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Labour gears up for the Bristol mayoral election

Labour gears up for the Bristol mayoral election

🕔20.Jul 2012
Curated from Labour Uncut, written by Editor

by Amanda Ramsay

Bristol’s city governance will look very different from November onwards. This week Labour launched the “City Conversation” around what should be the priorities for the first directly elected mayor for the city. Despite big Labour gains in both 2010 and 2011 local elections, at the moment the city council has a Lib Dem leader running a minority administration.

Marvin Rees is Labour’s hopeful to be Bristol mayor. He launched a series of roundtable discussions this week, kicking-off the process with an all member meeting on Wednesday of Bristol Labour Party. Transport was the topic of last night’s roundtable meeting chaired by Lord Andrew Adonis, with experts from across the city. Next week is the health and well-being forum.

Members of Labour’s shadow cabinet including Stephen Twigg, Chuka Umunna and Hilary Benn will be chairing roundtables over the coming weeks on key policy areas such as children and young people, families and communities, the Bristol economy and housing.

Developing a stronger city identity is the name of the game for Labour and Marvin is very much in listening mode with high aspirations for taking Bristol forward: “From higher education to green technology to the creative industries to finance, Bristol is home to world class activity. It is a creative hotbed and an economic powerhouse, but we punch below our weight in too many ways for too many people living here.”

One of the challenges facing campaigners though is the background to all of this. Many Bristolians had reservations, at best, about moving to a system of governance by an elected mayor in the first place. Turn-out in the mayoral referendum was very low, as indeed it was in the other nine English cities with referenda last May.

Many local people pre-3 May referendum in Bristol told me they simply did not know what they were voting for. There was much confusion over why there was a need when there was already a Lord Mayor for example. The distribution of government-funded literature was a disaster. Information did not reach all households, so even if people knew there was a vote they did not know what they were being asked to vote for.

Keith Grint, Professor of Public Leadership at Warwick Business School, University of Warwick shares this analysis: “Trust in politicians – as opposed to politics – is extremely low so why would you trust an alternative political system without clear powers rather than a known individual with known powers?”

Despite the 15 November election being set, specifics of how things will work on a structural level, let alone the new powers on offer to the mayor are still unknown. The Localism Act (2012) that gave birth to this change does not in itself give any extra formal legal powers.

Despite a three-month consultation with central government regarding new city powers, the department for communities and local government when pushed told me a “bespoke” approach had been chosen, to be decided by the mayor and local community.

“The extent of central control in this country makes voting for any kind of local political system an act of faith not of logic,” thinks Grint. “Furthermore the Labour governments of the past have been as responsible as any other for this.”

“When things go wrong organisations frequently turn to restructuring them rather than asking why things have gone wrong. Here we have done precisely this – the problem is less the political governance structure and more the demobilisation of the electorate,” says Grint.

New ideas for Bristol mayor include making Bristol a living wage city, starting with the council. The City Deal will be critical to all of this and could include calling for devolved funds, to support cities promoting themselves to emerging economies such as Brazil and India and increase international trade. The idea being that a figure-head in the form of a mayor can secure a city’s position on the world stage.

Elected mayors enjoy greater visibility than council leaders due to being directly elected by the people, which brings with it greater accountability. They also have relative independence from party discipline through having a direct mandate to govern and through the longevity of a four year term.

Critical to city governance is the consultation on all-out elections for councillors. The consultation closes on 30 November 2012, on whether to change to whole council elections every four years starting in May 2013, or retain the existing system of “elections by thirds”. The change would see the whole council elected at the same time.

Include electing a police and crime commissioner (PCC) for Avon and Somerset and local elections next May, there has never been a busier time in Bristol politics. But most important is this engagement exercise and then offering clear, popular and deliverable policies.

Amanda Ramsay is a development officer for Bristol South Labour party and a former council cabinet member for equalities and social inclusion

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