Ian Byrne fights for survival
The West Derby MP has big-name backers and is at the forefront of significant campaigns. So why has he been 'triggered' for deselection?
By Jack Walton
West Derby MP Ian Byrne is a popular man. Ask Andy Burnham what he thinks of Byrne and he’ll talk about “a proper MP who speaks passionately and authentically.” Ask deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner and she’ll say that Byrne is “relentless in holding the Tories to account [and] standing up for the people of West Derby”. Those are just two of several recent high-profile endorsements.
He was the Patchwork MP of the Year for 2021; his fight for the Right to Food has been widely lauded; he chairs the Hillsborough Law Now campaign. He even recently had an audience with the pope in the Vatican, where he presented the pontiff with a campaign pin. Of the socialist Labour MP’s elected to parliament under Jeremy Corbyn across the 2017 and 2019 elections, Byrne has probably been the most prominent, and was a close ally of the ex-leader.
But regardless of the above, Byrne is in danger. He has lost four separate trigger ballots within his constituency and now faces a fight to be selected as the party’s candidate again at the next general election. Which raises the question: why would such an ostensibly popular figure find himself in trouble?
Speaking to almost a dozen councillors and Constituency Labour Party (CLP) members in West Derby for this piece, the issue that comes up a lot relates to what an MP’s role should be. As a campaigner and parliamentarian, Byrne is a superstar, that’s taken as fact. As a constituency MP, when it comes to the granular details of local politics, he divides opinion.
“Anyone not preaching at the pulpit of Saint Ian is regularly taken to task,” one CLP member tells me. They complain about the “aggression” of his local supporters. It’s not an anomaly. Another — who actually intends to vote for Byrne despite “not being his biggest fan at first” — echoes this view. He remembers an early meeting where two members who suggested Byrne was failing to respond to email correspondence were met with accusations that they wanted “children to starve to death” from other members. On another occasion a woman was accused of being a “child killing Tory”.
Of course, no MP should be blamed for the extreme views held by their more eccentric supporters (one supporter of his own says “just because some loonies like him doesn’t make him a loony”) but it does go some way to explaining the division in the constituency. Others talk of a bizarre situation in which food banks run by differing factions refuse to cooperate with each other. One CLP member describes West Derby as “a bit of an anachronism” in how it remained largely untransformed by the grassroots growth of Momentum under Corbyn. Here — perhaps moreso than elsewhere in Liverpool — the right of the party remains entrenched.
Perhaps to counter this, Byrne has brought over some of his closest people from Walton CLP, including office manager Maureen Delahunty-Kehoe, but this has created a feeling of ‘them and us’ for some members locally. The above member, who still intends to vote for Byrne, is frustrated that he has only recently started showing up at community meetings and seems less tuned in to local issues than he is to national ones. “Ian has one mode. He always feels like he’s speaking at a Tribune rally,” they say. “It’s incongruous and inappropriate — forever railing against the government and their sins. What about rats and local policing?”
This is an argument put to me several times as I speak to those who have dealt with him. One complains that “calls frequently go unanswered” and that he refuses to do casework related to the council, instead referring it to the Vauxhall Law Centre miles away. The member forwards an email from a neighbour who went to Byrne for help with a bullying issue at the local school, pointing out that former MP Stephen Twigg had assisted on the same matter. “Sorry for the confusion you have 3 local councillors” begins the reply from Delahunty-Kehoe, pointing out that it isn’t their role to deal with “rubbish, roads, schools etc”. Which might be true, but it’s also not how most MPs — many of whom do get very stuck into complaints about local services — would address a constituent.
The sense here is that Byrne puts his national profile first. Understandably, a tweet by one Byrne supporter that he had heard complaints about the MP being “too focused on poverty” was met with shock. Barry Kushner — the councillor for Norris Green, within the constituency — believes this argument misunderstands the role of an MP. “Sometimes you can’t change things locally until you change them nationally,” he says. He gives the example of Byrne’s Right to Food campaign, noting that only a change in national policy will ultimately benefit local residents struggling to put food on the table.
Kushner is considered by some a surprising backer for Byrne, given that he ran for the seat in 2019 but was prevented from making the ballot. But he’s able to cite other local achievements of the MP: setting up a community allotment, setting up food pantries, community kitchens, bringing Liverpool into the Healthy Homes scheme. Kushner thinks Byrne should shout louder about all of these things to prevent the assumption he is doing little locally.
The problem is, it might be too late. One member says a “bunker mentality” has developed in the CLP, with Byrne’s support becoming paranoid about those they see as his opponents. Another recalls being shown a text exchange between a friend and Delahunty-Kehoe after the original trigger ballots. Allegedly, Delanhunty-Kehoe texted: “hi have you cast your vote?”. The friend replied “yes”. The next message — which we haven’t seen ourselves — from Delahunty-Kehoe was said to read words to the effect of: “please send me a screenshot of the vote to prove your support for Ian.” A seperate member also noted that Byrne’s office had been trying to find out how members had voted.
However, the man who recounts the comments about children starving says that “it’s certainly calmer now” and credits the fall in the party membership in West Derby since 2019 for helping. When Byrne was elected the CLP had around 1200 members, the current figure is said to be around 750. Some of these left due to disillusionment with the party leadership under Sir Keir Starmer, others were expelled. Many have even left to join the Liverpool Community Independents, a group formed earlier this year by dissident Labour councillors.
The effect these departures will have is hard to gauge. On one hand it might make Byrne more appealing to moderates. The member who complained about him having “one mode” cites his frustration at some of the MP’s antics early on and felt the presence of many more hard-line members was weakening his performance. An example given was retweeting the left-wing news site Skwawkbox (“a horrible little factional rag”) which is known to post articles criticising the party’s right. The member says Byrne seems “more professional now” and that the loss of supporters has forced him to build bridges. On the other — perhaps more obvious — hand, lots of the votes he could rely on have gone.
Most of Byrne’s biggest supporters wouldn’t speak to us when approached for this piece, nor would the man himself. Dozens ignored texts, and at times — perhaps this is overly conspiratorial — I wondered if they had been instructed to. But judging by their reactions on Twitter, their belief is that the biggest threat to Byrne comes from a vindictive Starmerite Labour establishment.
“When the party is riding high, that gives a perfect opportunity for the leadership to flex their muscle,” Michael Crick, the former BBC journalist who runs the Tomorrow's MPs Twitter account documenting the election process of parties, tells The Post. Crick believes there is a “lot of resentment” from the Corbyn years, when left-wing candidates were parachuted into seats. “Now the right are basically picking off lots of the left wingers,” he says.
Often this manifests as preventing them from making longlists due to spurious reasons, like having once liked a Nicola Sturgeon tweet, as in the case of Lauren Townsend, a councillor who was blocked from standing to represent Milton Keynes North. “A real purge is going on,” Crick adds.
Whether any challenge to Byrne would come directly from Starmer’s office isn’t clear (Labour will have to go through around 200 selection processes across the country before 2024’s election) but Crick describes how the party mechanism — via Starmer’s enforcers Matt Faulding, Matt Pound and Luke Akehurst — will aid their favoured candidates in some ways, perhaps by tipping them off that they have made the final shortlists in advance so they can start canvassing or by manipulating the timetable to suit them.
An insight into the man the Starmerite trio are probably backing in West Derby can be found in an argument over a local school. Multiple local councillors were said to be “appalled” by Byrne’s decision to claim credit for the campaign to save the De La Salle Academy, in which they believe he played a minimal role. The school had been issued with a termination warning notice after consecutive inadequate Ofsted reports but a “Save De La Salle” campaign kicked in and now it will become part of a multi-academy trust.
A woman whose nephew attends the school says Byrne “swept in at the last after doing precisely nothing of the donkey work”. They continued: “He makes a big deal about the Department for Education ringing him to tell him it is ‘saved’ [but] that's just procedure, they’d [have] rang any MP whose area school was in.” One councillor told The Post Byrne’s conduct was “despicable” and that he simply “[came] along for the pic”.
Byrne’s detractors claim Croxteth councillor Anthony Lavelle led the campaign, chairing the governors and meeting the education minister in person. On the contrary, a letter written by the De La Salle Brothers — the Catholic teaching organisation behind the school and others — notes the “enormous help” of Byrne for “join[ing] the Governing Board, mobilis[ing] local community support, and secur[ing] a meeting with the Education Minister to prevent the school’s imminent closure”.
Wherever the truth lies, what is clear is that whenever talking about De La Salle, both the councillor and the MP make no mention of each other. Under Lavelle’s tweet about it on 7 April — in which Byrne is absent — councillor Ann O’Byrne replies: “You have led this campaign and supported parents and pupils throughout”. In an Echo article from February this year only Byrne of the two gets a mention. Why might this be?
It might be because 26-year-old Lavelle is the man who wants Byrne’s seat. The Post broke this news last Friday, which was the deadline for submissions. Now it’s official. Sources in the Labour Party initially listed both Lavelle and former president of the Co-op Group National Members' Council Nick Crofts as contenders. Insiders are now saying that Crofts — who is based in Knotty Ash where Byrne lost decisively in the trigger but is less popular on the big estates — will support Lavelle in his campaign for West Derby, with his own sights set on Knowsley where sitting MP George Howarth is expected to stand down at the next election.
There’s no doubt a revenge element to Crofts’ intentions. In 2019 he was the favourite to win West Derby but the party prevented him from even getting onto the longlist. A letter entitled “Stop the Stitch Up” was signed by 50 local members and sent to the party’s executive. It was no use. In the end Byrne edged out Momentum candidate Angela Coleman by a whisker. Lavelle ended up backing Coleman.
Being 26 wouldn’t make Lavelle the youngest MP in parliament, the ‘baby of the house’ as it is known is Labour’s 23-year-old Nadia Whittome, but it is rare nonetheless. One significant figure in Liverpool Labour told The Post: “Anthony’s a capable lad but he seems to have made a weird habit of putting himself forward for jobs he’s not qualified to do,” in reference to both this bid and his attempt to become the city’s mayor last year. This was a common view: that Lavelle is hard-working and always willing to go out leafleting for local councillors, but lacks the life experience and prominence of his rival. Lavelle has never had a proper job beyond Labour.
Other critics of Lavelle — who previously worked in the office of Bootle MP Peter Dowd — refer to an absence of clear ideology, seeing him as someone who cares only to climb the greasy ladder, compared to his rival who operates from a set of strong beliefs. “Ant's ambition binds him to obedience and conformity,” is one observation.
One formerly prominent figure in the city’s politics is upset to see the right of the Labour Party behaving in the same factional manner the left did under Corbyn. “It’s sad to see that the pendulum swings the other way, it’s shameful that people want to take people out just for the sake of asserting themselves,” he says. The source says he’s backing Byrne: “If I thought for one minute that he was a lazy bastard he wouldn’t get my vote, but he isn’t.”
One thing many agree on is that Byrne is at least a little bit scared. An email sent out to branch members on Wednesday inviting them to a coffee morning for “a discussion on the current cost of living crisis and to discuss any issues you would like me to raise in parliament” is said by one Lavelle-backer to be “the first email I have received of this nature in three years”. Byrne’s camp have also sent out pamphlets that seem to address what some see as his lack of local involvement: “20,000+ cases resolved for local people, 50,000+ emails sent to support West Derby residents”.
There’s an understandable disconnect between those inside and outside of West Derby in their views on the situation. When the fact there would be a selection battle was announced, much of Twitter was aghast. “How on earth would anyone want to remove Ian Byrne as MP?” said former Sefton councillor Dan Lewis. “The guy has gone into parliament with the aim to end hunger”. Even Byrne’s biggest detractors all seem to preface their complaints with how admirable that work is. And yet in spite of that, he leads a divided constituency. As one member puts it: “If Ian loses, it won’t be because of London Labour or anything like that, it’ll be because of us, locally.”