‘After the Mayor’s show’ – Bristol goes back in time with decisive referendum result

Our Strategic Engagement Director, James Hinchcliffe, explores the outcome of the May 2022 Bristol mayor referendum and the implications for the city:

A decade after a dramatic referendum to introduce a Mayor for Bristol, the voters performed a dramatic U-Turn yesterday (5 May 2022). They expressed a clear, overwhelming preference to rewind the clock over 20 years and return to the committee system for Bristol City Council. 

And the result wasn’t even close. Compared to 2012, the margin of victory was higher – 18 points yesterday compared to 6 points – and on a higher turnout to boot, with a 28% turnout compared to 24%. What were the possible reasons for this gap? 

First, in 2012, the proponents of a Mayoral system had a cross-party flavour, including key figures such as the respected Conservative former councillor Peter Abraham, who followed national Tory policy, which still exists, to encourage elected mayors. This time, the Labour Party was on its own in making a case for the Mayoral system. Even this effort was diluted by some, such as Karin Smyth MP, supporting the committee-system. Second, rightly or wrongly, was the voter perception of Mayor Rees’ track record in the city. Inevitably, the vote on the person and position was conflated for some voters. And, thirdly, in 2012 the region didn’t have a Metro Mayor. This time round, many argued that Bristol did not need two layers of mayors.  

The new arrangement kicks in May 2024. Therefore, the Mayor and his administration have a communication challenge with voters, community groups, businesses, and possibly their colleagues on WECA. The administration is making decisions under a system that Bristol residents have given a clear view that they do not want. How does the current administration avoid an air of lame duck-ishness over the next two years? 

So, fast forward two years. What key factors could shape what Bristol’s voters wake-up to after the mayor’s show? 

Will Bristol’s stability take a NOC?

Committee systems where a political group with an overall majority are in control, inevitably, make a more stable executive decision-making body. But let’s assume that the results in May 2021 are replicated and the Council is ‘No Overall Control’ (NOC). Scenarios include:  

  • Shifting political alliances between ruling coalitions over the four-year councillor term resulting in the question, ‘Who is running Bristol this week?’ 
  • A similar question, ‘Who is running the Greens this week?’ given the party currently imposes no whip and can change their leader every six months. 
  • Deadlock on crucial decisions. All councillors care about the city they are elected to represent. Cue significant debate and disagreement from four political groups with very different support bases in the city to justify their grip on power…and the public waiting around for the outcome.  

Can the Green surge continue?

Labour and the Greens are neck-and-neck on sitting councillors. Urban Bristol ditched Labour in 2021 with the Greens making significant council seat gains across a ‘Green Belt’ spanning from Lockleaze to Bedminster. The recent Southmead By-Election, where the Greens came within a handful of votes of overturning a significant Labour majority less than a year earlier, must give them hope of becoming the largest party on the Council, if not outright control. 

Can Boris Johnson save Labour?

2015 was a terrible General Election night for Labour. But local elections took place in Bristol the same day. And with three parliamentary seats secured for Labour with strong majorities in the city, this helped Labour local election candidates get over the line as Labour supporters voted red in both elections. If Boris calls a General Election in May 2024, this may help drive Labour turnout in current (and former) council heartlands. 

For communities, interest groups, housing, and property developers (and many others) the path to engaging with the decision-makers of the Council becomes more complicated overnight. Who do we need to speak with to get things done in this city – and done quickly? How do we ensure that Bristol has a strong, credible voice at the WECA table?  

The councillors who have campaigned to usher in a ‘more democratic way of working’ have two years to tell us and the clock is already counting down.   

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