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.