by Amanda Ramsay
Defeat in the mayoral campaign is hard to take. Labour fought a clean campaign, but lost to a so called “independent” candidate”, George Ferguson, a colourful local business man (famed for wearing red trousers) who stood on a seemingly contrived non-party political platform, despite being a Lib Dem member until August of this year.
We’re all entitled to change our minds in life, of course, but Ferguson made much of rubbishing the Labour party, our manifesto pledges and party politics itself; despite being a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and councillor. He ran a distinctly anti-Labour campaign, especially in the final week, presumably because Labour had the momentum and were perceived as the odds on favourite to win.
I’ve covered the mayoral debate all year, initially looking at the ten cities where there were May referenda, in terms of analysing the terrain and outcomes. Back in the spring one Labour MP told me: “Tories recognise that mayoral elections can turn into personality-driven/anti-politics contests, it’s a desperate attempt to undermine Labour in the core cities.”
This has certainly proved the case in Bristol. Ferguson joined the fray with an already established city and media presence, with face and name recognition amongst the chattering classes, city and regional journalists.
The prime minister said he wants a “Boris in every city” – a reference to London mayor Boris Johnson. But other cities fought hard against a Tory-led government, seen as trying to destabilise Labour dominance in metropolitan cities. The likes of Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham were having nothing to do with it.
Bristol may well have its own Boris now, after all Ferguson literally launched his campaign in a circus, but what next?
Ferguson refused to make any meaningful manifesto pledges, describing them as “silly” and then swiftly put up council tax on day one of office.
No one voted for that.
And what are the lessons to be learned for Labour in Bristol? Could we have done things differently? Or is this more about accepting there were just too many variables working against us, one of them being a big personality in Ferguson and political fatigue amongst the general public?
The May referendum on whether to have a mayor gave an early indication of the issues we would face.
Many refused to vote in the initial referendum, with only about a quarter of the voting public bothering to cast a vote. Less than 10% of people voted in the referendum in Filwood, a ward in the Labour held Bristol South constituency.
Of those that voted “no”, many in the Labour party, cited putting too much executive power in one person’s hands as a reason. Several “no” voters were enraged by the idea of any added expense a mayor would cost, while others told me they did not vote back in May because they simply did not understand what they were being asked to vote for.
The distribution of government-funded explanatory literature before the referendum itself was a disaster. Huge amounts of people did not receive the leaflet. The Lib Dem run administration was accused of malpractice and suspected for trying to obstruct the political process.
In the end, the referendum turnout was just 24%.
Then came the seven month campaign.
Labour ran a positive campaign with policy commitments to affordable housing, a living wage and a better and cheaper public transport system.
But campaigners encountered much confusion over why there was a need for an election for a mayor when there was already a Lord Mayor, something we were often told on the doorstep. Why politicise the role, was another common complaint.
Explanations of this being a new leader of the city, with multi-million pound budget and spending power, who will be making decisions that affect our everyday lives, did not encourage people to vote, let alone vote Labour.
By the final weeks of the campaign, a new issue was commonplace in our core areas: “I won’t vote in an election I don’t understand.”
By this stage an information booklet on all candidates had been sent to each household from Bristol city council, but by the time residents knew there was a vote, many told me they did not understand what they were being asked to vote for and this made them stay at home.
Low turnout is often the kiss of death for Labour. Add this to a bitterly cold day (glove weather), pitch black by the time daytime workers were able to vote in the evening and streets so dangerous from lack of street lighting that breaking ankles was a real threat for activists (one councillor did break an ankle).
November elections are never going to be easy. Winter weather conditions and dawn and evening darkness meant it impossible to read door numbers and sheet information. Regional office provided us with torches, but many residents were not going anywhere, though we were driving people to polling stations well into the evening.
Come 8pm it was like looking for a needle in a haystack with the lights off.
The total postal and ballot vote being just 27.9%, engagement was only marginally better than the 24% of the electorate who voted in May.
It was always going to be an election result about turnout. Turnout in middle class areas is traditionally higher than Labour areas across the country and Bristol is no exception; at the count the ballot papers were stacked three and four times higher than in Labour heartland wards. Though Labour harvested a solid vote across the city, it was 6,000 short of a win.
The working class estates just did not come out, with just 11.21% in Hartcliffe where there are two very active Labour councillors and a well-regarded, long serving former cabinet minister and Labour MP in Dawn Primarolo.
In Filwood, where the constituency campaign centre was, just 12.47% local voters bothered to come out, despite also having two well thought of Labour councillors, who enjoy high voter recognition and respect.
Added to very low turnout in our core areas, 11% overall compared to 30%and 40% in the Tory constituency of Bristol North West, the Tory and LibDem vote collapsed across the city, creating a vacuum for George Ferguson’s votes to flourish.
In the final weeks of the campaign, despite defacing and denouncing party politics, Ferguson had the hypocrisy to register his own political party: Bristol 1st. He promised to disband it after the election, but we are yet to see if this happens and whether he will put up candidates across the city in the local elections in May 2013.
Labour’s campaign was largely excellent. With an articulate, charismatic and popular candidate in Bristol born and bred Marvin Rees, the welcome involvement of national party figures no doubt motivated activists too but in the end, too many of our voter made a deliberate choice to stay at home.
It’s now up to the Labour group of 22 councillors, out of the 70 in total on Bristol city vouncil, to be hungry for greater scrutiny of the executive and officers than ever before. The cabinet is only an advisory body under the new system of city governance, with the Bristol mayor having ultimate decision-making power, not easily defeated in the council chamber.
With gesture politics and no measurable manifesto pledges from the winner (other than changing the name of the council house to Bristol city hall), the new mayor may as well have been given the administrative equivalent of a blank cheque.
There will be a thorough campaign review to establish how to win more of the 323,310 possible votes at the next mayoral, European and general elections. Let alone, to examine how best to approach the local elections looming in May, especially if mayor Ferguson puts up more “independent” candidates” under the Bristol 1st banner. (The perfect place to hide for Lib Dems who are all but evaporating on the polling charts in terms of popularity after going into coalition with the Tories nationally.)
A review will also create context for the decision of the district Bristol Labour Party (BLP) and Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to reject the notion of Labour serving on the Bristol mayoral cabinet.
Ferguson had asked Bristol’s Labour councillors to take up three seats (out of six). Last week the Labour group split on their decision, with their leader Peter Hammond advising councillors to go into a coalition cabinet with Lib Dem, Tory and Green representatives, which was passed on Thursday night.
However, Hammond resigned last night, after the NEC did not support his position, but backed the membership position, as laid out by the BLP.
Amanda Ramsay is an executive officer of Bristol South Labour party and community campaigner