayoral election results as a rejection of the overall notion and a determined kick to the balls for the local political hierarchy. When faced with an apparent Hobson’s Choice the people of Hartlepool managed to find a third way. Probably few people anticipated that it would involve electing a monkey.
But Drummond was a nice lad. He rejected party politicking and he wasn’t one of the faces spotted in the local newspaper shaking hands with property developers. He was free of political baggage and agendas and fiercely apolitical (put another way, he didn’t know the first thing about politics). He was, people must have felt, someone they could relate to in a contest they perhaps neither understood nor cared for. The case for elected mayors has always seemed rather woolly – and has rarely been well communicated. That’s a favourable environment for a joke candidate.
Which brings me to Herbert Howe, flamboyant (media shorthand for gay) hairdresser to Liverpool’s stars and owner of a salon where you can drink champagne while they put your rollers in. Herbert has thrown his hat into the Liverpool mayor ring (political gossip suggests he may actually end up being endorsed by the Liverpool Conservatives, surely a death knell in Liverpool), after the council rejected a referendum (another translation – you’re getting an elected mayor whether you want one or not) and announced that Liverpool would be voting for a new mayor in May 2012.
Liverpool’s local politics reminds me of Hartlepool’s from a decade ago. The same old faces, the same old battles, the same old agendas, the same old egos. Joe Anderson, Warren Bradley, Mike Storey have passed leadership of the council around for years – their faces in the Post and Echo are as unwelcome as a turd on a doorstep – and a supporting cast of characters like Frank McKenna and Phil Redmond gegging in do not fill me with optimism.
I’m fairly ambivalent about Liverpool having its own Mayor. We are told there is more money available. But is there? There may be money available sooner, but it’s not clear that it’s extra cash that Liverpool wouldn’t get anyway, mayor or not. There may be more opportunity for Liverpool to spend money where it sees fit to spend it, which is something in its favour.
But the cast of potentials thus far can be split into joke candidates (Cilla, Ricky, Doddy, Pete Price and – yes, our favourite – Jimmy Corkhill) or the same ghastly old tribal councillors (barring Liam Fogarty, but I’ve yet to decide what I make of him).
The haste with which the Liverpool Mayoral elections have been rushed through means there has been little consideration or debate of the issue – what the benefits are, what the downsides may be. That means just three months for the case to be made to Liverpool, for the list of candidates for them to sort themselves out and for them to hit the campaign trail. Do people in Liverpool want an elected mayor? Has anyone asked them? Do they understand the benefits, the opportunity that it could represent?
Liverpool Labour may adopt the same approach that Hartlepool Labour did all those years ago and simply assume that they’ll win due to partisan alignment. But look what happened there. Liverpool politics will always have the shadow of Hatton looming over it too. And the Lib Dems’ place in the coalition and their piss-poor management of the council over the years will not endear them to voters.
It’s potentially a rather toxic situation. I sense no firm views on whether Liverpool needs a mayor; frankly there’s little knowledge that the prospect even exists. Nor do I sense much appetite for rubber-stamping Joe Anderson’s mark on Liverpool, nor the out-of-favour Liberal Democrats. And there is a sense of irritation that Liverpool Labour has binned the proposed referendum – denying the people of Liverpool a transparent debate on the pros and cons and the realities of what an elected mayor means.
The likes of Herbert and Phil Redmond will benefit from any public angst about these backroom deals, just as they will benefit from a shorter election process. How the people of Liverpool react to all this remains to be seen. But sometimes when you treat people like idiots, people behave like idiots.
Just ask a Monkey Hanger.