There’s a saying that ‘politics makes for strange bedfellows’, when shared interests bring together seemingly diverse groups. On 7 December 2021, Bristol’s Green, Lib Dem and Tory councillors lined up to defeat Labour in a vote on whether to keep or ditch Bristol’s mayoral system. A referendum will now be held this May.
The Lib Dems and Tories are no strangers to coalition, but while some leftwingers try to paint the Greens as ‘Tories on bikes’, they are far closer to Labour politically. This referendum goes beyond party politics and the confines of the council chamber, generating some intriguing dynamics and allies.
Along with the opposition in the council, also in the ‘anti-mayoral system’ camp are Bristol South’s Labour MP Karin Smyth, leftwing campaigners Momentum and the city’s first mayor. George Ferguson labelled Marvin Rees’ Labour administration an “unholy alliance with the business community”, who apparently find it “much easier to manipulate a mayor” to further their corporate interests. It’s a provocative take from the former Lib Dem and Merchant Venturer, who had his fair share of controversy while leading the city as an independent.
Business West, the association of businesses in the region, has come out strongly in favour of keeping the mayoral system. An appeal sent to councillors acknowledged the system needs reform but asked them to reject a referendum. Joining forces with organised business is the regional leader for organised workers, Nigel Costley of the South West Trade Union Congress who took the same side, arguing that a referendum is a distraction from bigger issues. Sandy Hore-Ruthven, the 2021 Green mayoral candidate, also favours keeping the system – putting him at odds with the party’s new national co-leader, Bristol councillor Carla Denyer.
It’s hard then to cast this as a straight fight between the establishment and radical ideas, as the local Lib Dems who led the charge (and have the most to gain, along with the Tories) would put it. So what’s it all about? Power and influence to shape and lead the city, who has it and why. But also at play are personalities and characters, always present in political conflict.
It’s not about Marvin (it is quite a bit)
Rees, who won’t be standing again in 2024, has said all this isn’t about him. It’s true in one sense. But the mayor and system are practically inseparable when it comes to assessing the past 10 years. This vote will be as much a referendum on Rees’ contested legacy – and to a lesser extent Ferguson’s – as on the intricacies of local government structures.
A dictatorship; Squid Game; throwing the ring of Sauron into the flames – these comparisons have all been invoked by opponents of the mayoral system, and of Rees in particular. The current mayor rightly called out such self-indulgent exaggeration as offensive to people who have suffered under actual dictatorships.
But Rees’ approach to criticism has too often been thin-skinned, and marked by a failure to distinguish between genuine opposition and trolling. We have seen tendencies towards closing ranks with selected allies, avoiding transparency and using mayoral powers for railroading or stalling initiatives – think the arena, One City boards, the Bristol Energy fiasco, the clean air zone and questions over executive pay. There have been recent clashes between the mayor and opposition councillors over the city’s budget. This generates hostility – and the negative headlines Rees often complains about. A big question is whether this dynamic is an inevitable part of the mayoral model itself that concentrates too much power in the hands of one person.
While Rees claims he is focused on using this power for getting stuff done, opposition (and, quietly, some Labour) councillors complain of being shut out from helping shape decisions. Labour’s lead councillor Steve Pearce dismissed these concerns – and the referendum – as “belly button fluff”, claiming the mayoral model helps bring the city together to tackle big issues like adult social care, inward investment and transport.
Maybe so. But after Labour lost its majority in last year’s local elections, this antagonistic posture – and not attempting a tactical olive branch, for example a cabinet position to the newly empowered Greens – helped unite the opposition, ushering in the referendum. It’s not clear if a more diplomatic or shrewd approach would have made a difference. Either way, Rees could be the last Bristol mayor.
What’s the alternative?
Should the directly elected mayor be abolished, Bristol’s councillors would instead form cross-party committees on all areas of local policy, proportional to their party’s representation in the council. Advocates for the ‘committee system’ say it’s more democratic because power is shared and more closely reflects the election results.
People in the ‘mayoral system’ camp say it is in fact less accountable, because barely anyone knows their councillor, whereas everyone knows and directly elects the mayor – who becomes a focal point for responsibility and visible leadership. They say a committee system will drag Bristol back into a cycle of endless meetings and squabbling between parties, which characterised the pre-mayoral era and helped make Bristol the only city to vote for a mayoral system in 2012.
Today’s fractiousness hardly suggests the ability for cross-party collaboration. Stripped of the mayor’s decisive power, who will lobby the central government and drive forward city ambitions, such as bringing Channel 4 to Bristol or implementing a mass transit system?
Yet political stability has been drastically improved by 2016’s change to all-out local elections every four years, rather than electing a third of council seats at a time. Critics of the mayoral model will also argue that times have changed since 2012, when just 13% of the city’s total adult population voted for the mayoral system, which limped in on a total turnout of just 24%. Plus, they argue, there is now a mayor for the wider West of England region, Labour’s Dan Norris.
Recent public spats between Norris and other local leaders, including Rees, have not exactly put a positive light on the current two-tier setup. But the two mayoral roles have different powers and policy areas. As such the casting of Bristol’s mayor as the ‘spare mayor’ is not accurate and highlights a lack of quality political argument, deliberately or otherwise.
As the referendum looms, taking liberties with facts and rhetoric doesn’t do anyone any favours either. Rees has said: “They’re trying to take away your right to vote for who leads Bristol – and hit the voting rights of 340,000 Bristolians.” To invoke voter disenfranchisement in this context is as ridiculous as calling the mayor a dictator.
This debate needs to be lively and charged, to drive up public participation. And it doesn’t make sense complaining about it all being “too [party] political”. This is what politics is, and anybody saying they are ‘independent’ or above the fray should be treated with scepticism. The referendum will fundamentally boil down to two things: who do people trust, and how much do those outside Bristol’s media-politics bubble actually care enough to get out and vote?