Why Bristol said yes to a directly elected mayor

by Amanda Ramsay

With one of the government’s key policies from the Localism Act now in utter tatters and nine out of ten English cities rejecting the idea of directly elected city mayors, will the prime minister still go ahead with the idea of his ‘cabinet of mayors’?

Will Liverpool, Salford, Bristol and the 15 other city mayors already elected, from the likes of Leicester and Doncaster, all still be offered a direct hotline to Number 10, or was it all just a PR stunt from the PM?

If you follow the government narrative prior to their policy for elected mayors collapsing, Bristol will now be catapulted into a super-strata, becoming a new fast-track powerhouse, reaping the benefit of the much promised extra powers for cities that voted ‘yes’.

With Bristol opting to say ‘yes’ to a directly elected mayor, there will now be a city-wide election on 15 November, under a supplementary voting system, the same day as the police and crime commissioner (PCC) elections across England and Wales.

Curiosity abounds as to why Bristol said ‘yes’ and the other nine cities said ‘no’ last Thursday. One senior commentator said: “good on Bristol for being a proper city, baffles me that the referenda results were that bad.”

“It’s clear that those campaigning for an elected mayor did not make the case – except in Bristol – and even there turn-out was as low as everywhere else, so it was passed by a small minority of the electorate,” says Professor Steven Fielding, Director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham.

Without local elections on the same day, a low turnout was always expected and in the end just 24% of the electorate decided the fate of the city: 41,032 voted in favour of a mayor, while 35,880 voted against, though these figures do not include postal vote numbers.

Analysis of why Bristol bucked the trend seems to boil down to a growing sense of disillusionment over how the Lib Dem controlled city council is being run with local MP Charlotte Leslie talking of a ‘revolving door’ of  council leaders: there will have been six changes in the last ten years, after the current Lib Dem leader announced she was stepping down, just days before the referendum.

On the day as Lib Dems were thrashed in elections across the UK, was Bristol displaying an underlying pavlovian response against local Lib Dems? There were Lib Dem councillors in the ‘no’ campaign, the same Lib Dems who despite their coalition ministers and MPs having voted for directly elected mayors in the Localism Act.

Confusion over what the referendum was all about did not help drive public engagement.

Conspiracy or incompetence surrounded the council’s controversial handling of a government-funded information leaflet which wildly exaggerated the costs of a directly elected mayor. Cities’ minister Greg Clark was dragged into the row and in the event, the leaflet mysteriously didn’t arrive at many people’s homes. I’m still waiting for mine.

After the announcement of the result on Friday, Kerry McCarthy MP for Bristol East told me: “I think a mayor could provide the focus and drive Bristol has been lacking. I want to ensure better turnout in November, so the mayor has a clear mandate. The lack of information about the referendum was troubling and now need to clarify what the mayor’s powers will be under the City Deal.”

New powers aside, the Bristol mayor will have a billion pound budget to manage and the selection of a competent and appealing Labour Party mayoral Candidate will be critical to the party’s chances of winning in November.

One Labour hopeful is Marvin Rees, a Programme Manager at NHS Bristol, told me:

“Bristol’s decision to have an elected mayor presents a great opportunity for the city. Many people, from local community groups to business, have understood the city is underperforming. This referendum vote is confirmation of a belief that this situation could not go on and the city needed more direction and leadership. If it is done well, the mayor could provide the shot in the arm the city needs.

“Having said that, all the candidates must acknowledge the relatively low turnout for the vote and tackle the distance many people are feeling from politics in general. Engaging with the city and building the democratic legitimacy of the role must be a top priority. But this in itself is an opportunity to breathe new life into Bristol politics.”

Questions loom for the Tory-led government over many of their policies and their Localism Act is no exception. Housing crises are coming to the fore as a result of this new legislation and now with most cities rejecting directly elected mayors another omnishambles beckons.

Will the public be more enthusiastic about voting for elected police and crime commissioners later this year? Six months of campaigning will soon tell.

Amanda Ramsay is a former Labour councillor and cabinet member

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4 Responses to “Why Bristol said yes to a directly elected mayor”

  1. swatantra says:

    Tosh! The fact is the Great British Public really don’t understand Referendums; to them its just another opportunity to trash the inciumbent Govt. They did it to Labour when we kindly offered them more local control ie a Regional Govt. They voted that down. Now Dave knows how Blair felt when the GBP voted down his Mayors. Now Nick knows how Brown felt when they voted down his PR/AV.
    Even Ken was against Mayors at first before he realised it was a Capital idea and it would give him a mealticket. The Welsh and Scots were against Devolution first, then they realised its a great opportunity to break away from the stranglehold of Westminster and do their own thing. Their Referendums were only won by the smallest of margins anyway.
    To save the GBP wasting any more of their brain cells, do what Liverpool did, just go ahead with changing to Mayors. You should only hold a referendum if you think you can win, like Wilson did on the EEC. So the SNP is foolish in even thinking of a Referendum, and should do what Smith did in S Rhodesia and Declare Independence, now, And see here it gets him.
    The fact is Mayors take decisions quickly instead of them being bogged down in Committees by unknowns. If they get it wrong you can always blame the face.
    One thing that could improve at City hall though is greater powers for the MLAs’ they should be more than just an Overview and Scrutiny Committee. And tere should be more of them.

  2. Steve Smith says:

    As a life-long, left-leaning Bristolian there have been numerous reasons why i could not, in conscience, rejoin and campaign for the Labour Party. Blair’s betrayal of principals and policy in Iraq was the major factor but the local party’s successive failures in Bristol was also significant. For most of my life [I am 58] the city has been run by a bunch of [usually well-intentioned] imcompetents and that is regardless of whichever party is in charge. My father was a labour councillor on both Bristol & Avon and he has often said how ‘political’ the councils were. This ‘in-fighting’ [both within and between the major parties] has meant that achieving a consensus of what is right for the city has rarely been at the forefront of the politicians’ minds. maybe it is this which has seen Bristol buck the trend. I don’t think Bristolians voted as they did to ‘punish’ the Lib Dems as many do not know [or care] who the leaders are or which party they represent. It may be that the voters in favour of the Mayoralty did so in hope that it would give some drive and energy to the city – anything is an improvement on the long sorry sage of indecison and failure we have witnessed for several generations.

    Having said all that I have to admit I did not vote. My reason was that we all know it is the funding of local govt which is crucial here. Whilst councils are reliant on shrinking govt grants and have no power to raise Council Tax the ability to influence of the city is very limited. Until we have some form of local income/sales tax – the levels of which are set by the council itself – then the nature of the leadership is irrelevant.

    i love my city and whant to see it become a festival city but our small-minded leaders have always lacked the imagination to tackle the real problems here – particularly in terms of transport.

  3. Brishack says:

    Wilson didn’t hold an EEC referendum, Swatantra: that was Ted Heath. And I think that, of all possible role models, Alec Salmond is unlikely to follow the path of Ian Smith. I voted no in Bristol – but now we are going to have a mayor, I hope the debate is better informed than the shambles we have just been through.

  4. Brishack says:

    Losing my marbles – of course it was Wilson. Sorry, S!

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