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The Bristol Cable

How Bristol is run isn’t just a political debate. It impacts our everyday lives. 

We should care about the mayoral referendum in May because the importance of local democracy goes beyond the media and political bubble.

Illustration: Laurence Ware

Bristol Mayoral Referendum

Bristol goes to the polls again in May. But this isn’t your average local election where different parties battle it out over buses, budgets and bins. This time, we’re voting on whether we should scrap the mayor, just 10 years after we decided we wanted one.

On 5 May, Bristol will be able to vote in favour of keeping a directly-elected mayor, or opt to replace them with a committee system, granting the city’s 70 councillors more power. (This was in place before 2000).

In basic terms, supporters of the mayoral system argue that it provides a single recognisable figure who can set out a long-term vision, represent the city on national and international level and can get things done, unhampered by the political instability so common in Bristol’s history. Meanwhile, those campaigning to bring in a committee system say the mayor has too much power, and isn’t scrutinised by local councillors, who don’t have enough of a say. They argue the committee system would be more democratic and representative of the whole city. 

Should one person have the power to set out and deliver their vision for the city over four years? Or should councillors elect a council leader whose feet are held to the fire by councillors? How important is stability, personality, scrutiny and representation in a well-functioning local democracy?

We’ve only had two mayors over just 10 years – independent (former Lib Dem) George Ferguson and Labour’s Marvin Rees. But in that time, the conversation about how Bristol should be run has been divided and at times fraught and vitriolic. The system has come under fire as the mayor clashed with local councillors on big issues, such as where to build Bristol Arena, the Bristol Energy fiasco that lost millions of taxpayer money, and what form of mass transit we need. 

These political debates are made even more intense by the fact that the balance of power in Bristol isn’t held by a single party. And now the council chamber is even more politically divided than usual, since the Greens won ground on Labour to become the joint largest party at last year’s local elections. 

Get our weekly rundown of essential Bristol news, with special editions on the referendum

Mayor Marvin Rees’ decision to deny any Green councillors a position of power in his cabinet hasn’t exactly helped bridge the divide. When Rees said his heart sinks at the sight of the name of Clifton Down councillor Carla Denyer, who is now co-leader of the Green Party, it gives some sense of the state of the damaged relationship between the Mayor and opposition councillors. 

Only 24% of voters turned out at the last referendum 10 years ago, and it’s possible lots of people won’t engage this time either. This referendum might only seem interesting to politics nerds, but it has big implications for how the city is run. Bristol City Council is responsible for how we tackle the city’s big problems, from the housing crisis, to climate change, transport to air pollution. Yes, the local authority has its hands tied to a certain extent by central government funding cuts and limited powers, but it still has a huge influence on our lives. That’s why who runs the council matters.

Whichever side wins, it seems obvious that either the mayoral system needs reforming or more fundamental parts of the city’s political culture need looking at. How can councillors set aside party politics and solve the city’s problems together? How can decisions be scrutinised properly? How can the political leadership represent the whole city as best as possible?  

Over the next month, the Cable will try to answer these questions about political systems, culture and power. Our explainers, videos, and podcasts will cover the basics for you and dive deeper into the thorny arguments. We’ll look back into the past and ahead into the future, while scrutinising politicians and campaigners on both sides. 

There are ways you can get involved too. We’re organising a panel debate on 28 April where campaigners and commentators on each side will be grilled. Book your free ticket

We’re also asking readers how informed they feel, which way they’re leaning, and what questions they need answering. Have your say here


Report a comment. Comments are moderated according to our Comment Policy.

  • There are plenty of Labour supporters (and councillors) whose heart sinks at seeing the name of Marvin Rees. Let’s not make this any more party political than necessary. It doesn’t matter who you elect as a local councilor so long as the Mayor is able to completely disregard what they say.


    • The mayoral system gives the city accountability – the right to vote out the unpopular (eg G Ferguson). The electorate chose to give Marvin Rees a second term, but they could have made an alternative decision.

      Otherwise we’re back to deals in smoke filled room – maybe without the smoke these days – and politicians few people know the name of. Who is aware of the criminal record of the current Green leader in the City Council, for example?


  • The mayoral system as currently devised is potentially an elected dictatorship, with few if any checks and balances on its power. That the post holder can just ignore a majority of elected councillors doesn’t suggest a mature and functional political system that truly represents the various shades of opinion across the city.
    The other enormous cloud on the horizon, which should really trouble those who believe in democracy, is the current Tory Westminster Government bill to change the way Mayors are elected to a First Past The Post system. This is such a retrograde step, but one that no one who understands current Tory politics should be surprised by.
    For me, irrespective of the current post holder and his at times questionable decision-making and lack of respect for political opponents (both internal and external to the Labour Party) having previously voted for the Mayoral system, I now think it’s time for it to go. It’s been an experiment that has demonstrated the weakness of one person rule, without bringing the benefits that many of us who previously supported it may have hoped for. That this person could in future be elected by just a very small minority should be a truly worrying prospect for everyone who wants the best for our city.


  • I wss appalled to read in your news round-up that Labour HQ hauled up Ed Milliband in an attempt to shore up our undemocratic mayoral system – which others – see above – correctly call a dictatorship. Marvin Rees has much to be ashamed of. The sooner we rid ourselves of the mayoral system, the sooner will we have the return of democracy to Bristol. Milliband clearly knows nothing about how the wishes of local Bristol people have been trampled over and ignored by Rees. For example, not only has he tried to cover up the losses of £50m the council incurred on the Bristol energy company but he has also ignored the democratic vote by residents of Bishopston and St Andrews who voted by a 60% majority to have a restricted parking zone. The result of Rees’ meddling with our democratic wishes is we now have people from all over the city using our neighbourhood as a free-for-all car park – blocking our roads, putting children at greater risk, forcing us to live surrounded by huge ugly vans and much increased pollution. Does Ed Milliband know anything at all about this? I doubt it.
    My message to Milliband – and any other imported Labour politicians – stay in London and don’t interfere in matters you clearly know nothing about. You will only help to weaken democracy in Bristol.


    • So you dont want national politicians to visit Bristol? Somewhat parochial.

      If voters dont like any mayor they can vote him or her out – as happened to George Ferguson. We all know that the coalition deals between parties under the previous system meant key decisions and commitments were ducked – yet Bristol voters get no say on which individuals lead and represent them


  • Jon Sims Williams

    If we want a more democratic system for selecting the mayor but one that will work ie encourage councillors to work for the benefit of the city as a whole, then we should allow the councillors to select the mayor. If all the councillors get a vote then the mayor will be beholden to all parties to some degree and this would encourage a more collegial performance without the problem of having a relatively leaderless council.


  • Bristol has bene notorious for falling behind other cities in big infrastructure projects and integrated transport. And we have climate and housing crises.

    Thats why I value a mayoral system that can get things done without the machinations of coalition politics. Its clear who you hold to account – and can vote out or in again depending on their record.


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