Recall – right for councillors, right for mayors

Chris Game

The topical, and certainly most agreeable, purpose of this blog is to applaud the appointment of illustrator, cartoonist and writer, Chris Riddell, as the ninth Children’s Laureate. The enviably talented Riddell has been The Observer’s political cartoonist for 20 years and is also a writer and multi-award-winning illustrator of children’s books. But before any of that fame and fortune, he generously provided easily the most eye-catching half-page in an INLOGOV undergraduate degree recruitment brochure. His still spiky cartoon captures those history-changing few days in March 1991 when the Major Government dumped Mrs Thatcher’s community charge/poll tax, slashed existing bills by raising VAT from 15 to 17½%, announced what would become the replacement council tax, and saved the 1992 General Election.

Game pic

For younger, or possibly overseas, readers, the distraught pilot of the community charge flying machine with its flying pig emblem (and looking just a little like the late Michael Foot) is Michael (now Lord) Heseltine, then in his second stretch as Environment Secretary, and the VAT balloon man is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman (now Lord) Lamont.

The accompanying sketch has no connection whatever, except that it’s the only art work – as opposed to artwork – I ever actually commissioned for a recruitment brochure, by Rose (Rosetta) Checkley, a then member of our secretarial staff. It shows the Joseph Chamberlain Clock Tower (‘Old Joe’), the unrefurbished Muirhead Tower, where INLOGOV is today, and in the foreground the JG Smith Building, where we were then.

It would be really good now to segue into a blog on, say, the kinds of things Chris Riddell will be promoting or fighting, like school libraries and public library cuts. But I can’t, so instead it’s a Python-style Now-for-Something- Completely-Different moment.

Leaders of England’s 150 largest councils should be receiving about now a letter from Kevin Davis, Conservative leader of the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames council, urging them to follow Kingston’s lead in introducing a system of councillor recall.

It’s hardly a new idea. We hear it almost whenever a councillor is revealed to have ‘forgotten’ to declare a significant pecuniary interest, confided their tasteless personal opinions to Twitter and the world, or simply failed persistently to attend council meetings.

It has slowly come to the boil in Kingston, though, after a Liberal Democrat councillor was dismissed from his party group over allegations of falsely claiming more than £3,600 in council tax benefit. He was eventually convicted, but in the long meantime he continued sitting as a councillor and claiming his £7,500 annual allowance.

Moreover, if re-elected, he could have continued doing so even after his conviction, since the offences carried a maximum tariff of less than a three-month prison sentence. Understandably, many constituents were angry that, under existing rules, there was nothing they could do. In future, though, there may be.

Kingston council will vote next month on innovative proposals to give voters the power to sack their local Councillor.  Several suggested scenarios could trigger a petition calling for a by-election. They include a Councillor’s attendance at meetings over a municipal year falling below 20%, conviction of a crime resulting in any prison sentence, and moving their main residence outside the Royal Borough.

If any of these criteria are met, the council’s monitoring officer would decide whether a petition should be launched on the council website calling for the Councillor’s resignation. Ward electors would have three months to sign the petition, and, if more than a third do so, the Councillor would be expected to resign, triggering a by-election.

The ‘expected to resign’ formula obviously reflects the voluntary nature of the procedure at this stage, even if adopted. But Councillor Davis hopes it will be taken up across local government – hence the letter to council leaders – and eventually embodied in legislation.

My guess, though, is that Ministers, however fondly they may currently feel towards the electorate, are likely to be pretty suspicious. For this ‘let’s trust the voters’ business is just the kind of contagious democratic populism they felt had to be stamped on in the last parliament in relation to MPs’ recall.

Some Members – like, as it happens, Kingston’s two MPs, Zac Goldsmith and James Berry – argued for a genuinely voter-initiated recall process. Instead, we had the Coalition’s half-hearted and unconvincing concession that voters will only get even a chance to remove their MP if s/he is actually jailed or fellow MPs give their permission first.

It was a promising opportunity cynically wasted, so it’s encouraging that the recall principle is being kept in the public eye by this Kingston initiative. However, if we’re looking at local government, while being able to instigate the recall of councillors is undoubtedly important, it’s surely even more vital to have a robust procedure in place to remove, if necessary, those with serious executive power.

At present, that means particularly the metro-mayors that the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill sets as the accountability price for a combined city regional authority to be trusted with Chancellor George Osborne’s “full suite of devolved powers” over transport, policing, economic development, health and social care.

Obviously, elected executive mayors don’t constitute the only, or even necessarily the best, model of city or county regional leadership and accountability.  It reeks, particularly ironically for a devolution policy, of one-size-fits-all, and it’s almost nationally embarrassing that this and previous governments haven’t cared enough to compare and consider models deployed effectively in other European cities: leaders’ boards, elected and unelected assemblies, standing conferences of key stakeholders.

But sadly, that’s not how UK governments work, of any political colour. They use parliamentary majorities backed by a quarter of the registered electorate to enact dogma-driven rather than evidence-based policy, and this government’s devolution dogma is metro mayors, at least for city regions.

In a governmental system as centralised as Britain’s, therefore, if elected mayors are the government’s condition for ‘far-reaching devolution’, and it was in the party’s election manifesto – as metro-mayors were – you work with and try to make the best of it, which in this case should mean including in the legislation an electoral recall procedure.

That’s what Germany did in the early 1990s. After decades of different local government systems in each of the four Allied occupational zones, and following the country’s reunification, there was throughout the Länder what one commentator described as a “bushfire-like spread of the direct election of mayors”, driven by concerns about performance and democratic deficits.

Bushfires tend not to consult much before they spread, and neither did the Länder governments. They legislated and imposed.  BUT, as a quid pro quo, all the newly mayoral Länder also legislated procedures whereby a sitting mayor could be removed from office through a local referendum – a direct democratic instrument to hold the mayor politically accountable. It was obviously inspired by the recall mechanism used widely in the US, though, with all mayoral municipalities having elected councils, in some Länder the actual referendum is triggered by, say, a two-thirds majority vote of councillors, rather than by a citizen petition.

In the week when Tower Hamlets voters elected a mayor to replace one they themselves played no direct part in removing, it is worth emphasising the importance of both the existence and accessibility of these recall mechanisms in easing German citizens’ early acceptance of what for most was an alien institution.

They had their teething problems – in Brandenburg, for instance, whose voters were so taken by their new democratic power that mayoral recall became for a time a new popular sport: ‘Burgermeisterkegeln’ or playing bowling with the mayors. Generally, though, the prominence given to recall proved both good politics and good government – as surely it would be here.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

What is local government for?

Howard Elcock

Do we know what local government is for? Is it just a device for providing services to people at the behest of the central government, or does it provide local citizens with a means of making policy choices about what they want their councils to do? In the 19th century John Stuart Mill and Charles Toulmin Smith debated this issue, with Mill taking a centralist view that local government is an agent acting for the centre and a training ground for would-be Parliamentarians, while Toulmin Smith argued that local authorities are and must be elected bodies chosen by local people to make local choices on their behalf(Chandler, 2007), a view echoed by Professor John Stewart (1986).

Today local authorities are much too dependent on central government to be able to make major local choices. In 1976 the Layfield Committee said that if central government provided more than 40 per cent of local authority funding, this would make local councils excessively dependent on the centre. Today that proportion is between 70 and 80 per cent as a result of rate capping, the bitter legacy of the Poll Tax and incremental funding decisions to support local services with central grants. Beyond all this, local authorities are dependent on Westminster and Whitehall for their very existence, as has been demonstrated by repeated and largely enforced reorganisations imposed on local government by Parliament since 1972.

The role of local government can be discussed in terms of its five purposes. The first is to represent the different political balances in different parts of the country. In England this has become an acute issue as a result of the recent Scottish independence referendum because devolution for England is being discussed partly in terms of proposals such as “English votes for English laws” and the creation of an English Parliament that treat the country as a unit and ignore the major differences in the economic interests and political balance between the North and the South-East, which ought to be reflected in any proposals for constitutionals change. Enhancing the autonomy of local authorities would be one way of achieving this.

Secondly, councillors are the only elected representatives apart from Members of Parliament who can hold public servants to account on behalf of their electors. Thirdly, local authorities can adopt varied methods of providing local services which may provide models for other public authorities to copy. Fourthly, local authorities provide responsive and accessible services that can be sensitive to local needs and wishes – something the central government with its responsibility for 60 million citizens cannot hope to achieve. Lastly, local control of certain activities has long been regarded as a defence against tyranny. For example, the local control of police forces ensures that the central government cannot enforce its policies on the control of public order without persuading local police forces to comply with its demands. Again, the dispersed ownership of computer systems may provide a protection against an all-knowing and all controlling central state.

However, all these purposes are in danger of being diluted or even lost as a result of excessive central control. The diminished powers of local authorities mean that they are not able fully to represent the views and interests of their local citizens. Secondly, their ability to hold public servants to account has been weakened by the creation of increasing numbers of non-departmental public bodies (“Quangos”) with no local and tenuous national accountability to elected representatives, as well as by the enforced privatisation of local services including care homes. Thirdly, local initiatives are stifled both by financial restrictions and excessive regulation, especially through target setting by Whitehall departments. Fourthly local government has been made less local by the creation of smaller numbers of increasingly large units of local government, especially unitary authorities that cannot easily identify and respond to the concerns of local communities within their wide areas. Lastly, central control over public services has been increased by financial constraint, reorganisation and over-regulation, thus increasing central control even over services such as policing where local control is an important bulwark of democracy and accountability, which has not been significantly reversed by the 2011 Localism Act (Jones and Stewart, 2012).

It will take bold Ministers and a collective commitment by the central government to reverse these trends, particularly because the Treasury will be staunchly resistant to an effective programme of renewed devolution of powers and functions to local authorities. Such a programme would have to include an end to council tax capping, the introduction of new sources of local revenue such as a local income tax together with the reduction of central government grants towards the 40 per cent limit recommended by the Layfield Committee. This must be accompanied by renewed creation of truly local democracy by strengthening the powers of parish and town councils and securing their creation where they do not now exist. The dead hand of central regulation and target setting must also be relaxed. Lastly, the rights, duties and powers of local government must be guaranteed under a written Constitutional settlement. I fear that this is too big an agenda for any of our political parties to cope with.


Chandler, JA, (2007) Understanding local government, Manchester, Manchester University Press

Jones, G and JD Stewart (2012): “Local government: the past, the present and the future”. Public Policy m& Administration, volume 27, no. 4, pp. 346-367

Layfield Committee (1976): Local Government Finance, Cmnd 6453, London, HMSO

Stewart, JD,(1986): The New Management of Local Government, London, G Allen & Unwin


Howard Elcock is Professor (emeritus) at Northumbria University. He is author of Administrative Justice (1969), Portrait of a Decision: the Council of Four and the Treaty of Versailles (1972), Local Government (three editions 1984–1994) and Political Leadership (2001). His current research includes political leadership and elected mayors; local democracy; and the ethics of government.

Bring back committees – all is forgiven!

Andrew Coulson

Governance by Committees goes back to the origins of local government in the UK. It precedes the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 which created a legal framework whereby local government can only do what central government says it can do. It is the natural way to run an organisation. The boards of directors who run companies (or quangos) are committees. The trustees of a charity are a committee. A parliament is a committee – albeit a large and unwieldy one.

Of course not everyone on a committee is equal. The Chair has a unique position, with control of agendas, public relations, and often patronage. The secretary writes the minutes – with the subtle power to play up or play down some of what has happened. The treasurer controls the money, day to day.

Committees served local government well for at least 150 years. They were the envy of public administrators in many other parts of the world. Harold Laski promoted them, in 1935, as an extension of Athenian democracy – the advantages of a city-state running its own affairs. Forty five years later, George Jones saw them as “an essential element of a pluralist society” and a bulwark of countervailing power against an over-mighty centralising state. Thousands of councillors, over the years, learnt their trade in committees, listening to officials explaining what they wanted to do, and more experienced councillors asking questions, and having a real sense of ownership in the decisions that resulted.

Why then were committees in English local government so brusquely brushed away, to be replaced by directly elected mayors (the Labour government’s clearly preferred choice at the time) or cabinets and leaders? Why, in contrast, were they preserved, in emasculated form, in Development Control and Licensing Committees, and in councils representing populations of less than 85,000? And why are they now slowly coming back, under the liberating powers of the Localism Act, through which perhaps as many as 30 councils may have moved back to governance by committees by 2014?

By 2000 the system had, perhaps, grown out of control. The desire of councillors to be involved in every significant decision led to a proliferation of committees and subcommittees. Birmingham had more than 60. Many had delegated powers. They enabled small cliques of councillors to get things done, but many of them could not be described as open or democratic. This system also meant that cross-cutting matters (and most matters in local government are cross cutting to greater or lesser extent) went the rounds of several committees before a final decision was made – a slow and frustrating process, especially for officials. The system institutionalised silos – as each committee tenaciously defended its interests and its budgets. And it was often taken over by the party-group system, which ensured that almost all the important decisions were taken in private meetings of a political party before the official meetings in public.

It is sometimes said that committees were abolished because of Hilary Armstrong’s frustrations as a backbench member of the unwieldy and ineffective Education Committee of Durham County Council, on which she sat before becoming the MP who took the Local Government Act through the House of Commons. But it is also clear that much was wrong, that the system needed to be streamlined, and that it struggled in the new emerging world of partnerships and contracting out. F expressed in The Audit Commission summed up the frustrations in its 1990 pamphlet, We can’t go on meeting like this.

But the grass is not always greener on the other side of the hill. We can now see the limitations of mayors and cabinets. An over-concentration of power in a small number of hands, which may not be representative, or reflect the plurality of interests in something as complex as a city or county. A still confusing lack of clarity as to whether paid officials or politicians hold the real power. Weakness in standing up to bosses in London – and a creeping centralisation.

Above all, councillors are not content – especially backbench and Opposition councillors, who could make major contributions under the committee system but have almost no similar opportunities with cabinets or mayors.

And so the tide turned. The Localism Act enshrined a Conservative promise ahead of the 2010 election to give councils the chance to return to committee governance. There was no great rush – only four councils changed in 2012 (Nottinghamshire County, the London Borough of Sutton, Brighton and Hove, and South Gloucestershire). They brought in streamlined systems, with much power in the hands of Policy and Resources Committees or equivalent. These may involve little more than giving voting and speaking rights to Opposition councillors on what is still, effectively, a small cabinet or executive. But at least another 10 councils are likely to make the change at their 2013 Annual General Meetings. Others are talking about it or considering it.

INLOGOV is one of the few places that has been monitoring this change, and assisting councils to think through the issues – how to plan the detail to get the best out of a return to committees while avoiding the unsatisfactory practices that could be a problem in the past.

We have convened two workshops for councils or councillors considering making the change – and a third will take place on 27 June. Councillors and officers from councils which have changed will be present. We will not take a stand, that one system is right and the other wrong – it depends on the detail, and on local circumstances. But we will defend the right of councils to make the change, and to govern themselves as they think fit (in fact we would like to see a much wider set of systems open for consideration and experiment). If the previous workshops are anything to go by, the debate will be lively and extremely well informed.

To book a place at the workshop on 27th June, complete this booking form.

andrew coulson blog

Dr. Andrew Coulson is Lead Consultant on Overview and Scrutiny at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham, with wide experience of Overview and Scrutiny. He has recently launched one of the first assessed qualifications on the subject. His further research interests include partnerships and governance, economic and environmental strategies, and local government in Central and Eastern Europe.

Elected Councillors: How much influence and power are they able to exercise?

John Raine

What might we expect of the county councillors we elected yesterday? Will those elected be able to implement the various initiatives they have pledged in their campaigns? In this respect, we might reasonably be a tad sceptical for a number of reasons.

First, councils no longer occupy the core local policy-making role of previous times. Nowadays there is more emphasis on multi-agency partnering in local public policy-making so that key matters are often decided in conjunction with other local public, voluntary and private sector organisations. While this may be beneficial in ensuring more ‘joined up’ public services, without doubt it has weakened the power and influence of elected councillors.

Second, the ‘cabinet’ model, introduced a decade ago, under which an elite group of councillors lead on policy-making, has also disempowered other councillors. While some can be influential internally on scrutiny committees reviewing policy and holding the cabinet members to account, many others act mostly as ward representatives and without much opportunity at all to contribute to decision-making.

Third, many of the services are now provided as ‘shared services’ with neighbouring councils and other local public organisations; others have been contracted out or are tied up in long-term public-private-partnership arrangements. While this may have reduced costs, it has also become more difficult for individual councillors to be influential in relation to those services since any proposed changes have to be re-negotiated with other partners and may involve complex contractual issues that are expensive-to-unpick.

Fourth, the move by councils to establish front-line, multi-service, ‘customer contact centres’ and public websites that not only provide information but also allow the public to interact directly, e.g. reporting maintenance and other problems, has diluted the role of the councillor as conduit to getting matters remedied. Indeed, in the digital era of sophisticated telephony and CRM systems, the elected councillor may well be last to learn about the problems that previously they might have championed on behalf of the public.

Fifth, the on-going austere financial climate facing councils means that there are generally less resources for new initiatives unless there is the prospect of efficiency improvements and financial savings in return. Moreover, lack of money provides a convenient excuse for the political leadership and officers to say ‘no’ to other councillors whose ideas happen not to find favour.

Overall, then, one might conclude that, despite all the rhetoric from government about ‘localism’ and about the empowerment of councillors as community leaders, the power and influence of those we eleced yesterday to make a significant difference will unfortunately seem quite limited. But candidates for councillorship should not be deterred; ‘where there is a will there is a way’! And for those elected and with sufficient commitment and determination to confront the obstacles and to press their cases for change effectively, there is certainly much to be done to make councils work better and more for the benefit of those they represent.


John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV. He has been involved in criminal justice research, consultancy and teaching at Birmingham for some twenty-five years and has a strong track record of commissions for the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice on aspects of policy and practice within the criminal (and civil) justice sectors.

Do we want fewer councillors, or should we make better use of those we have?

Andrew Coulson

“What are councillors for?” was the question asked at a recent INLOGOV event.

“To take the rap for cuts” was one of the responses.

“We should have fewer councillors, in large single-member wards” was another response. To which the reply came back, sharply, that this would lead to lower quality of councillors, as those who were entrenched in safe seats refused to move on. Young people, women, and people from minorities would find it even harder to get selected. If what we need is a high quality of councillors then the only reliable way of achieving this is to have a large pool of councillors, from which the best can be chosen for office.

The county council elections also provide food for thought on these matters. In six of the counties where there have been boundary changes these will result in fewer councillors (in most of these cases the Boundary Commission was responding to proposals from the councils concerned): Bucks -8, Glos -10, Northants -16, Oxon -11, Somerset -3. This is is a situation where we already have by far the highest ratio of residents to councillors anywhere in Europe – and the more residents a councillor is supposed to represent, and the more distinct communities, the harder it becomes to properly represent local feelings and interests.

So what are councillors for? OK, they are a channel for local residents with grievances in their wards, opposing planning applications (on rare occasions supporting them), and, when opportunities arise, working with local activists in their communities, or taking a lead themselves, to create new initiatives, new responses to situations and needs, or to openings created by new legislation. But, if they are to go beyond this and engage directly with senior officers and act strategically, then a certain level of knowledge is needed and plenty of confidence as well. And the way local government works at present does little to encourage this – hence, perhaps, the complaints that most councillors are redundant and that we should have fewer of them.

The Local Government Act 2000 gave almost all the strategic decision making to small cabinets or individual mayors or cabinet members, or, increasingly, to paid officials (“officers” – does not the military language say it all?) It removed most of the powers of the Full Council, and with that most of the opportunities for councillors who are not members of the cabinet to contribute to strategic decision-making. With decisions taken elsewhere, full council meetings degenerated, often into slanging matches between the main political parties structured (if that is the word) around resolutions which reflect national priorities or party campaigns.

Yet a council should be a Parliament for its area. It is the demonstration of the benefits which can come from the right, expressed in the European Charter of Local Self-Government, for a town or village to elect its own representatives to run its own affairs, to the greatest extent that this is possible, and with sufficient resources to make real choices. That means debates on local issues, discretion over budgets, and votes when appropriate, giving councillors the power to give their local leaderships a bloody nose when they deserve it.

Scrutiny should be a facility to assist the full council in its role of holding the executive to account (and other agencies active in the local area also). This corresponds to the role of select committees in the Westminster or Cardiff parliaments. These are best known for their set-piece occasions when they hold bankers, the chief executives of multinational companies, senior civil servants, or ministers, to account. It is often forgotten that their bread and butter work is the collection of evidence on matters of policy or public administration, which is enshrined in detailed reports – more consultancy or research than ritual humiliation for the TV cameras or a court of law. It is that kind of detailed investigation that scrutiny committees in local government do best, working across party allegiances to discover the truth and offer recommendations on the best way forward.

The Local Government Act 2000 put scrutiny in hoc to cabinets, with no mention of the full council. This weak position is further entrenched when scrutiny officers double as policy officers supporting the Cabinet (it is no secret that scrutiny, like the select committees, depends profoundly on able and independent-minded officers or clerks who can turn the often rambling questionings of politicians into sharp, focussed and often critical reports and recommendations).

That is why a small but increasing number of councils are returning to decision-making by all-party committees. Not because decisions are made more quickly that way (though councils can make quick decision when they have the will to). Not because it makes a single person responsible for a decision (though the chairs of strong committees are often at least as powerful as cabinet members). Not because it allows decisions to be made in public (any more than do cabinets, where the real decisions are made in private before the public meetings, making the public meetings almost redundant). But because it involves all the elected councillors in decision-making, enables those newly elected to participate from Day 1, keeps officers and committee members on their toes, and properly respects the expertise of Opposition councillors and their rights to ask questions and to probe the logic of officers.

Where you have government by committees, no-one any longer questions what councillors are for.

andrew coulson blog

Dr. Andrew Coulson is Lead Consultant on Overview and Scrutiny at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham, with wide experience of Overview and Scrutiny. He has recently launched one of the first assessed qualifications on the subject. His further research interests include partnerships and governance, economic and environmental strategies, and local government in Central and Eastern Europe.

On 27 June INLOGOV will be holding its third day-workshop on Governance by Committees. Many of the councils who changed their governance arrangements in April 2012 will be present, along with other councils who will by then have changed. This is a unique opportunity to consider the merits of the change. For further information see the advert and booking form.

My journey from political independence to independent politician

Helen Mott

In 2012 the people of Bristol sent a clear message to the political parties. That message was, “You are not connecting with us”. On a turnout of 24%, the city voted to introduce a directly elected Mayor. Bristol was the only city to do so – and in analysing why, it may be significant to note that a high profile local candidate – George Ferguson, who went on to be elected the city’s Mayor – had already declared that he would run as an Independent candidate should the referendum deliver a “Yes”. As Catherine Durose has pointed out on this blog, the size of the “No” vote in other cities’ referenda probably points to a lack of enthusiasm among the electorate for electing ‘more of the same’ party politicians.

Recent research shows that only 1% of the UK population are now members of the main political parties. I am one of the 99% who are not. It may be that the offer of a new breed of independent politician – crucially, quality-assured to the exclusion of bigots, egomaniacs and the unprincipled – has a chance of restoring some faith and interest in local politics. That in itself is a worthy goal.

I am enormously interested in politics and I have great respect for (most) politicians I have worked with, in my role co-ordinating the campaign group Bristol Fawcett and in other local campaigns. But I have never wanted to join a political party – and this is largely because of the oppositional nature of party political posturing. Frankly I have been given enough grief in my life for being a card-carrying feminist – constantly being required to explain that feminism is for the liberation of mind and body, not against men, against fun, against sexuality, etc etc. As a social psychologist I have a heightened wariness of seeking to be a member of any group that is in danger of becoming an ‘in-group’; required to define itself against and plot against an ‘out-group’ of others. This seems the more ill-advised when to be a member of a group means agreeing to do what you are told by the leadership, even if the motivation of the leadership appears unprincipled.

I am disturbed and disheartened by the levels of vitriol and plotting and spinning directed by members of one or other party towards others. We seem to be living in a topsy-turvy world where nationally the deadliest policies can be adopted and executed without a mandate and without effective opposition. Meanwhile and locally, party representatives bait each other on Twitter, seem to put the good of the party above the good of local people (a caricature of Labour in Bristol) and claim to want to protect the most vulnerable in society while representing the parties whose centrally dictated policies seem to be playing out locally in the ruination of the lives of the most vulnerable (a caricature of the Conservatives and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats in Bristol). Many of our politicians appear to be fiddling whilst [insert name of your region here] burns. I believe that most people in local politics are principled and public-spirited, and I am sorry that the public have grown to distrust and disrespect party politicians. But the fact remains that they have.

I think that Martin Stott, writing for this blog in November, was right to suggest that we may be seeing the beginning of a ‘march of the independents’. The signs so far in Bristol are good in terms of the ability of “Independents for Bristol” to encourage a diverse range of candidates to stand – and to support those candidates with basic help and advice when it comes to campaigning, logistics and so on. Some of the challenges ahead for IfB will be to maintain the strong focus on principles, to resist the natural pull of ‘groupthink’ among its members, and to be creative about continuing to support a diverse range of candidates to stand. This last challenge is a very practical one but without the offer of campaign funding, socio-economic diversity among candidates is unlikely to blossom.

There are eight candidates standing in May under the “Independents for Bristol” umbrella – we will find out in a few short days whether this is indeed the beginning of a revolution.


Dr Helen Mott is the co-ordinator of Bristol Fawcett which campaigns for equality between women and men. Bristol Fawcett recently published the report The Right Man for Bristol? about gender and power in Bristol in the context of the 2012 Mayoral elections. Helen has worked closely with Bristol’s voluntary, community & statutory sectors and is a regular participant in local government committees and partnerships. Following the establishment of the new umbrella group “Independents for Bristol” Helen has been selected to stand as a candidate for her ward in May’s local government elections. Follow her on Twitter here.