Having the ear of George Ferguson: Bristol, elections and the mayoral model

Thom Oliver

Its election time in Bristol and there is a strange feeling in the air, something has changed and it’s not the colour of the mayor’s trousers. George Ferguson is now the sole power and the culture of politics is perhaps changing in the City.

oliver pic

In a recent news article BBC Bristol Reporter Robin Markwell stopped short of asking the question ‘whats the point of councillors’ in favour of ‘why bother voting‘? As the ‘no’ campaigners warned in their literature about the dangers of placing all the power of the hands of one person, the election of an Independent mayor in Bristol has got some councillors re-evaluating their role and redoubling their focus. With a third of the council up for election and the Lib Dems with potentially the most to lose the mayoral model is also changing the focus and content of campaigns.

As the second largest group on the council, and not a member of the multi-party cabinet, Labour’s campaigning at first glance seems quite generic. It stresses a national stance against the bedroom tax and champions the NHS, which in the light of national events may strike a chord with many. Their local pledges focus around making Bristol a Living Wage City (something Ferguson has spoken against in the past), a piggy-backing onto the campaign of local non-political activist Daniel Farr against the Fares of FirstBus, along with a desire for more affordable homes and childcare places. The movement to pushing these broader campaigns is unsurprising in the light of the movement to a mayoral model.

Across the city the Liberal Democrats have perhaps grasped the nettle of change more strongly, a campaign leaflet reads:

‘This election won’t decide who runs Bristol, or the country. It’s about the best person to stand up for our local area and fight our corner on the council’.

This focus is not so much a change, but perhaps a re-assertion of the community politics and community champion focus which served the party so well before any conception of the party as one of national government. Yet for a party which until the election of Ferguson was running the council, it’s certainly a re-evaluation.

Elsewhere across the City the Conservatives are hugging the mayor tight in their campaigns and the Green party (contesting all seats) are concentrating their efforts on two wards including the one where they already have one councillor. Independents for Bristol remain a bit of an enigma, and it is difficult to even estimate their electoral chances. Their campaigning led with a leaflet about the Independents for Bristol umbrella group, followed by a ‘Magnificent seven’ leaflet (although they are in fact standing 8 candidates) which again made little of localised campaigns or individuals as candidates, with the final leaflet due to hit letterboxes soon it’s a short time for candidates to assert their independence and individuality, this work is presumably being done on the doorstep.

With party politics a dirty word, Independents for Bristol have focused on the Nolan principles for politicians and appointees as an ideological basis, on the evidence thus far in terms of group organisation, the messaging on campaign literature and the existence of selection panels some are beginning to ask the question: if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck… The challenge for IfB is and will remain in giving independent candidates a competitive platform against better resourced local parties without impinging on the independence of individual candidates. This was highlighted by Helen Mott (IfB Candidate) in her recent blogpost.

As the campaign plays out questions on the composition of Ferguson’s all-party cabinet remain of interest to locals and politicos. Recently the mayor moved with great relief to fill the void left by Labour councillors as both the local party and National NEC vetoed any Labour involvement in George’s new politics. He appointed two Lib Dems and a Conservative to join his skeletal and stretched cabinet of one a Conservative, a Liberal Democrat and a Green. As George and the group leaders look over their coffee cups the morning after the count the spectre of this debate will re-emerge asking questions about George’s new politics and how councillors, independents, parties can promote campaigns, champion their local areas and ultimately get the man in the red trousers to listen.


Dr Thom Oliver is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes Business School. He completed his PhD, exploring the representative role of councillors on appointed bodies, at INLOGOV in 2011. He currently lives in Bristol and has recently rejoined INLOGOV as an Associate. Follow his Twitter account here, and read his own blog here.

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.

Local politics: An essential part of local government

Philip Lloyd-Williams

I always struggle when local Councillors say to me that they are ‘not political’. For me politics is part of everyday life as well as life in local government. To some extent I cannot see that we can operate without it and perhaps it’s like the cod liver oil mother used to give me – it’s not very tasty but good for you.

Without decision makers who are motivated, steeped or just inclined to make choices about how we ration public goods based upon political values or beliefs, it would be impossible to make the tough decisions. So, as far as I am co concerned, local politics (and I include in that party politics as much as the power used by local action groups and activists to persuade and nudge for a decision that accords with their world view) helps us even if we don’t always like it. Perhaps of greater curiosity is why local Councillors and even some officials so readily dismiss the place of politics.

From my own experience it is often an unwillingness to accept that managing public services and budgets is difficult and calls for conviction, confidence and a willingness to take a risk. Having a belief in something or a conviction about how a place and its people should be governed is now less valued than data or empirical studies which are purported to have all the answers. There is possibly a link between extolling beliefs of a political nature with the fear some have of acknowledging the place of religious faith that individuals often hold true but keep to themselves for fear of rejection.

This unwillingness to accept or acknowledge the place of politics prompts me to think that we need to do more to teach, educate and celebrate the importance of the political and differences with our communities and public servants.  Commonly, when politics is discussed it is perceived as a negative or worthless experience. We should strive to change this – through education at schools, induction and training programmes at the work place and with our elected officials on a daily basis. Not everyone is interested in politics, but we all need to surely acknowledge that it has an important place in how we govern communities and make decisions about the places people inhabit and the things that they experience.

I realise we can often feel let down by what appear as foolish or poorly motivated decisions by our politicians, but I am advocating that without the politics, our society, communities and culture are poorer and weaker. So, if you work as a teacher, manage a public service or are yourself an elected representative – make it your business to champion the good of local politics and what benefits it can bring to making the best of what we have.


Philip’s doctorate from the University of Aston was on the role of local authority officials as ‘makers of democracy’. His career has given him extensive experience of working with elected representatives in local government as a Solicitor. He is an INLOGOV Associate Member and contributes to its Management Development programmes.

Hilary Benn – not always so brilliant, or even believable

Chris Game

“Later, I heard that Hilary Benn had been appointed [as a Minister for International Development in a 2003 Blair reshuffle]. Lucky old Hilary. That’s the second time he’s stepped into my shoes, but I can’t complain. He’s brilliant.”

Deliverer of this unusually effusive politician’s compliment was the actor playing Chris Mullin, the former Sunderland Labour MP and junior minister, whose well-received diaries were recently adapted into one of the more surprising of recent London theatre hits, A Walk On Part: The Fall of New Labour.

Well, with due respect to Mr Mullin, his hero hasn’t been so brilliant – or even, apparently, honest – in his attempts to spin this year’s council tax figures to his party’s advantage.

On April 16, Mr Benn, Labour’s Communities and Local Government Spokesperson, posted a news items on Labour’s official website, headed ‘New figures reveal residents in Labour areas pay less council tax than in Tory or Lib Dem areas’.

Nothing remarkable there, I agree.  It could have been an early April headline from pretty well any year since Labour decided that tax-raising was an embarrassing activity for a social democratic party to be engaged in.  Still, I did wonder where the ‘new figures’ came from, as the only ones I knew of that analysed by political control were those helpfully produced by Matthew Keep in the House of Commons Library (Council Tax 2012/13 – Standard Note: SN/SG/6276).

As a politician, Mr Benn sees no need to source his ‘new figures’ or the ‘research’ that produced them, but they are at such variance with those of the Commons Library – as in the table reproduced below – that they are worth comparing, or contrasting, more closely.  It may be, of course, that Mr Benn’s data are somehow more complete than those in the table, or maybe differently calculated – in which case it’s a particular shame that we weren’t informed.

Benn: ‘In Labour local authorities, the Band D council tax rate is £81 lower than in Tory areas and £42 lower than in Lib Dem areas’.
Commons Library: Wrong.  In ALL Labour authorities – all types and therefore all collectively – average Band D council tax is HIGHER than in Conservative authorities and, higher too than in Lib Dem authorities, with the exception of London borough, of which they control just two.

Benn: ‘Households in Labour-controlled authorities pay on average £220 less per year than those in Tory areas and £101 less than those in Lib Dem areas’.

Commons Library: Partly wrong. Households in Labour-controlled London and metropolitan boroughs and unitaries do pay less on average than those in Conservative areas, but the difference is much less than £220 p.a., and in shire areas those in Labour-controlled districts pay slightly more. Comparisons with Lib Dem authorities vary more by type of authority.

None of this, it should be emphasised, is surprising.  Indeed, the surprise would be if the picture painted by Mr Benn’s figures really were true. The truth, however, is that this is one of the more irritating ritual arguments in which the major parties engage every year in the period between council tax-setting and the local elections. It has become an inevitable by-product of the way in which our unreformed tax system works – as I sought to explain in this space last April.

The tax base for council tax is a ratio system centred around Band D: Band A paying 6/9 (2/3) of Band D; Band B 7/9, and so on up to Band H paying 18/9 (2x) of Band D. Councils calculate their tax base by weighting the number of dwellings in each band to Band D, and report their budget headlines in terms of ‘Council tax for council services (Band D)’.

Band D has thus become a benchmark for comparative purposes, and it is therefore perfectly reasonable that the Conservatives tend to use it – as they could with this year’s Commons Library figures – to claim that average Band D tax rates are normally lower in Conservative than in Labour or most Liberal Democrat areas.

Reasonable, but disingenuous. Not so much because only a small minority of properties (15% in England) are actually in Band D, but because, exacerbated by the absence of any revaluation since 1991, the mix of property bands across authorities and regions nowadays varies starkly. In my own authority of Birmingham 56% of properties are in Bands A and B, and just 14% in Bands E to H combined. Neighbouring Solihull has 19% A and Bs and 41% E to Hs. In the North East there are 56% Band As, in the South East 9%, in London 3%.

All of which obviously means that, to raise a certain tax income in an authority with mainly Band A to C properties requires a significantly higher Band D tax than in one comprising many E to H properties. The average bills paid by tax payers will vary similarly – being generally higher than the Band D figure in affluent and Conservative-inclined areas, and lower in poorer or Labour-inclined ones.

Hence Labour’s equally disingenuous preference for using average tax bill figures as their political comparators.  North East: Average Band D council tax £1,525; average tax bill per household £1,072. South East: Average Band D council tax £1,475; average bill per household £1,381. As the anthropomorphic Russian meercat, Alexsandr Orlov, would confirm: simples!

Mr Benn, though, wasn’t finished. His ‘research’ had also revealed that more Conservative than Labour councils had rejected the Government’s one-off grant in exchange for freezing or reducing their council tax in 2012/13. “16 Tory councils have increased council tax this year, as opposed to 15 Labour councils”.

This really is foolishness, on several different levels. First, is Benn really suggesting the 15 Labour councils were wrong: that they should have cravenly fallen in with the Government’s capping policy and accepted the one-off grant, even if they judged it detrimental to their residents’ longer-term interests? If so, it’s interesting that we didn’t hear more about it at the time, when Eric Pickles and his fellow Ministers were positively bullying Conservative councils into obedience.

Second, aren’t the numbers of councils controlled by the respective parties just a tiny bit relevant here?  The Conservatives have roughly two-and-a-half times as many as Labour, which makes the 16-15 comparison look a bit lame.

Third, if Benn really is following Pickles’ line – that it was councillors’ moral duty in these austere times to freeze council taxes – it’s presumably worth taking account of the percentage increases imposed by the respective groups of offending councils, and how close they came to exceeding the 3.5% that would have triggered a referendum.

The full list was published by the Local Government Chronicle on March 21, and, by my calculation, the average Conservative council increase was under 3%, while Labour’s average – with 8 of their 15 going for the full 3.5% – was 3.27%.

Mr Benn’s brilliance, it would seem, is more in the field of international relations than local government finance.

Chris 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.