Spare a thought for the thousands of candidates up and down the country who are now in the final stretch of the race to election day. Some of them will have entered the race on nomination day three weeks ago with little expectation of success. Such paper candidates are just flying the flag for their parties, to give the voters maximum choice. Others will be foot sore and mentally wrung out after a four year marathon run for elected office as a councillor or mayor in England or for membership of the devolved legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Some candidates will be the defending champion, or incumbent in political speak. Most will be challengers, looking to topple the champions off their podiums. But most will, in the end, be losers. For there are tens of thousands of candidates in this race of democracy and there can only be so many winners for the just over 3,000 places available. They all deserve our thanks for stepping up, for without them we have no democracy.
It’s become fashionable to decry politicians. Journalists report politics as soap opera, with a cast list of tricksters, con artists, crooks and weirdos. The impression is given that they’re all in it for themselves, incapable of working together or taking long term decisions. This is all reflected back on the doorstep, often with the curious view that “you’re all the same” and equally bad. This set of poor opinions is mainly about the politicians who are actually in office and for challenging candidates the word “change” can be their most potent weapon.
To become the office holder the candidate must win an election. Most journalists, columnists and other critics of the political animal have no idea of the sheer amount of physical effort and mental endurance candidates suffer in order to cross the winning post. Politics, or at least party politics, is a team sport. The candidates are the elite athletes but they are joined in the race by teams of activists. Many of these supporters are just as engrossed in the race, willingly volunteering hours of their time to help their candidate succeed. Candidates and activists both spend a lot of their time on the staples of campaigning – canvassing and delivering. Both have their highs and lows.
The late and much missed Liberal MP David Penhaligan once told a party conference “if you’ve got something to say, put it on a leaflet and shove it through a letterbox” and delivering leaflets is a mainstay of campaigning for Liberal Democrats today. For those who have never done it, leaflet delivery must seem mundane and easy. Some streets are indeed a breeze. A team of activists can deliver hundreds of leaflets an hour to Coronation Street style terraced houses. A round of fifty detached houses with long drives could easily take an hour for one activist to deliver.
Time and volume are not the only factors in the delivery logistics of getting a leaflet inside an elector’s home. There are lots of obstacles. Gates are often fiddly to open. When entering a large garden of a detached or semi-detached house there is then that nervous moment walking up the path to the front door when you don’t want to hear a “woof” as Fido comes bounding round the corner. Dogs are the worst nightmare for the deliverer and canvasser.
The danger isn’t over when you reach the front door. Letterboxes these days often have triple layers for your flimsy leaflet to penetrate. Beyond the outer metal flap there’s a thicket of draught excluding brush and then another metal flap, with a spring resisting its opening more than a chink. You don’t want to leave your precious propaganda hanging in the wind. Householders find it an irritating advertisement that there may be nobody at home and you don’t want the risk of opponents whisking your leaflet away. The inexperienced activist will push their hand through the letterbox and then be startled by a thud on the back of the door as Fido’s paws crash into the door and his jaws close, if you’re lucky on your leaflet but it could be your hand.
One of our Bristol council candidates in 2006 had the appalling experience of the dog on the other side of the door gnawing his hand and refusing to let go. My colleague fainted in the doorway, such was the pain. When I saw him later his fingers looked like exploded sausages. Delivering political leaflets can be dangerous. I’ve always been cautious and in thirty years of delivering have had many narrow escapes but no bite marks.
Dogs and draught excluders aren’t the only irritants. The position of the letter box can be a pain. Vertical boxes, at shoulder height and close to the doorframe are hard to negotiate, when balancing your bundle or bag in one hand and the leaflet in another. But far worse are the ankle level boxes. Whoever thought these were a good design should be shot. To get the leaflet through the letter box you must crouch down, delicately poised while pushing your leaflet through the box that is just a few centimetres above ground level. Too many of these and you get bad knees and backs.
When I was Communities Minister one of my responsibilities was building regulations and I presided over the final stages of the housing standards review. It suddenly occurred to me that I could surely just make illegal these infernal letter boxes. I would be a hero to political activists and postmen alike. But the officials would have none of it. The proposal wasn’t in the original consultation so Sir Humphrey said “No Minister.”
Having been thwarted on the great letter box reform 2014, I propose that architects and housebuilders should be made to deliver leaflets to their houses and flats, negotiating the entry phones, coded entry systems and other barriers to the simple act of delivery. If they’re lucky they won’t get bitten but they almost certainly will get grazed knuckles, broken finger nails and paper slice cuts that really sting.
So are there any highs to delivering political leaflets? It’s moderate exercise in most streets but basement flats and upper storeys with their own entrances can turn a delivery session into a workout. It makes up for the time you don’t have to go to the gym, well almost. I quite like looking at front gardens and enjoy the novelty of doing a round that I’ve never walked before. Oh, and apart from the physical dangers there’s also the moral hazard of what do you do about the “no junk mail” signs? Personally, I ignore them. Election leaflets are essential to democracy, on a higher level to pizza adverts and estate agent guff.
Canvassing in person, as opposed to by telephone, has all the risks and rewards of delivering. But the object of the exercise is to chat to a voter and the experience is variable. The strict purpose of canvassing is to find out who either supports your candidate, is undecided between your candidate and someone else or is already firmly committed to a rival and won’t be budged. But the good candidate will use each encounter to build up knowledge of the undiluted opinions and concerns of the electorate. A month’s worth of canvassing across a mix of communities can give you more insight than any number of the focus groups so beloved of party HQs.
While most activists are prepared to deliver leaflets (though some think it’s beneath them) many are terrified about canvassing. But the truth is that the vast majority of doorstep encounters are polite and pleasant. Very few people are rude and if they are it provides an anecdote for team drinks in the pub.
A good canvassing experience would be a “full house” – everyone is in at the door you’ve just knocked, they all agree to speak to you and they’re all going to vote for you! These three things rarely go together. Going down a typical city street about half of the people are out. About 10% of the people you actually meet are not the people registered to vote at that address. When you talk to one registered voter at the address, quite often the others prefer to stay inside eating their dinner or watching Eastenders.
It’s different if you’re the actual candidate, people are more receptive and willing to chat. If you’re really lucky they invite you in for a glass of wine or in cold weather for a warm up by the hall radiator. This is a breach of the first rule of canvassing, get through as many names as possible and don’t linger. The rule may also be breached if the person who comes to the door is quite attractive. A canvassing hottie can be the highlight of the evening.
Apart from dogs (the owners invariably reassure you that they won’t hurt you) the worst aspect of canvassing is the sheer indifference of many voters. While allowing for the fact that you’ve turned up on their doorstep unexpectedly, you’re not after their money or even that much of their time. But many voters really don’t want to engage, even for a minute. You or one of your volunteers may have delivered 30 to 40 leaflets to them over the last four years and you want to spend the next four or five years of your life representing them on the council or in parliament. But you have to accept many people are neither impressed by this act of democratic munificence or interested in your much belittled trade of politics. Some can be won round to giving you a one minute audience by the use of various magic words such as “parking” or “school places” but once someone gives you the initial brush off it’s best to accept it and move on to a more willing household.
It is a shame that people don’t make the most of these chance encounters. And it really is a chance event. I was never that good at working out probabilities but given that if you’re a parliamentary candidate there could be 50,000 doors to knock on, then even at an optimistic rate of 50 doors at a time it would take a thousand evenings to get round. Remember that half of the houses will be out, so it must be massive odds against anyone actually meeting the person who could be their MP or councillor.
After a stint of canvassing or delivering the activist can relax but the candidate has much more to do before the election is over. There are letters and emails to read and write. You need to tell your social media friends and followers how hard you’ve been working. At its best social media allows the candidate to interact with many more people than via canvassing. But while most people are polite in person, on Twitter or Facebook plain civility often goes out of the window. People have always slagged off politicians while down the pub but the candidate didn’t have to hear it. Now they can be told on a daily basis that they’re a useless, lying, money grasping Nazi. At the end of 2014 I disciplined myself to stop looking at my phone after 11.30pm otherwise I’d be going to bed thinking I was the most hated man in Bristol. I slept slightly more soundly.
Elections cost money. This seems to be a surprise to many people, uniting journalists who tell people that donations to parties are obviously evil and campaign staff who are great at spending money but not at raising it. US Congressmen have two year terms and spend a chunk of each day after one election fundraising for the next one and if they’re unlucky for the candidacy primary that they have to win before the actual election. It’s not quite that bad in Britain but there aren’t many years without an election at local, national or European level and there are year round campaign activities that need to be funded. Local political parties will hold dinners, quizzes and raffles to raise a few hundred pounds at a time. But the serious money needed to fight an intensive and long running campaign will only come if the candidate picks up the phone and asks someone for a big cheque. It’s also true that many candidates make huge financial sacrifices themselves in order to stand for election. Only an idiot would go into British politics to make money.
So come election day, do take the trouble to vote for one of your hard working candidates. While I’ve written this piece drawing from my own Liberal Democrat experiences I’m sure it will resonate with candidates and activists from the Conservative, Labour, Green and nationalist parties.
By polling day the hard working candidate who is determined to win will have walked miles around the streets in all weather, been smiled at and sworn at, eaten too much late night junk food and if they’re careless or unlucky will have a campaign scar from a dog bite. They will have endured experiences that would fall foul of health and safety and hate crime laws if they were applying for any job other than elected office. Only some of them can win and only some of them really deserve to win. Make sure you select the right choice to work for your community in the years ahead.
The starting gun has been fired for the race to become Bristol’s second directly elected Mayor and to fill 70 places for councillors. It’s the first time since 1999 that all of Bristol’s councillors are being elected at the same time. We will have to wait until 2020 before we go to the polls again so these elections are really important for the future direction of the city.
Most but not all of the city council’s powers lie in the hands of the Mayor. He or she is in charge of social services, the council’s biggest responsibility and the service that swallows up most of the budget. Building on the new Better Care Fund and partnership working between social care and the NHS will be a huge challenge for the next Mayor as we cope with an aging society. The Mayor also sets the council’s policy on culture and leisure, waste disposal and has limited powers over transport and housing. He proposes the council’s budget and hence the level of council tax but the budget has to be passed by a majority of the councillors. The councillors also determine planning applications and grant drink and entertainment licences. While the Mayor acts as a figurehead and ambassador for the whole city the councillors act as local champions for the 34 wards that make up the city.
So most of the power is now in the hands of the Mayor, which makes the character and beliefs of that person rather significant. A city leader certainly needs to be someone who is prepared to make tough decisions. The Mayor also needs to be a good communicator, getting his message across to Bristolians and also giving the best impression of the city to the rest of the world. But a good communicator listens as well as broadcasts. Tough decisions are more likely to be accepted if they are explained patiently and arrived at after a period of genuine consultation. That’s why I think the calm, deliberative style of Kay Barnard is better suited to the role of Mayor of Bristol than the shouty, flinty, irascible and brook no criticism style of Mayor Ferguson.
A strong Mayor is a better Mayor if she faces tough scrutiny. That’s where the calibre of councillors comes in, as it falls to them to scrutinise the activities of the Mayor and the members of the cabinet of assistant mayors. They are also able to spend money on local priorities through the neighbourhood partnerships. Liberal Democrat councillors have reputations for working hard for their wards throughout the year and their whole term of office. Quite often, councillors from Labour and the Conservatives pop up when there’s an election on but are invisible in between.
Kay Barnard and the full slate of 70 Liberal Democrat candidates have published a manifesto setting out how they would run Bristol over the next four years. It’s summarised as “Six to Fix”:
1 Public transport
The Mayor will work with neighbouring authorities to negotiate with the government for more powers over buses in the Bristol and Bath cities region. Like Transport for London, or buses in Greater Manchester, this will enable better planning of routes, regulation of fares and the introduction of cashless payment system. This would speed up bus journeys and reduce congestion on the roads. The Lib Dems also want more segregated cycle lanes and will expand the network of bus and train park and rides. Mayor Kay Barnard would also review existing resident parking schemes, in particular excessive yellow line restrictions. There would also be parking concessions in other parts of the city for residents who have paid for a permit.
2 A more sustainable Bristol
When the Liberal Democrats ran the council for most of the period from 2005 to 2012 Bristol’s recycling rate shot up and at about 50% was among the best urban records in the country. In the last few years it has dipped. The Lib Dems would set a target of 70% of the city’s waste to be recycled by 2020. We would also seek to reduce traffic pollution in the city centre and pedestrianise more of the old city. The surplus from the city energy company would be invested in home energy efficiency, reducing the carbon footprint of Bristol’s houses. Bristol has a large number of parks and open spaces. They are great for recreation, mental health and are also a haven for wildlife. We would find new sources of revenue to invest in their future.
3 Make council tax fairer
Council tax is an unfair, regressive property tax. A Liberal Democrat Mayor would seek devolution of council tax policy from central government so that there could be more relief for poorer households and higher bands for those with the most expensive properties. We would also want to charge double council tax on long term empty houses, at the moment we can charge 150%.
4 Transparency and accountability
A Lib Dem Mayor would introduce a “transparency revolution” to the council, opening up more details about finances and contracts. We will seek more powers from central government over health and housing. A Lib Dem Mayor would be more consensual and would disperse power away from City Hall to Bristol’s many distinct neighbourhoods.
5 Make Bristol affordable and inclusive
We would bring forward housing development on brownfield sites within the city. We would make sure that the homeless and also refugees get swift and easy to access advice and support. The Mayor would work the Avon and Somerset Police Commissioner to implement a local version of the Liberal Democrat national policy of legalising regulated sales of cannabis.
6 Make Bristol prosperous and vibrant
A Lib Dem Mayor would lead a bid for Bristol to be European Cultural Capital for the next available award, in 2023. We would seek the power to charge a nightly levy on hotel rooms, with the proceeds reinvested in culture and boosting tourism. We would work with the city’s colleges and small and medium enterprises to expand the number of apprentice places.
The above is more than a wish list. It is a credible series of proposals that build on the Liberal Democrats’ record of running Bristol for more years than any other party this century. The party can also draw on the experience of Liberal Democrats in running other major cities such as Cardiff, Liverpool, Newcastle, Portsmouth and Sheffield.
Finally, this is an odd period of elections for me. I first ran for office in 1992 and since then I have always been a candidate or the incumbent councillor or MP. This year I am helping a great Liberal Democrat team in Bristol, many of them fighting their first election. I’m confident that our electoral fortunes will improve in 2016 after a difficult time when we were in national government. It’s all too easy for people to decry party politics and politicians. But without them we wouldn’t have a democratic choice of ideas and a range of people to deliver them. Come rain or shine, in good times and bad for us politically, Liberal Democrats will be out delivering our leaflets and knocking on doors to talk to people. The Bristol team deserve great success.
You can read the Bristol Liberal Democrat Manifesto, with a summary of the transformation in the city when we led the administration, here http://www.bristollibdems.org/sixtofix
You can find your local candidates here. Most wards elect two councillors, some elect one or three. Everyone will have a first and second preference vote for the Bristol Mayor and also for the Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, where the Lib Dem candidate is Paul Crossley. http://www.bristollibdems.org/2016_council_candidates
I’m surprised that the Budget announcement that Greater Bristol and Bath are to get a Metro Mayor took some people by surprise. The Chancellor has long been an enthusiast for elected Mayors and during the last year of the Coalition Government he tried to tie a Metro Mayor onto each of the Combined Authorities being negotiated for Greater Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. Once the Bristol area caught up it was always clear that any deal would come with a Metro Mayor, particularly as we are now under a majority Conservative government. Indeed, the three unitary council leaders and the Bristol Mayor knew this when they signed off the deal with the Treasury so they should have done more to prepare local opinion. The new Mayor and Combined Authority could be in place by May 2017.
But is the Metro Mayor and the associated deal for a combined authority a good thing? It’s certainly better than the existing arrangement of four unitary councils with no overarching strategic body that we’ve now endured for 20 years since Avon County Council was abolished. The first thing to make clear that what is proposed now is NOT a recreation of Avon. The county council on which I served was the provider of all the main local services to Bristol, Bath, Weston and Thornbury. The six lower tier district councils had minimal powers. When Avon and the districts were abolished the four new unitary councils became all-purpose service providers. That will remain essentially unchanged, though another Budget announcement makes the mistake of stripping away schools planning from local government with every school becoming an academy.
What is proposed is a new suite of strategic powers on the economy, skills, housing and transport that will be exercised by the Mayor of the West of England either under his or her sole control or held by the new West of England Combined Authority that will be chaired by the Mayor. These strategic powers will fill the void left when Avon was abolished. Other conurbations such as Greater Manchester or Merseyside retained strategic transport authorities when the Thatcher government abolished the Metropolitan counties in 1986. Avon never had the same powers but the fragmentation of its powers among four new councils has been disastrous. Transport planning is the most obvious local government failure mentioned to me by the public in the last 20 years. Our buses are unregulated. There’s no cashless payment system. We have no trams and our local rail network services are way short of potential. The new Mayor will have the power to franshise bus services and will introduce smart ticketing. The Mayor will also have a transport budget, devolved from central government.
I think the opportunity of sorting out our transport mess and the ability to plan economic growth is something that should be seized. Now is not the time for current councillors (and officers) to make faux protests about extra politicians (there’ll only be one, the Mayor) or being run “by and for Bristol” just to protect their own powerbases.
Personally I would have gone a lot further and restructured the whole of local government in Bristol, Gloucestershire and Somerset. Four larger unitaries should cover Greater Bristol (the existing city council plus the area south of the M4, west of the ring road and also the area out to the airport and Portishead) Bath (including Frome) with Weston transferred to a single tier Somerset and Thornbury and Yate to a single tier Gloucestershire. But the government clearly has no intention of upsetting too many Tory councillors.
So we have to embrace and make work what is on offer. Governments under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown diminished and belittled local government, starving it of resources and stripping away powers. What was left was emasculated by constantly changing edicts and targets. The Coalition Government began a reversal of this trend. The new Conservative government has ministers who are genuine enthusiasts for localism. It also has ministers who think local government shouldn’t be trusted to run a sweet shop. So reforms will be piecemeal and will still leave England’s cities and counties the poor relations of their European and North American counterparts.
The deal on offer is a major improvement on where we are now and the public will not forgive any small minded defence of vested interests that get in the way of it being implemented. The West of England cities region of Bristol and Bath already has the strongest sub regional economy in England. The new Mayor could help that economy grow still further, supported by the right skills, housing and transport. Let’s get on with it.
Here is the government document on the new Mayor and Combined Authority:
Elections to Bristol City Council in May 2016 will be the end of an era in Bristol politics. The all out election will see 70 seats contested on completely different boundaries, tearing up the map that has been in place since 1999 and the wards that have existed largely unchanged since 1981. For the first time since the 1970s there will be a mix of single member, two member and three member wards. The city will also revert to electing councillors all at the same time, as was the case prior to 1983 when the system of election by thirds was introduced. The Mayor will also be elected on the same day. For the Liberal Democrats it will be the end of an era as Cabot ward, which has elected Liberal councillors since 1973, will be abolished.
When the new Avon County Council was created in 1973 out of parts of Somerset, Gloucestershire and the Bristol County Borough, it inherited the city’s hotch potch of 28 wards of varying sizes. Each ward had one county councillor, with the six largest wards getting an extra seat making 34 county councillors in all for the Bristol area. However the new second tier Bristol City Council continued the practice of each ward having three councillors, despite the wide differences in electorates. For instance the ward of Ss Philip and Jacob, in existence since 1835, had just over 4,000 electors while Stockwood had a large slice of suburbia in the south of the city with over 19,000 electors. The district council thus had 84 councillors, which explains the capacious council chamber in City Hall. With the 34 county councillors the people of Bristol had 118 councillors, as well as six Members of Parliament.
Boundary changes were made in 1981 for Avon, keeping the number of councillors in Bristol at 34 but with each representing one ward. The new boundaries were used for the district council in 1983, with each ward having two councillors. The new council adopted election by thirds but the two member ward system meant that the city was elected in geographical slices, rather than the whole of the city electing a third of the councillors every year as in other large cities that were metropolitan councils. This system, unique to Bristol, will disappear in May 2016. Avon County Council was abolished in 1996 and replaced with four unitary authorities. The Bristol City Council boundary was kept for the new Bristol unitary, leaving about a third of the urban area outside the new council, mainly in South Gloucestershire. The last district council elections in Bristol were in May 1995, when there was an all out election as the new councillors would take over unitary powers once Avon was abolished. The last boundary changes were in 1999 when a new ward (Clifton East) was added, with minor changes to most other wards. The number of councillors has remained at 70 since that date.
The Liberal Party in 1973 was experiencing a revival in its fortunes under Jeremy Thorpe. The party won a string of Parliamentary by elections and would go on to win almost 20% of the vote in the February 1974 general election. The local government base was also growing, with Liverpool City Council captured in 1973. But in Bristol the party was still weak. In 1973 the two new councils were elected in stages, with Avon first in May and the districts following in June. The Bristol Liberal Party contested just six of the Avon wards in Bristol, with seven candidates as Westbury on Trym elected two councillors. The party failed to win any seats but polled more than 20% of the vote in each of the wards contested. Labour returned 20 county councillors, with the Conservatives winning 13 and Bedminster ward elected an independent.
A month later the Liberals were slightly more ambitious, putting up at least one candidate in 10 of the 28 wards. But they scored a dramatic victory in Cabot ward, which hadn’t been contested in the Avon election. The Liberals won all three seats in the ward, with George Ferguson topping the poll with Willie Watts-Miller second and Gillian Beedell winning the third seat. The Conservatives, holders of the county seat, were runners up. Rising support for the Liberals nationwide as Heath’s government ran into trouble, complemented strong local campaigning against destruction of houses and streets in Kingsdown and Hotwells for road improvements and slum clearance. Campaigning on conservation issues was to be a mainstay of Cabot’s Liberal and Liberal Democrat councillors for the next forty years as the city centre ward faced constant pressure for change.
It would not be until the formation of the SDP and the Alliance with the Liberals in 1981 that new wards were won. The party had held Cabot in 1976 and in 1979. The 1979 victory was against the odds as the Liberals nationally did badly in the general election on the same day and in Cabot there was a fresh team of three new candidates. The Avon County elections in May 1981 saw the Liberal (the one month old SDP fielded no candidates in Bristol) Don Foster gaining the Cabot county seat for the first time with Clifton being won by Jane Bainton with a majority of just 30. In Easton, Steve Comer fell short by just 34 votes. In the summer one of the Labour city councillors in Horfield ward, Charles Boney, defected to the Liberals. He resigned his seat and won the by election under his new colours.
Progress over the next decade was slow, with several frustrating near misses. In the 1983 all out elections for the city council gains were made both the seats in Easton and St George West on the back of strong “community politics” campaigns with local Focus newsletters. Neither ward was won in the 1985 Avon elections, despite the Alliance making large gains across the country. However, Brislington West ward was gained.
After the 1987 general election and the acrimonious merger between the Liberals and SDP to form the Social & Liberal Democrats the party suffered disastrous results each year from 1988 to 1990, finishing a distant third or even fourth in many wards. The only good news was Judy Webb’s gain of the Hengrove county seat in 1989, after many attempts. In 1991 results improved and from the mid 1990s onwards there was steady progress. The Avon elections in 1993 saw Mike Smith gain the Easton county seat for the first time. It was also my first election win in Cabot ward and at 26 I was the youngest councillor in the city and county. The unpopularity of John Major’s government and strong local campaigns in targeted wards enabled the Liberal Democrats to gain Clifton and Henleaze in 1994. Most of the other wards in the Bristol West constituency fell over the next five years as the party became more adept at integrated Parliamentary and council campaigning.
In the 1995 all out elections the party won 9 seats on Bristol City Council, overtaking the Conservatives for the first time in 80 years. Labour won a landslide victory, with 53 of the 68 seats. I was also elected to the city council, becoming a “double hatter” until Avon was abolished. I became Shadow Leader of the Council, a stark contrast to the Labour Leader of the Council and the Conservative group leader both council veterans 40 years older than me.
The first by-election win of the new unitary authority came in April 1996 when Paul Potts won Eastville from Labour. Potts found fame after standing down from the council as the winner of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ for his performance of Nessun Dorma and is now a successful opera singer. There can’t be many Lib Dem councillors who go from performing karaoke at party social events to the world stage and a Hollywood biopic as well!
In 1999 there was another all out election as there were minor ward boundary changes. The party continued to make progress, winning 23 seats, 15 of them in the Bristol West constituency where I had just become the parliamentary candidate. In 2003 on the back of protests against the Iraq war as well as strong local campaigns the party made four gains, depriving Labour of majority control of the council for the first time since 1983. An all party “rainbow cabinet” was formed with Clifton cllr Barbara Janke as Leader of the Council. She was the first Liberal Council Leader in almost a century. In 2005 the party attained largest party status and formed a minority administration. I gained the Bristol West Parliamentary seat on the same day, the first Liberal MP in the city since 1935. In 2009 the party made further gains from Labour as Gordon Brown’s government became increasingly unpopular, including some unlikely places such as Southmead and Hillfields. In 2010, on the same day as the general election, the party peaked at 38 seats with majority control.
The party remained the largest group on the council until 2013. But in the meantime three factors were coming together that would send the party to the depths of fourth place by 2015. First, the election of George Ferguson in November 2012 as the city’s first Mayor. Ferguson stood as an Independent, in spite of his Liberal Democrat membership and many party members supported him. Executive power passed to the Mayor who appointed an all party cabinet, despite the fact that his former colleagues had a majority of seats on the council. Worse, in the 2013 “Independents for Bristol” candidates stood in many Lib Dem held wards, splitting the vote and allowing gains for the other parties. The party’s popularity had fallen since the creation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government in 2010. Support for Labour increased but the vagaries of first past the post handed several seats to the Green Party, despite the fact that their support remained little changed since 2009. But by 2015 the Green Party was able to target the city council and the Bristol West Parliamentary seat, pouring in resources from around the country. In the May 2015 elections the Liberal Democrats emerged with ten seats, quickly reduced to nine as the remaining Redland councillor defected to the Greens.
So in May 2016 the party will attempt to bounce back. It has been in worse holes before, in 1979 and 1990, when it came close to being wiped out. It also has the advantage of electoral credibility, with more than half the city having recent experience of Liberal Democrat councillors. Since 1973 the Liberals, the Alliance and the Liberal Democrats have elected a total of 84 individuals as councillors in 23 wards. I have known every single one of them. Since 1986 when I voted for the first time in Bristol I have had the pleasure of helping many of them to be elected and of course many of them have helped me in my four council and five parliamentary elections.
Here is the roll of honour of Liberal Avon councillors in Bristol and the City Council members, arranged in the order that the ward was first won.
Avon County Council Roll of Honour 1973-1996
County Council created May 1973, abolished April 1996
Don Foster (1981-1989) [MP for Bath 1992-2015]
Philip Davies (1989-1993)
Stephen Williams (1993-96) [MP for Bristol West 2005-15]
Jane Bainton (1981-84) resigned
Barry Clarke (1985-1994) resigned
Judy Webb (1989-1996)
Mike Smith (1993-96)
Bristol City Council Roll of Honour 1973-
District Council created June 1973, Unitary Authority April 1996
Wards listed in chronological order of first seat won
Gillian Beedell (1973-79)
Willie Watts-Miller (1973-79)
George Ferguson (1973-79) [Mayor of Bristol 2012- ]
Robin Howell (1979-1991)
Christine Stones (1979-1983)
Chris Bolton (1979-1983)
Ian Dunn (1983-86)
Charles Boney (1986-1996)
Sue Brownlow (1991-95)
Stephen Williams (1995-99) [MP for Bristol West 2005-15]
Anne White (1998-2007)
Roy Tallis (1999-2005) [Ind from 2003]
Mark Wright (2005-2016)
Alex Woodman (2007-2015)
Charles Boney (by1981-83)
Cheryl Ann (2009-2013)
Pete Levy (2010-14)
Steve Comer (1983-87)
John Kiely (1983-1990; 1994-2007; 2009-2013)
Mike Smith (1995-99)
Muriel Cole (1999-2001)
Abdul Malik (2005-2009)
St George West
Bob Lewis (1983-1991)
Jane Myers (1983-87) resigned
Jeannie Pinkerton (by1987-1988)
Tony “Sam” Potter (by2008-2011)
Mary Langley (by1986-1988) resigned
Barry Clarke (by1988-1994) resigned
Peter Main (1997-2014) [Lord Mayor 2012-13]
Jackie Norman (by1997-2015)
Judy Webb (1991-2003)
Sandra Loader (by1992-97)
Mary Sykes (1999-2010)
Jos Clark (2003-2011)
Sylvia Doubell (2010-2014)
Ian Parry (1991-1995) [a fluke win, Labour candidate disqualified]
Emma Bagley (2005-09)
Sean Emmett (by2000-2014)
Guy Poultney (2009-13)
Brian Price (1994-2009)
Barbara Janke (1995-2015) [Leader of Council 2003-7 and 2008-12; Baroness Janke of Clifton from 2014]
Trevor Blythe (2009-13)
Rosalie Brown (1994-2006)
Dennis Brown (1997-2009)
Clare Campion-Smith (2006- ) [Lord Mayor 2015-16]
Glenise Morgan (2009- )
Paul Potts (by1996-2003)
Anthony Wood (1998-2001)
Muriel Cole (2003-2007)
Steve Comer (2005-2013)
Geoff Jones (1997-99)
Colin Eldridge (1998-2001) resigned
Barry Dodd (1999-2007) resigned
Evelyn Ellworthy (by2001-2007)
Neil Harrison (2007-2015)
Roger McDermott (by2007-09)
Anthony Neagus (2009- )
David Kitson (1998-2010)
Bev Knott (1999-2013)
David Willingham (2010-14)
Trevor Riddlestone (by1998-2001)
Shirley Marshall (2003-2011)
Jon Rogers (2005-2013)
Geoff Jones (1999-2007)
Simon Cook (1999- ) [Lord Mayor 2004-5, Leader of Council May – Nov 2012]
Mike Popham (2007-2011)
Christian Martin (2011-15)
Sylvia Townsend (1999-2014)
Jim White (1999-2009)
Fi Hance (2009- ) [defected to Green Party 2015]
Anne Cooper (2002-2006)
Ian Cooper (2003-2007)
John Astley (by2002-2004) resigned
Sue O’Donnell (by2004-2011)
Gary Hopkins (2002- )
Chris Davies (2003- ) [Lord Mayor 2008-9 and 2009-10]
Mark Bailey (2003-2015)
Alf Havvock (2006-2014)
Tim Kent (2006- )
Patrick Hassell (2009-2013)
Simon Raynor (2009-2013)
Tim Leaman (2010- )
Jackie Bowles (2009-2011) resigned
The longest serving councillor is John Kiely, who clocked 24 years over three periods in Easton. The longest serving councillor with continuous service is Barbara Janke, who represented Clifton for 20 years.
The actual electoral results for all wards on both Avon and Bristol from 1973 to 1994 have been published by Plymouth University’s Elections Centre. The Bristol results from 1995 are available on the council’s web site.
I spent the morning in one of the most farcical council meetings I’ve ever attended. Bristol Council’s Audit Committee is the closest thing the city has to the Public Accounts Committee, Parliament’s spending watchdog. The meeting was supposed to consider Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. But at 9.30am as the meeting started the chair announced that there was no one from Bristol 2015 Limited present to answer the questions from either the public or the councillors. But the meeting went ahead, going round in circles until 11.15 when the chair announced that someone from the company was on their way. The councillors could make their points again but the public (ie me!) could not.
The company representative was Nicola Yates. She is one of the public sector’s well remunerated double hatters. She is paid £160,000 (plus benefits) as Bristol Council’s City Director. She was also appointed as Chief Executive of Bristol 2015 Limited. For her second job she was given a salary of £18,000….in order to prove her independence from the council. Such is the ludicrous charade that Bristol 2015 Limited is nothing to do with the council and therefore outside the scope of local government transparency rules.
Still, I had high hopes of a bravura performance from Ms Yates. If anyone could answer questions about Bristol council tax payers’ money, central government grants and their spending by Bristol 2015 Limited, surely it was Nicola. All my questions would be answered. All my foxes shot. I could go back into political retirement. But what a let down. Nicola wasn’t adequately prepared for the meeting. She hadn’t seen the questions before. She couldn’t be expected to know the answers as she doesn’t carry information around in her head. Nicola seemed perturbed that anyone could think she might know anything about such trifling matters.
But it might not be all Ms Yates’s fault. Assistant Mayor Geoff Gollop (Con, Westbury on Trym) owned up to the fact that he had advised the company not to send a representative. He went on to say that it was unreasonable to expect the company to reveal details of expenditure that he wouldn’t have to disclose if the spending was by a council department. This is plain wrong. If the £8million of public money had been spent directly by Bristol Council then we would know about every £500 of expenditure and the details of every contract over £5,000. That’s what the Local Government Transparency Code requires. I don’t know whether Geoff, who I’ve always liked and respected, was acting on his own volition or on the orders of his boss Mayor Ferguson.
So the farce continues. We can’t be told how our money has been spent because it was spent by a private company. A company that was set up by the council, with the Mayor as its first board director and with the council’s top official as its chief exec. This may be lawful but it most certainly breaches the spirit and intention of the transparency code. The code was not meant to encompass genuine private sector contractors who provide services to the council, such as waste collection or leisure centre management. But those companies have multiple clients in both the public and private sectors and are accountable to their shareholders. Bristol 2015 Limited is very much a creature of Bristol City Council but it seems is accountable to no one.
This is a situation that I will urge the Department of Communities and Local Government to address. The National Audit Office should also be concerned about the use of single purpose companies to deliver a public service without transparency or accountability. Parliament’s spending watchdog could take an interest. But the poor watchdogs in Bristol have been made to look like lobotomised poodles, unable to get straight answers to very easy questions. Unfair on them but a fraud on the public of Bristol and taxpayers nationwide who chipped in £7million for the city to spend. The continued obstinate refusal to be open about spending is also unfair to the many groups in Bristol who have delivered sustainable projects and have acted in good faith. It may be that Bristol’s year as Green Capital has had a beneficial impact on the city. But if we can’t be told how all the money’s been spent then how can anyone be sure of the impact?
Bristol Council’s CEO has replied to my letter of 2nd February with, as expected, a less than forthcoming account of the spending of £8million of taxpayers’ money on Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. Despite taking a month for Ms Yates to reply only one question has been answered directly, giving a list of the people who went to Paris for climate change talks. Ten people went, with a hotel bill of £29,000 with subsistence of £3,165 and £3,661 on travel. No names are given (though some can be worked out from job titles) and it’s not clear whether all of them stayed for the whole conference or just went for the day. So as usual, a partial answer just leaves more questions.
But there’s still a stubborn refusal to be open about how our money was spent. The council and the Mayor continue to hide the information behind the corporate wall of Bristol 2015 Limited. They say that it does not have to disclose detailed expenditure. Ms Yates believes that this means the Local Government Transparency Code does not apply. I have asked the Permanent Secretary at DCLG, the department where I was a minister, for advice on this point. I believe that the council has most definitely wilfully defied the spirit of the code. I await a ruling on whether the legal rules have been broken. She is also maintaining the refusal to publish the corporate governance review of the company. She confirms that it was the council that paid the £8,700 consultancy fee but even this is not enough grounds for publication!
The answers to my questions continue to point me to the laughable Audit Committee reports to Bristol Council. The opaque nature of these reports was what prompted me to ask the detailed questions. Otherwise I am directed to various websites and “information in the public domain”, which again is avoiding disclosing the detail.
So any reasonable person must conclude that the Mayor and council have something to hide. They still refuse to disclose the identity of the person or company who received £245,000 to build and maintain the website. The amount comes from one of the Audit Committee reports. So this means that they are choosing to disclose some information to the Audit Committee while maintaining that the spending was all done by the Bristol 2015 Limited company and that the council does not have access to the details. So how come they can give 16 precise figures but don’t know how they are made up? It’s simply not credible and an insult to the intelligence of every Bristolian for the Mayor to shrug his shoulders and say “I know nothing!”
Here are Ms Yates “answers” to my questions, embedded in the text of my original letter. Judge for yourself whether your council is being open, transparent and honest about the spending of your money….