BLOG: Labour councillors undermined by party’s blinkered governing body
What a farce. What an embarrassment. In under a week Labour have managed to score not just one, but two major own goals. A chance to put some of its agenda at the heart of George Ferguson's first cabinet has been squandered in the most harebrained fashion.
The reaction last Thursday from many Bristolians to the news that party members had voted against joining Ferguson's "rainbow coalition" was met with a mixture of incredulity and dismay. Worse, some proclaimed this now made Labour irrelevant in the city. Again, in the interests of openness, I declare that as a Labour Party member I attended Wednesday's meeting, and of course voted in favour of joining the cabinet. Unfortunately, I was in a minority. A browse through some of the comments on these pages would have made for sobering reading for key party strategists.
And one can only assume certain personnel read them, judging by the decision from Labour councillors to defy its members and vote in favour of coalition politics. Assuming that the party's councillors would go along with the views of its members, I was somewhat stunned, and delighted, to hear the news that sense had prevailed. I'd like to think someone, somewhere, had listened to me. I should be so lucky!
This morning on BBC Radio Bristol, Labour MP for Bristol South, Dawn Primarolo, revealed that councillors had voted in favour by the narrowest of margins: 9 to 8.
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And then yesterday we had the dramatic and humiliating u-turn. Humiliating for councillors to see their wishes, however small, overruled by the NEC, the governing body of the Labour Party which oversees its direction and policy-making process.
George Ferguson's election has generated a lot of good will. I'm sure even amongst Liberal or Tory voters, resentment has been somewhat tempered. The NEC has badly misjudged the mood of the city. They have imposed diktat from afar. Lambasted by the public following Wednesday's vote, Labour councillors had started to restore some pride to its party. Only for it to be cruelly taken away a couple of days later.
What the NEC doesn't realise, or for whatever reason has chosen to ignore, is the possible damage all this is doing, and will do, to the party in Bristol. They are either so removed or so unaware of the politics of this city that they haven't the faintest clue how this looks to non-Labour voters. Only the most tribal, the most blinkered, would think their intervention has helped.
There is certainly a debate to be had about whether elected party councillors should be able to brush aside the desires of party members. But, it's a debate for another time, and certainly one that the wider public couldn't give two hoots about.
Bristolians want to see some action. They want to see a change from how things have been done in the past. They want someone to come along and make this great city even greater. They want affordable, reliable buses; they want more homes built; more primary school places; anti-social behaviour dealt with. They're not interested in incestuous party politics. If Labour doesn't want to be a part of this, that's fine, we'll carry on and leave them behind. You can guarantee these thoughts are going through the heads of a great many locals right now.
Again, I sympathise with some of the reasons Labour have put forward for wanting to sit in opposition, even if I think they are wrong. There's no doubt in my mind the behaviour of the Lib Dems in government has somewhat sullied rule by coalition. For every unpopular decision made by the Tories, the Liberals have taken the greater battering in the polls.
Bristol Labour doesn't want to be associated with every unfair cut, or ill-conceived policy, that may be enacted. But, then do your best to fight them. Use the power available to you – remember, Labour have been offered three cabinet posts, to the three offered collectively to the Tories, Liberals and Greens – to ensure our city's most vulnerable and most in need of help don't get penalised. Rather than carping from the sidelines in a city which has stopped listening to you.
I strongly believe that refusing to sit in cabinet is a mistake and one the party will come to regret. As touched upon above, read some of the comments by readers of these pages in response to Wednesday's vote. If these are anything to go by, the backlash has already begun. They shouldn't be dismissed as rants and ravings. Many are highly insightful.
At least Peter Hammond, Labour's leader on the council, did the honourable thing over the weekend and resigned. How often do we get to say that in politics? Citing central party interference, Hammond declared that he wasn't prepared to ignore his colleagues' wishes:
"Earlier today [Sunday] the Labour Party announced that they were not prepared to endorse a proposal from Bristol's Labour councillors to take up the offer of three seats (out of six) in George Ferguson's cabinet. As a loyal member of the Labour Party I must and will abide by that decision however flawed I think it is.
"[But] in all conscience I cannot publicly support a decision that runs contrary to the advice I gave to Labour councillors which they accepted by a majority decision as they are entitled to do.
"To date I have received numerous emails and had numerous conversations (with Labour Party members and members of the public (Labour voters and otherwise) who told me that Labour should forget what they saw as narrow party self-interest and 'get in there' to argue for the values and practical measures Labour represents.
"I have never believed that Labour participation in this cabinet would deliver the manifesto upon which we contested the mayoral election but in these changed political circumstances we should at least be able to be at the table to advocate Labour's approach in dealing with the issues facing the people of Bristol in the face of government actions which do not benefit Bristolians."
I couldn't have put it any better.
Ben Mitchell is a freelance political analyst who has had work published on The Independent website, and on a number of the country's top political blog. His personal blog can be found here
You can follow him on Twitter: @bmitchellwrites.