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The Bristol Cable

‘I feel so uninformed’: Cable readers on Bristol’s mayoral referendum

Does the mayor have too much power and exclude councillors? Or is having a mayor the best way to overcome stalemates in a politically divided city? Here’s what Cable readers had to say.

Illustration: Laurence Ware

Bristol Mayoral Referendum

“I don’t understand why anybody would want to remove the mayor nor do I know what the alternative is.” This was one of hundreds of responses by Cable readers when we asked about Bristol’s mayoral referendum. 

On 5 May, Bristol is voting on whether to keep the role of directly elected mayor or replace it with a committee system where councillors have more power. In recent weeks, campaigners on both sides have been debating the pros and cons of each system. 

In April, we asked Cable readers how informed they felt and collected questions they wanted us to answer, to make sure we had the basics covered.

More people said they would vote to scrap the mayor rather than keep it, while more than 40% of respondents said they weren’t sure about how they would vote. But perhaps more interestingly, nearly two-thirds felt they weren’t very well informed or not informed at all, and fewer than one in three felt informed in any way. 

This comes after politicians admitted during a live debate co-hosted by the Cable that they weren’t comfortable with the amount of information that has been made available to the public ahead of Thursday’s vote.

From the issues of power and democracy to accountability and the impact on our everyday lives, here’s what Cable members said on whether Bristol should scrap the mayor. 

The anti-mayor camp

The most common arguments from critics of the mayoral system were that the mayor has too much power, that councillors are sidelined and that there is a lack of scrutiny and accountability. 

The mayoral model gives one person and their party-political minders the power to sideline elected councillors, so as a resident I have less voice and influence about my local neighbourhood than I did when my local councillors were instrumental in decisions. The current mayor exemplifies this democratic deficit because he has not had the personal skill or political motivation to act across the political parties, or even to respect their contributions.

Kate

Too much power in the hands of one man, with only nominal accountability. The current incumbent has shown nothing but disdain for elected councillors and has shown that he intends to pursue his own agenda, regardless of opinion in the city.

Chris

The relationship between the mayor and councillors has become particularly strained under Marvin Rees. Those campaigning for the committee system point to occasions where the mayor overruled councillors, such as where to build the Bristol Arena.

Numerous people also mentioned that mayors haven’t achieved enough in the last 10 years and that the cost of the mayor’s office is too high. Others pointed to the lack of scrutiny under the mayoral system and how the committee system is more representative of the city. 

The system would be OK if a mayor was more accountable to the elected councillors. In the present set-up it seems the mayor can override the wishes of a majority of councillors. For example, mayors should at least be obliged to appoint a cabinet that reflects the party balance of councillors.

Peter

Both George Ferguson and Marvin Rees have tried inviting councillors from different parties to join their cabinet, but Rees received criticism for not offering the Greens any positions of power in 2021, after they took council seats off Labour to become the joint largest party.

Other readers argued that the committee system would be more representative of the city as a whole.

The role is less democratic than a committee based system. Yes, we get to elect one person – but then they have four years to do whatever they want with no way to remove them from office. With a committee, it will more closely represent the electorate, encourage dialogue, and makes it harder for business interests to corrupt (currently they just need to corrupt one person)

Simon

The pro mayor camp

Supporters of the current system were most likely to mention that a mayor can get things done and break the deadlock in a politically divided city like Bristol, which was one of the points that resonated 10 years ago when we voted to introduce the role. Echoing the Labour councillors who support the mayoral system, other readers suggest reforming the mayor’s role would be a better approach than scrapping the system entirely.

I remember council stalemates before the mayor when Bristol had a reputation as an impotent city. Lots of talk of change e.g. around transport, but no action due to deadlock in the council.

Paul

Although by no means perfect, the mayoral system has broken the log jam which prevented Bristol making any meaningful decisions for years. With ‘no overall control’ or tiny majorities, politics was hijacked by factions.

Janice

Readers also said that the mayor is accountable to voters at the ballot box and that it’s important to have visible leaders who can represent the city externally. These have been among the main arguments presented by the mayor’s office and Labour councillors.

I think the post of mayor has been generally positive for Bristol. It’s raised the city’s profile well beyond the region and has brought a more stable form of government to the city. I don’t think the way in which the Bristol mayoralty is set up is ideal and I’d rather hear discussions on how that could be improved as opposed to whether or not to scrap the post altogether.

Morgan

On balance, it feels like it is better to have a publicly identifiable figure with which to target, petition and hold accountable, rather than a council group – I couldn’t name a single head of the council pre-mayoral times.

Toby

For a directly elected mayor, the candidate has to reach out beyond narrow partisanship to attract enough voters to win. The myth is the mayor is too powerful, but the truth is that the power to decide who runs the city lies with every voter at the moment and councillors are trying to seize that from the people (despite the candidates who stood on such a platform at last year’s election being rejected).

Nicholas

The people on the fence or needing more info

There were many readers who were undecided on how they would vote because they saw merits in both systems.

I’m torn because I think I support the role and not the man. I kind of think that mayors should be independent and not have to stay true to the party, they have to stay true to the city instead.

Bex

The most common thread of all was that people felt there wasn’t enough information out there to inform their vote.

What the fuck is it about and why have we not been made aware its even happening?

As well as the nearly two-thirds of people who responded who felt uninformed, some were sceptical about even having the referendum in the first place. Some have argued during the campaign that the cost of holding the referendum – thought to be about £650,000 – isn’t justified, while others have pointed to the fact that voters haven’t been given enough time to inform themselves before going to the ballot box.

From the limited detail I’ve seen, the arguments on both sides seem fairly self-serving. At the last mayoral referendum, I spoiled my ballot because the decision seemed unimportant in the greater scheme of things. At present, I’d expect to do the same again this time.

Chris

So what do you think? Let us know in the comments below. 

Still feeling confused? Check out our in-depth explainers, features and podcasts on the pros and cons of the mayoral and committee systems before casting your vote on 5 May.

Comments

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  • I’d like to keep the mayoral system, but have some level of reform. No idea how this process can be requested/initiated though?

    Reply

  • It’s not even just pro or anti the mayoral post, the referendum throws the committee system in there as well. I’d like to see the mayor’s post go, but why has the committee system been chosen as the governance model? When was this assessed and decided to be the best option? I don’t think even the councillors who back moving to committee can claim there was decent scrutiny of this model being put forward, which is ironic…

    Reply

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