A Bristol councillor has launched an eviscerating attack on the Labour group after quitting the party earlier this month.
Councillor Jo Sergeant’s claims, which allege there is a culture of “fear and bullying” within the party, and make particular reference to elected mayor Marvin Rees and Bristol Labour Group leader Margaret Hickman, have been dismissed as a “personal vendetta” by the mayor’s office.
Her attack comes two months before local elections and just before a full council vote tonight (16 March) on whether to hold a referendum on the elected mayoral model next year.
Now representing Avonmouth and Lawrence Weston as an independent, Cllr Sergeant quit the Labour group after voting in February against its intention to freeze council rents, a controversial issue which split the group in the weeks before it was passed by full council as part of next year’s budget.
Her resignation statement released on Friday night (12 March) describes the Labour party as being “focused on power for power’s sake and beset with a culture of fear and bullying”.
Cllr Sergeant said the Bristol Labour Group is dominated by Mr Rees and Cllr Hickman who “through their allies…control the agenda and restrict opportunity for debate on issues they do not wish to be discussed”.
Making public accusations which a small handful of Labour councillors have expressed privately, Cllr Sergeant said Mr Rees sees local councillors as an “annoying inconvenience” and has “no respect” for any members other than those Labour individuals in his “inner circle”.
She said he set up the City Office and One City Boards as an “alternative council” to make policy in a way that “circumvents democratic process”.
Cllr Sergeant’s comments drew both criticism and support from other Labour councillors on social media. Rebel backbencher Nicola Bowden-Jones, who also voted against the council rent freeze and was the only Labour member to vote against next year’s budget on 23 February, said she was “proud” of her “courageous” colleague for going public.
“I support everything you have said, and respect how difficult a decision this has been for you,” Cllr Bowden-Jones said.
Lockleaze Cllr Gill Kirk, who is not seeking re-election in May, said: “All I see here is a concerted effort to bring down a Labour administration. Very sad.”
A spokesman for Mr Rees said: “The mayor and cabinet are completely focused on keeping Bristolians safe and protecting their jobs.
“Our energy is going into the city’s Covid response and recovery – not being spent on rebutting people’s personal vendettas.”
Neither Cllr Hickman nor the regional Labour group, which also came in for criticism from Cllr Sergeant for imposing its choice of local election candidates, responded to a request for comment.
Cllr Sergeant, who has said she is “considering her options” ahead of May’s elections, is an opponent of the elected mayoral model, which she believes puts too much power in the hands of one person. She voted against it in the referendum of 2012 which led to the city getting its first directly elected mayor, George Ferguson, who was also criticised for exercising too much power.
However, Cllr Sergeant said she will not vote tonight in favour of a motion to hold a referendum in 2022 on whether the role should be kept or scrapped.
She said the referendum would allow voters to choose only between keeping the mayoral system in 2024 or reverting to a leader and cabinet model of governance, which “still encouraged party-political bickering over constructive policy making [and] still left most Bristolians’ elected representatives with very limited involvement”.
Cllr Sergeant, who is an opponent of Keir Starmer’s leadership of the party, said she would be campaigning instead for a “committee system” which “enables true democracy and accountability”.
The motion from the Liberal Democrat group is unlikely to pass when councillors vote on it tonight.
Following Cllr Sergeant’s departure, the Labour group including Mr Rees numbers 34, which is equal to the total number of opposition councillors.
Cllr Sergeant is the fourth councillor to leave the group since March last year, when Eastville representative Sultan Khan defected to the Liberal Democrats saying he was tired of “infighting” within the party. Harriet Bradley quit her Brislington West seat in July 2020 over ill health, after being suspended from the Labour Party while it investigated a controversial social media post referring to “the right kind of Jews”. Former cabinet member for housing Paul Smith stepped down in September after being appointed chief executive of Elim Housing Group.
However, Labour is not the only political group on the council to lose members since the 2016 local elections.
The Conservatives lost Brislington East councillor Tony Carey to the Liberal Democrats in September 2019, and Green member for Clifton Down Clive Stevens stood down due to ill health in January of this year.
A number of councillors have announced their intention not to reseek re-election in May having been required to serve another year after last year’s local elections were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.