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Cable editorial: The big story behind Bristol’s local election isn’t who won, but who voted.

The Cable editorial team on what the results mean for our city as the dust settles on the elections.

Local Elections 2021

As the punditry, recriminations and celebrations kicked off over the weekend with local results rolling in across the city and country, there’s a much bigger story than who won or lost: it’s that a majority of the public didn’t vote at all. In Bristol, where turnout was higher than in many places across the UK, 6 in 10 people did not vote at all in the four elections that significantly changed the landscape of our city and region. And that’s of the people who have registered to vote in the first place. 

Elections are the cornerstone of democracies. And while democracy is about a lot more than who is in office, when a significant majority of people aren’t turning out to vote, what does that say about the state of our politics? Even the average turnout of 40% hides a range across the city, often mirroring inequalities. From 20% in Hartcliffe and Withywood, to 57% in Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze. 

Some will blame those who didn’t use their right to vote. “Don’t you know people fought for it?”. But the best thing we can do is ask why large numbers of people are bored, disengaged or disenchanted. Is it because they’re happy with the status quo, or because they can’t see the status quo changing? 

Whatever the many reasons, it’s our responsibility at the Cable (and the responsibility of many others) to demonstrate and make real the implications of politics. There’s a saying “Turn on to politics, or politics will turn on you.” It doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be a political nerd, far from it. But, beyond the media circus and personalities, who is in power does have an effect on everything, from the price of a bus ticket to action on the climate crisis, and how they are connected. 

After four election results over the weekend, Bristol has a very different political landscape, with immediate and longer term impacts. 

Amid the ongoing fallout of the toppling of Colston and the Police and Crime Bill protests, a newly elected Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner comes into office just in time to play a major role in replacing the retiring chief constable Andy Marsh, the top cop at Avon and Somerset Police. This will help set the tone and approach, not just towards protests, but of policing as a whole, in Bristol and in the more Conservative-leaning region for a long time to come.

Also at a regional level, Labour’s Dan Norris secured a gain from the Tories for the role that brings together local authorities in the West of England. A powerful but obscure role for many, Norris must work to help rebuild the post-pandemic region in a sustainable and just way. A return to ‘normal’ will not do.

In City Hall, Labour’s Marvin Rees has secured a second term by a comfortable but reduced margin. But the Greens have more than doubled their previous councillor count, to equal Labour’s 24, with many newcomers elected. 

There will be some pain on Labour’s side, having lost some long-standing and well-respected councillors in traditional Labour areas. And it’s fair to say the relationship between the Greens and Labour has been far from beef-free in the past few years, with an ongoing dispute about the role of councillors and the power of the mayor. 

But there’s a critical need for these parties to work together on the many areas of common ground they share. Grandstanding and point scoring will not help us fix adult social care or get to net-zero carbon by 2030. This doesn’t mean not disagreeing where necessary. But it does mean both parties must resist any petty rivalries and jockeying, and keep an eye on the big picture, including the priorities identified in the Cable’s Citizen’s Agenda. Here’s hoping. 

At the Cable, we’ll be doing our best to hold newly elected politicians to account on this measure and more, and more generally aim to engage Bristol’s people in the politics that affect us all.

Tens of thousands of you have turned to the Cable for comprehensive and in depth independent journalism this election. 2,600 and counting Cable members chip in a couple of quid a month to make it happen. But we need your help to keep us going. 

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