Ann O’Byrne and the politics of leadership

When I started to think about writing this, which will be mostly about a friend campaigning to be the Mayor of Liverpool, I couldn’t get this old, old song by Stevie Wonder, that I’d not sung to myself for years, out of my head. It’s mainly a devotional song and I wondered about that until I realised it expresses what we’re all doing here at the moment. Trying, and not always succeeding of course, but trying to reach the higher ground. Of better lives in a better place, that we try and get to collectively through our precious route to the future we want, which is our democracy.

And this is quite the democratic moment in Liverpool as the Labour Party is selecting between three women, this time round, to be its own candidate in May’s election. Giving us the real possibility, with all due respect to whoever else will be asking for our votes come May, of us electing a woman to be our city’s democratic leader.

Which I think would be good for a whole history of reasons a short blog post can’t cover. And I’d be happy with whichever of the three women gets selected by their party over the next couple of weeks. I’m not a member of the Labour Party these days so I won’t get a vote in that, but I do have this blog so here’s my say anyway. From the welcome choice of Wendy Simon, Anna Rothery and Ann O’Byrne I prefer Ann.

I’ve known Ann O’Byrne for, oh, something like 25 years now and we’ve done a lot of work together. Beginning back in the ‘Objective One’ days, remember them, when Sarah and I were starting out as ‘A Sense of Place’ working in Norris Green and Croxteth, Netherley and Kensington, Coronation Court and the Westminster Estate. Then all the way through to Granby 4 Streets, Homebaked, Kitty’s Launderette, Make Liverpool and so many more. Deeply valuing, from all those years, the way in which Ann is such a given force of energetic nature in any local situation and one of the most naturally occurring socialists I’ve ever known. Never happier than when knocking on whole surrounding streets of doors to re-invite everyone in a neighbourhood to whatever new community thing’s being launched that day. And still there with us all at the end of so many long days. Tidying up, packing up, loading up and back again early the next morning to do the press call.

So a great team player, for so many of us and even in the City’s senior team at times. But when I heard she was up for leading the City now I was particularly interested in talking with her about leadership, because leadership’s different isn’t it? I’ve read her manifesto about it all and you can too, and it’s a very nicely done thing, so I won’t talk through it here. But what I will talk through is the walk we went on.

Which was, peace, peace, party whips and other watching functionaries, not a real walk at all in such Covid times. But instead was an imaginary one. I believe in walks and when serious things need discussing or deciding it would always be my tendency to suggest a walk. But we couldn’t, so I’d sent Ann some photographs from blog posts of the walk we would have done, and so from her house in her Warbreck ward and mine in Wavertree we talked on Zoom while we imagined our way round Liverpool. Out round the edges of the city, up through quiet lanes to the higher ground of Camp Hill, down and all along the river then into the North Docks by the time our walk ended. Imagining our way into a future where Ann is the democratically elected leader of Liverpool and life is better than now. Quite like now, because obviously we both love the bones of the place, but better. And getting ever better, we imagined, with more work, no hunger, better care and health and ways of living and getting around in a city that’s collectively confident about itself and, well, how? How can good leadership help that to happen?

We talked democratic socialism and about our climate being the change that won’t wait patiently to one side, and the green apprenticeships and environmental technologies that will help us towards new kinds of wealth from work that’s our priority anyway. Wealths of happiness and working more intelligently in a social economy where we use the resources we have to invest in ourselves and our place. So the jobs we do in and for our own organisations pay us in money that could be staying here, rather than mostly going to investors elsewhere. Round and round the same money could go, in an economy of our own, where we’re paying and buying from and trading with each other, for the mutual benefits of us all and our place. And not like some pipe dream, Ann calls the idea a living city. Not a waiting city, but a getting on with what we can actually do city. Taking back, inwardly investing in what everyone here needs anyway. Like the bins and other services already welcomed back in from their contracted out, to proper wages and popular success. Next will be care services, re-regulated buses and whatever else would be best insourced.

Though not everything can be insourced of course, Ann reassured me, having noticed me looking sceptical on the other end of our Zoom walk. Which I explained as a concern about how the municipal socialism she was talking about should be a forward looking version of itself rather than what I called the 1945 nostalgia club. Which could be a whole other blog post of an argument, but what I mean is a way of running the city that leaves room for communities of us, and individuals of us, to have needs and ideas we can sort ourselves, with support. Call it through co-ops, social traders, community led, or ethical businesses. All of that and all of them. That privatised can’t be the only alternative word in our language to municipalised if we’re going to have this more engaged and intelligent future.

Exactly, was Ann’s reply, with the city as enabler rather than blocker. A collegiate and engaged investor in its own people, rather than a gatekeeper whose computer too often says no.

And, coming close to the end of our imaginary walk now, down the Docker’s Steps in the Dingle, all the way along the river, past the Cunard Building (Where Ann won’t be sitting behind a desk in there all the time) and through to the waiting for their own futures North Docks. We talked about another sort of reclaiming. Of insourcing if you like. About taking our language back. Having a way of talking and leading that isn’t about division and domination, and the old style boss politics that’s dogged the entire history of the city. Where, as we’d said, the opposite word to “municipal” doesn’t have to be “private.” But will be a more intelligent and patient language and city. With room for democratic debate and discussion. Not so polarised, quick to judge and divisive as it has been. But a language and a city with room, space and the grace to occasionally say the likes of “I’ve changed my mind” and “What do you think?” and “What would be the best thing here, for all of us?”

Background dreaming as we walked then. About the how of things being done rather than a mere list of the whats. Because that’s what leadership needs to create the room for isn’t it? Beyond the bouncing from issue to crisis and onto whatever’s next, there’s the exercising of wisdom. The how we want to be living here, in this place we call home, our Liverpool. Why I wanted to talk to Ann about leadership in the first place. Leading us to this afternoon somewhere up on the higher ground of local politics.

And while we were still mentally stood there, out on the North Docks wondering about their future too, we talked roads and bikes and transport. The getting of everyone around our whole city. Of walking and cycling and of a future not being dominated by cars. And of course I took the chance to speak up for a new Overhead Railway along the top of the Dock Wall, to get everyone to their new workplaces around there, like I always do (and have already written a whole other blog post about). But then it’s not every day you have the ear of someone who might well be the democratically elected Mayor of Liverpool come this May, if that’s what we all decide.

And we could have talked all day, and will do another time, maybe on a real walk. But there we left it for this particular and imaginary one.

And just to re-emphasise, I’m not a member of the Labour Party so this is in no way a party political broadcast. But I am a citizen of Liverpool with exactly the same right to a say as anyone else here. And this was my say. All in my own words.

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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  1. We can be very good at imagining but we’re not so good at constructing or – what needs to be done – deconstructing the power structures that exist in the city, opening up opportunities and spaces for ideas to take root and grow. The biggest co-operative endeavour in the city is probably the food bank network which grew because it was necessary but also because no-one wanted to do it. It exists in a space that ‘Power’ is uninterested in. But if you’re a community with assets or opportunities that the powerful and wealthy can profit from, look out! Will Ann take on archaic planning laws, private landlords, property developers, the police? Will derelict and abandoned land be ‘insourced’ and social housing built? Will we get strategic health planning and better air? And just who needs to be challenged and defeated to make those things happen?

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