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Electoral history of Bristol Liberal Democrats 1973-2016

March 13, 2016

This article was amended in 2018 and 2021 to reflect electoral changes.

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

Brislington West

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 2012-16]
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)

Brislington West

Mary Langley (by1986-1988) resigned
Barry Clarke (by1988-1994) resigned
Peter Main (1997-2014) [Lord Mayor 2012-13]
Jackie Norman (by1997-2015)
Jos Clarke (2016- )


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 (2006-16) [Lord Mayor 2015-16]
Glenise Morgan (2009-16)


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 Negus (2009- 2021)


David Kitson (1998-2010)
Bev Knott (1999-2013)
David Willingham (2010-14)


Trevor Riddlestone (by1998-2001)
Shirley Marshall (2003-2011)
Jon Rogers (2005-2013)

Clifton East

Geoff Jones (1999-2007)
Simon Cook (1999-2016) [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)

Lawrence Hill

John Astley (by2002-2004) resigned
Sue O’Donnell (by2004-2011)


Gary Hopkins (2002- )
Chris Davies (2003- ) [Lord Mayor 2008-9 and 2009-10]

Windmill Hill

Mark Bailey (2003-2015)
Alf Havvock (2006-2014)

Whitchurch Park

Tim Kent (2006-16)


Patrick Hassell (2009-2013)


Simon Raynor (2009-2013)
Tim Leaman (2010-16)


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 all out elections were held on revised boundaries, with several completely new wards. The Liberal Democrats had nine councillors on the old council. Simon Cook’s ward of Clifton East was abolished and he did not seek a new ward. Kingsweston ward was also abolished and Tim Leaman stood in a new ward that also contained Avonmouth, which was not targeted by the party. Henleaze ward was amalgamated with the previously safe Conservative ward of Westbury on Trym. Clare Campion-Smith contested the new ward while Glenise Morgan stood in Redland, which was not targeted.

The Liberal Democrats emerged with eight councillors. Six had served on the outgoing council, three of whom were elected in new wards that contained all or part of their former ward. Two new councillors were elected , Jos Clarke (who had been a councillor in the former Hengrove ward until 2011) gained one of the two seats in Brislington West and Harriet Clough won one of the seats in the new three member ward of Hengrove and Whitchurch. The Lord Mayor, Clare Campion-Smith, won one of the three seats in the new ward of Westbury on Trym and Henleaze. Mark Wright won the new single member ward of Hotwells and Harbourside.

Continuation of Roll of Honour

Hengrove and Whitchurch

Harriet Clough (2016- 2021)
Tim Kent (2016- )

Hotwells and Harbourside

Mark Wright (2016- 2021)

Westbury on Trym and Henleaze

Clare Campion-Smith (2016- 2018) resigned, seat lost in May 2018 by election


The elections scheduled for May 2020 were cancelled in March 2020, due to the Covid19 pandemic.  The cancellation came just a week after the party had launched its campaign and manifesto with acting Leader Ed Davey MP.  It meant that several target seat candidates dropped out, including the author, who had been selected to stand in the Hotwells and Harbourside ward.  I was also the candidate for the Regional Mayor of the West of England, the election for which was scheduled for May 2021, on the same day as the deferred Bristol mayor and city council elections.  The party went into the May 2021 elections defending seven seats won five years previously.  Five councillors stood again, with Mark Wright standing down in Hotwells & Harbourside and Harriet Clough standing down in Hengrove and Whitchurch Park. They were joined by two councillors who had defected to the party in 2019, Sultan Khan (Eastville, formerly Labour) and Tony Carey (Brislington East, formerly Conservative) and by Caroline Gooch, candidate for city Mayor.

The party won eight seats in four wards.  Anthony Neagus lost Cotham to the Green Party, defeated by former Lib Dem colleague Guy Poultney. Alex Harley held Hotwells and Harbourside.  Andrew Varney defeated Labour to join Jos Clark in Brislington West.  Sarah Classick and Andrew Brown joined Tim Kent in Hengrove.  Veterans Gary Hopkins and Chris Davies held Knowle.

Further Information

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug Reid permalink
    March 13, 2016 2:08 pm

    Very well researched but will George Ferguson be re-elected?


  2. March 20, 2016 3:05 pm

    From former Cllr Steve Comer, in the Facebook comments on this blog:
    Interesting piece Stephen Williams.
    Election by thirds (in 3-seat wards) was used from the end of the 19th Century in the pre-74 unitary Bristol City Council.
    And the other reason the Council Chamber is so big is that prior to 1974 there were 84 Councillors and 28 Aldermen. In those days Aldermen were appointed by the Council in proportion to the Councillor seats. When the 1974 Avon/Bristol split came in many Aldermen who wanted to stay on the Council faced their first electoral contest in 20 or more years.

    What I’ve never understood is why the Bristol’s Council Chamber is built like a mini House of Commons, whereas most other Council Chambers use the more inclusive ‘horseshoe’ design.

  3. December 7, 2018 3:37 pm

    Good post! We are linking to this particularly great
    content on our website. Keep up the good writing.


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