The past few months have been turbulent for Labour, both at a national level and in Bristol.
Party leader Keir Starmer has endured frustrating polls of late and is facing concern, especially from the left, about a perceived lack of clear identity and vision since he succeeded Jeremy Corbyn. There have been complaints both regarding Starmer’s alleged rightwards tilt, including around messaging aimed at winning back socially conservative ‘red wall’ voters, and over suspensions of left-wing party activists.
In Bristol these issues have regularly bubbled to the surface, with preparations for May’s local elections being disrupted as some candidates have been unable to stand after being suspended from the party. There has also been criticism from within party ranks of Bristol’s Labour mayor, Marvin Rees, who Starmer endorsed in his recent visit to the city, and of the mayoral system more generally.
After the 2016 elections that put Rees into office, Labour held a wafer-thin majority of 37 out of 70 council seats. This number has since been whittled down to 33 due to councillors retiring or defecting to other parties.
Could Labour’s internal disharmony harm its chances of seizing another majority? And with the mayoral system seen by some as marginalising councillors, does this matter? The Cable spoke to current and outgoing councillors, standing candidates, and people who have recently left the party about the challenge the party is facing.
‘Some activists have taken their bat and ball home’
Labour in Bristol has been shaken from a number of directions this year. Within the administration, a row over a council-house rent freeze in February saw Labour councillors Nicola Bowden-Jones and Jo Sergeant attack the Rees administration’s culture as controlling, with Sergeant subsequently defecting to the Greens. Soon afterwards, two other outgoing Labour councillors, Mike Davies and Olly Mead, criticised the mayoral system as being obstructive to democracy and scrutiny – arguments Rees rejected.
Bowden-Jones, Davies and Mead are among 15 sitting Labour councillors not contesting their seats this year, meaning the party has had to find fresh candidates for lots of positions. In some parts of the city, that process has been far from smooth.
Over the winter, a number of local left-wing members were suspended in Bristol West after a meeting allowed a motion to be heard relating to Corbyn’s suspension from Labour. Darran McLaughlin, a candidate for Bishopston and Ashley Down, where just a few votes separated Labour and the Green Party in 2016, was prevented from running as a result.
Around the time of the rent freeze row, a chaotic online AGM for Bristol West Labour elected a ‘unity’ slate of candidates to the local committee, who are aligned with Starmer and backed by local MP Thangam Debonnaire. There was controversy after the meeting, the running of which had been taken over by the party’s South West regional office and suffered repeated technical difficulties that delayed voting to the point where some members gave up and left.
As late as the second half of March, Kieran Glasssmith was removed as a candidate in Cotham after sharing social media posts criticising Starmer. Meanwhile in Lockleaze, an entire local Labour committee resigned in response to the South West regional office rejecting their candidates.
This meant some candidates had to be drafted in at the last minute before the 8 April deadline for submissions. Sources who spoke to the Cable acknowledged that disillusionment with Labour’s perceived direction, and actions around suspensions and selections, which triggered a ‘campaign strike’ by left-wing faction Momentum, are having an impact on campaigning in some inner-city wards.
“[A lot of left-wing members] have just taken their bat and ball home,” said one Labour veteran. “Internal warfare is overstating it, I think, most people have just written [campaigning] off as a waste of time – and some may not even vote.”
While other people we spoke to expressed pride in the energy of their local “ground game”, there was a broader consensus that the numbers of people involved in canvassing and other campaign activities were short.
Other practical concerns relating to suspensions, and the seizing of operational control by regional officials, also emerged, including campaign leaflets being prepared late and voters simply having had no time to get to know candidates drafted in at the last minute.
‘Quite a lot of anti-Marvin feeling’
Many Labour figures the Cable spoke to stressed that these new challenges should be seen in the context of others that the party would likely have faced anyway.
The first of these is Rees’s status as incumbent mayor, seen as a double-edged sword. On the plus side, some said he was still viewed much more positively by voters than Starmer, even in the most left-leaning wards, with allegations around Rees’s management style and the mechanisms of the mayoral system a non-issue.
But others feared the mayor’s high level of recognition, and status as a figurehead leader, could lead to Labour being punished by voters in Bristol’s more deprived outer wards, who do not feel they have seen progress during his term.
Ex-Labour councillor Jo Sergeant, who represents one of those areas, Avonmouth and Lawrence Weston, said she had encountered “quite a lot of anti-Marvin feeling” that felt comparable to the backlash experienced by the previous mayor George Ferguson, who Rees replaced in 2016.
“Whether the strength of feeling about Marvin will translate to fewer votes for the Labour candidate, that’s another matter,” said Sergeant. She added that she would have hoped for re-election had she remained with Labour, and still hoped to achieve it as a Green, based on local recognition and the growing number of younger voters who lean to her new party.
Aside from the mayor’s gravitational pull, Labour sources noted that, in some wards, there are specific local issues relating to the current administration’s record that could be used as a stick to beat candidates with. In Windmill Hill, for instance, where Labour prevailed by just a few hundred votes in 2016, Green Party candidates are standing in opposition to new high-rise developments in Bedminster that have been approved under Rees.
Such issues, plus the impact of the pandemic on turnout, were already likely to have made it difficult for Labour to regain overall control of the council on 6 May, one councillor said. But another source added the additional depressive of party infighting was likely to seal the deal.
Asked about the state of the campaign, a Labour South West spokesperson said candidates across Bristol “are standing on Marvin’s – and the Labour-run council’s – record of delivering for people in the city”.
The spokesperson added: “In the past five years the Labour mayor and council have delivered thousands of new affordable homes, taken action to tackle the climate emergency, grown Bristol’s creative and tech sectors and given much-needed support to businesses to help them survive the pandemic.”
Smashing the system?
Whether Labour somehow manages to deliver a new majority within the council chamber, or is squeezed badly by other parties, there is also the question of how the mayoral system will fare next term.
There was a range of views, both among this term’s councillors and new candidates, as to whether Rees, if re-elected, might face more public attempts to hold him to account from within his own party. While this clearly depends on the candidates elected, one said there was every chance that “thoughtful” new councillors would try to “exert some force” within the constraints of the system.
Others disagreed, arguing that new councillors would end up toeing the line, or that the weeding-out of left-wingers all but ensured minimal resistance. Either way, if Rees is re-elected but Labour has no majority of councillors, it seems probable the mayor will face more friction in driving decisions past audit and scrutiny committees led by other parties.
Two of those parties – the Tories and the Lib Dems – have already committed to trying to do away with the mayoral system altogether if their candidates are elected to the top job.
No matter who is successful, opposition parties may continue to agitate for that option. A referendum on the system that presents a viable alternative could be triggered within two years if demanded by a petition signed by 5% of local electors – or voted for via a motion at full council.
The former option has had little joy, with a current Conservative-sponsored effort attracting only 555 signatures at the time of writing. Meanwhile a Lib Dem motion calling for a fresh mayoral referendum was defeated by 35 to 24 councillor votes in March.
But a repeat of the process during the next mayoral term could provide another interesting test for Labour Party unity, and the willingness of members to defy the party whip. Even among candidates sympathetic to Rees, we found considerably lower opinions of the mayoral system.
“I just don’t think someone should have that much power, unchecked, between elections – there should always be an indirectly elected executive that can be removed,” said one. “I think Marvin is good – but I’d like him to be the leader of the council, not the mayor.”