In Search of Liverpool's Lonely Tories

Convincing one of the city's Conservative candidates to speak to me was much harder than you'd expect.
December 10, 2019, 9:20am
conservative party graffiti
Photo: David Forster / Alamy Stock Photo

The sky is blue, the River Mersey is wet and the Tories won't win a single Liverpool seat in this week's general election. Home to some of the country's safest Labour seats, it's near-impossible a Tory will win one of the city's five – yet the Conservative Party are still fielding a candidate in each of Liverpool and surrounding Merseyside's constituencies.

Which begs the question: who are the candidates who run in these races? Why would they bother with such a thankless task? In a city plagued by austerity-led cuts, avoided by the Prime Minister at all costs, and with a modern class identity rooted in anti-Conservatism, how do conversations on the doorstep go down when a Tory knocks?

According to Dr David Jefferey – a local politics expert at the University of Liverpool, and a Conservative party activist – the party's efforts in Liverpool are more of an election simulator than a serious election push: "It's about training them up and proving to CCHQ that they're willing to put the work in – a bit of a quid pro quo. But also let's not pretend that even in marginal seats they're great candidates. In Liverpool it's certainly often a way of showing, if you stand in a crap seat here, maybe you'll get a nice one on the Wirral or in Cheshire."

"Labour are doing the same in the South East," he adds. "They're doing it in the Liverpool equivalent."

liverpool hustings

The Wavertree hustings. Photo by the author.

On a chilly Friday night in a church hall in Wavertree, Liverpool, I sit staring at an empty tub of Cadbury's Heroes. I'm here to watch what I presume will be a local production of Question Time, and already the resemblance to televised election debates is uncanny. The Conservative candidate, Catherine Riordan, and Labour's Paula Barker, both absent, have been replaced by empty chocolate tubs. I ask the organiser what reason the Conservative candidate gave for not attending; she tells me they didn't respond to the invite.

Contacting the Tories in Liverpool at election time is difficult. Emails to the local party go unanswered, only three of the five candidates have a public Twitter profile (good luck getting a reply there), and if you think you're getting a follow back from Liverpool West Derby candidate Tom Bradley, think again. Setting out his political stall with a campaign video filmed in Westminster, it's difficult to tell if he's frightened or amused at the thought of running in Liverpool.

On to the next hustings I go, in search of the elusive Liverpool candidates. Having seen the lack of commitment to the small-scale, I swerve Liverpool's Riverside constituency hustings for the Liverpool ECHO election debate. The latter promises some cross-party discussion, and I'm not disappointed. Not one, but three Liverpool Conservative candidates sit there in the flesh. Granted, only Wazz Mughal (Sefton Central) is on the panel, but in front of him sits Neva Novaky (Garston & Halewood) and Alex Phillips (Liverpool Walton) in support.

In a city where the Tories are highly unpopular, it's no surprise Mughal has his work cut out from the moment he sits down. He bungles through hospital building figures Boris-style, is weak on the climate crisis and, towards the end, struggles on the topic of homelessness. "You have to look at reasons why people are homeless. [pause] There was a study that was done that said that the majority of people are homeless either due to [pause] a large contributor, sorry, is mental health issues and drug-use," he says to a shocked audience. The above goes down like a cup of cold sick, but fair play to him for turning up.

After the debate I head straight over to the Conservatives to see if they'll talk to me. They confirm they'd seen my various emails and Twitter messages – but Neva Novaky was too busy to chat for the foreseeable future, her canvassing schedule private, while Alex Phillips would have to run it by the press team. The next day, my ghosting suspicions are realised in an email from Alex:

"I have checked with my colleagues and press team and unfortunately it is a no due to diary commitments and that I have committed to a very similar piece with another news organisation. Thanks for the interest anyway."

Not even my own constituency's Tory candidate, Sean Malkeson (Liverpool Riverside), would speak to me. The search was over.

Or was it?

On a windy night in Liverpool I'm back in Wavertree, this time at Liverpool Hope University. After a failed attempt to speak over the phone earlier in the day, I'm confident of catching Catherine Riordan at the final Liverpool hustings. I've emailed ahead and it's confirmed that a Tory candidate will be in attendance.

I'm keen to hear Riordan's opinion on a manifesto pledge to scrap Leveson 2, a press regulation enquiry that Hillsborough campaigners have previously called for in light of the city's treatment by The Sun. I'm also keen to hear her thoughts on why Liverpool is £816 worse off per head in day-to-day public spending. But I'm especially interested to hear what she has to say about the case of Stephen Smith, a local man in his sixties deemed fit to work by the DWP, despite weighing six stone with bones jutting out of his skin.

And then the bad news. "I'm afraid the Conservative candidate has pulled out," Lucy, the organiser of the hustings, tells me. Lucy will later mention in passing how hard it is to get in touch with the Tories in Liverpool. I will agree with her. Not even Wazz Mughal fancied this one.

Of course, none of this should come as a surprise. If you can get through a snap election campaign without having to confront any of the problems caused by a government you support, why wouldn't you? With no chance of getting elected, and with every chance of being handed a more favourable constituency in the future, why not just take a few selfies and insulate yourself from the debate?

As a Tory candidate in a Liverpool constituency, that counts as you doing your job.

@_daveybrett