Bristol’s Labour councillors have been undermined by a blinkered NEC

by Ben Mitchell

A farce and an embarrassment is how I’d describe recent events in Bristol. In under a week, Labour have managed to score not one, but two own goals. All coming off the back of the election on November 15th of the city’s newly elected mayor, George Ferguson, the independent candidate.

From the moment he took office, Ferguson has called for a “rainbow coalition” to sit in his cabinet. Based on the election results, he vowed to fill it with three Labour councillors, one Tory, one Lib Dem, and one Green. A city beset by years of political squabbling and inertia was finally going to put Bristol first. Indeed, the city has felt just that little bit more upbeat, hopeful that this time things will be different; a mayor, with bite, and the power to get things done.

Well, that was the fantasy, anyway. Labour has shut the door on the chance to be a part of Ferguson’s cabinet. Last Wednesday evening, Bristol Labour party members gathered to reflect on defeat, and to look ahead to the future, where it was to decide on whether the party should accept a role with the new mayor. A vote was taken, where much to my dismay but not surprise, most members voted against entering into coalition rule. I was at this meeting and voted in favour.

Then, last Thursday, Labour councillors had their own meeting to discuss what to do next. On Friday morning, live on BBC Radio Bristol, Labour’s leader on the council, Peter Hammond, revealed that the party had voted in favour (discovered yesterday to be 9 to 8,) of working with Ferguson. I was stunned, shocked, and delighted. Naturally, those who supported this decision took to Twitter (where else?!) and the blogosphere to express their relief, more than anything else, that sense had prevailed. Other not so happy members naturally had a somewhat different take, angered that the views of the party membership had been ignored.

And then the NEC got involved. On Sunday, Hammond told the local media that the party had been instructed to abide by the wishes of its members, and to take its place in the new administration as “constructive opposition.” Something which prompted Hammond to resign as party leader, but not before he articulated what many Bristolians, both within and outside the local Labour party, felt:

“Earlier today the Labour party announced that they were not prepared to endorse a proposal from Bristol’s Labour councillors to take up the offer of three seats (out of six) in George Ferguson’s cabinet. As a loyal member of the Labour party I must and will abide by that decision however flawed I think it is.

“[But] in all conscience I cannot publicly support a decision that runs contrary to the advice I gave to Labour councillors which they accepted by a majority decision as they are entitled to do.

“To date I have received numerous emails and had numerous conversations (with Labour Party members and members of the public (Labour voters and otherwise) who told me that Labour should forget what they saw as narrow party self-interest and ‘get in there’ to argue for the values and practical measures Labour represents.

“I have never believed that Labour participation in this cabinet would deliver the manifesto upon which we contested the mayoral election but in these changed political circumstances we should at least be able to be at the table to advocate Labour’s approach in dealing with the issues facing the people of Bristol in the face of government actions which do not benefit Bristolians.”

I couldn’t have put it any better.

A chance for Labour to put some of its agenda at the heart of George Ferguson’s first cabinet has been squandered in the most chaotic fashion. There’s no doubt in my mind the behaviour of the Lib Dems in government has somewhat sullied rule by coalition. For every unpopular decision made by the Tories, the Liberals have taken the greater battering in the polls. Those members opposed to this political union from the start argue that they don’t want Bristol Labour to be associated with every unfair cut, or ill-conceived policy, that may be enacted. We’re told that cuts of up to £32m are on their way.

To which I say, use the power available to you – remember, Labour have been offered three cabinet posts, to the three offered collectively to the Tories, Liberals and Greens – to ensure our city’s most vulnerable and most in need of help don’t get penalised. Rather than carping from the sidelines in a city which has stopped listening to you.

This was a wonderful opportunity for Labour to try and shape the policies of the city’s first directly elected mayor. Ferguson himself has expressed his desire to work with Labour, saying he is sympathetic to some of its ideas and proposals put forward during the campaign. Labour, and the Greens, have led the way in calling for a living wage. Their pressure has resulted in Ferguson agreeing to implement it by the end of his first term.

The NEC’s intervention has ensured that if any Labour policies are passed, it won’t be Labour getting the credit. The NEC’s stance is idiotic, foolish, and short-sighted. Naked tribalism over the majority has won the day. It also shows a complete lack of understanding of peoples’ feelings towards the council over how things have always been done in Bristol.

George Ferguson’s election has generated a lot of good will. I’m sure even amongst Liberal or Tory voters, resentment has been somewhat tempered. The NEC has badly misjudged the mood of the city. They have imposed diktat from afar. Lambasted by the public following Wednesday’s vote, Labour councillors had started to restore some pride to its party. Only for it to be cruelly and humiliatingly taken away a couple of days later.

Labour’s refusal to jump on board has been met with incredulity. Some proclaim this now makes Labour irrelevant in the city.

Bristolians want to see some action. They want to see a change from the bad old days. They want someone to come along and make this great city even greater. They want affordable, reliable buses; they want more homes built; more primary school places; anti-social behaviour dealt with. They’re not interested in incestuous party politics. If Labour doesn’t want to be a part of this, that’s fine, we’ll carry on and leave them behind. You can guarantee these thoughts are going through the heads of a great many locals right now.

A browse through some of the comments on the pages of “thisisbristol,” the online version of the local newspaper, The Post, should make for sobering reading for key party strategists. They are not uninformed rants, but highly insightful, and in tune with what the city needs at this moment.

My feeling is that this is a mistake Labour will come to regret. Every justification the party makes, with the same reasons monotonously churned out, only serves to strengthen this belief.

Ben Mitchell is deputy editor of Speaker’s Chair, a cross-party blog, and contributing editor of Shifting Grounds

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14 Responses to “Bristol’s Labour councillors have been undermined by a blinkered NEC”

  1. swatantra says:

    Thank goodness there are still some sensible people like Ben around in the Party.
    A Rainbow Coalition would have the best deal for Labour to salvage something out of a disaster. And, it is what the voters intentionally wanted. They don’t like Punch n Judy politics. One of these days the arrogance of some members could lead to the downfall of a once great Party. The warning signs are already there.

  2. Gez Kirby says:

    In your third paragraph, you report that “Last Wednesday evening, Bristol Labour party members gathered to reflect on defeat, and to look ahead to the future, where it was to decide on whether the party should accept a role with the new mayor. A vote was taken, where… most members voted against entering into coalition rule”.

    So the rest of your piece is essentially a rant at a democratic decision taken by a majority of Bristol party members expressing a view (and upheld by the NEC) with which you disagree?

    Let’s hope a representative of the Bristol party majority gets equal space to counter this less-than balanced piece.

  3. Ian Stewart says:

    I am not so sure that it is in Bristols’ best interests to have ALL mainstream political parties working in the same administration. After all, someone needs to hold the Mayor to account. as you say, both Labour and the Greens are pressing for a living wage in Bristol, without outside pressure, I doubt that Mr ferguson would have added it to his policies. Labour voters in Bristol voted err, Labour – not Lib Dem, ex-Lib Dem “independent”, Green or Tory – to turn around and tell your voters that, after the result, you are much the same as your opponents seems to be staggeringly like a fix-up to me.

  4. Stuart Bruce says:

    It’s always difficult – and frequently foolish – to comment on political matters in areas where you don’t have first hand knowledge. However, being an outside observer sometimes helps you to see things more impartially. My first thought when I heard this news was that it gave the impression that Labour was putting politics before the future of the city. It appears to be very ‘old school’ politics and not to take account of the how society is changing.

  5. Jack M says:

    Can you name me any current functioning democracies where there is no opposition? Anywhere you look up to or admire?

    I find it sinister that anyone thinks that because someone won an election by 7000 votes on a 28% turnout that is the will of the people that he is unopposed.

    I call BS on this argument. The cabinet is advisory. It can not out vote the Mayor. Anything that is successful will be down to Ferguson. Any failure down to his cabinet.

    No one is saying 2 years down the line the Lib Dems made a bold move in coalition or “new” politics. The same is true in Bristol.

    Still at least it gives free ance writers a gig doesn’t it?

  6. Tony K says:

    Well said, Ben. It rankles me that able people with experience and ideas will not be able to participate in projects to improve the city. Joining the cabinet would not have made Labour any less effective in opposing policies they don’t agree with, and in those matters where they agree, their help would be invaluable.

  7. Clr Ralph says:

    Labour would find it very challenging to engage in any kind of intellectual discussion and prefer blind conformity amongst themselves. Actually dealing with people with different views would be far too complex and trying for them as would the scrutiny and inability for them to do things behind closed doors. No surprises here, its not Rotherham.

  8. anon says:


    “They have imposed diktat from afar.”

    What? The people who decided not to take part in GF’s cabinet were *local* labour members.

  9. Robert says:

    Yes, it does seem a particularly stupid, tribal and childish decision.

  10. AnneJGP says:

    The point about a genuine opposition is a good one, but there is such a thing as a minority report. It seems to me that Bristol Labour would be in a far stronger position to oppose if it was within the well-informed group rather than shouting from the side-lines.

    However, if the members have taken a democratic decision I would support their right to stay away from the table. I’d be less inclined to vote for them the next time as a result, but they’re entitled to their views.

  11. AnneJGP says:

    Excellent article, by the way – thanks.

  12. Ben Mitchell says:

    @AnneJGP, @Tony K and @Swatantra: Many thanks.

    @Gez Kirby: The NEC overruled the decision of Labour councillors, who are elected. Yes, I was dismayed that most members voted against, but many voted for. Besides, my feeling (I may be wrong) is that petty tribalism governed the NEC’s actions, and not merely members’ views. Just my opinion, though.

    You, or anyone else, are free to write a counter piece. Of course this piece will be slanted one way. I don’t agree with what’s happened! I do understand why people are against, I just disagree.

    I would add that judging by the reaction in the local media, and the comments in the local press, online, and on Twitter, I’d guess that about 95% of Bristolians agree with me on this. Of course many Labour voters don’t, but many do. Unfortunately, not many have spoken out. I haven’t shut up about this for over a week!

    This is what I wrote for the local paper, online version. I’d recommend reading the comments:

  13. Robert says:

    The more I think about this the worse it gets. The decision on whether to work with the Mayor should have been for the councillors to decide. They have been selected by their party and elected by voters in their ward. If people do not like what they decide, they can be voted out next time.

  14. John Waldron says:

    Robert’s point would only have some validity if the Labour councillors had asked the opinions of the voters in their wards before making their decision. Even then it would have ignored the wishes of the many people in other wards who were desperate for Labour to grasp this opportunity. Ben’s says what is obviously to almost everyone outside narrow tribal politics but the inability of the party to tune into the current mood in the country is a depressing omen for the future

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