Bristol mums' passion for city changes the political landscape
To see them sitting around a table, sipping drinks and chatting, pushchair in tow and laughter erupting at regular intervals, it would be easy to assume they're three ladies lunching – office colleagues enjoying a gossip or young mums getting together for coffee.
But don't underestimate these three feisty Bristol women – together they have changed the political landscape of the city forever.
As the driving force behind the "Yes" campaign for an elected Bristol mayor, Jaya Chakrabarti, Christina Zaba and Marti Burgess have unleashed a political reformation upon Bristol that few other cities have been prepared to venture towards.
They've had plenty of help along the way, but let's be clear, without the sharpened trident of Jaya, Christina and Marti, Bristol would not have been able to get a grip of this political hot potato.
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Together they have changed the political landscape of our city.
And why shouldn't they? Are we surprised in the 21st century to find three independent businesswomen behind a successful political campaign? The incredulity may sound like pure, unadulterated, old-school sexism. Actually their gender is immaterial, these three women would be the first to admit they're the least likely team to usher in a political wind of change.
For a start, none of them have much in the way of a political background.
New mum Jaya runs a successful, but relatively small-scale creative digital agency, Nameless UK; Marti is a trained lawyer turned businesswoman, who runs the Lakota nightclub in Stokes Croft, and has previously been involved with organising slavery commemoration events; Christina runs a PR company as well as being a freelance journalist and has some political experience as a trade unionist.
On top of the unenviable work commitments involved in each running their own small businesses, together they are also busy raising a total of six children.
In short, Jaya, Marti and Christina are busy ladies. But thanks to what they call their shared "passion for Bristol" they found themselves at the sharp end of the Yes campaign.
"It all began a couple of years ago," Jaya says. "When the new coalition Government published its manifesto, I spotted the throw-away line buried deep in the text that seemed to suggest there was potential for cities to hold their own referendum for an elected mayor.
"I was talking to a group of fellow business people at a networking event, we'd all had a few drinks and I found myself getting on my high horse about how we should have an elected mayor, or how we should at least push for a referendum.
"The conversation was all about how Bristol misses out on these big opportunities every time, and how somebody needed to stand up for the city. So a chap from a rival digital agency shouted over – 'why don't you do something Jaya?' I laughed for a moment, and then I stopped and thought, why don't you do something Jaya?"
Marti was quick to back-up her friend – with her shared belief in the possibilities that an elected mayor could bring to the city.
"I'd been on a business trip to Lille and met a former elected mayor of that city," Marti explains. "He'd told me how he had badgered Margaret Thatcher personally in order to get the EuroStar to stop at Lille.
"She eventually caved-in to his pressure, because he was so insistent – and it transformed the economic future of Lille dramatically. I could see that's what Bristol needed – a passionate personality who had the strength and dedication to stand up for Bristol on the local, national and world stage."
Christina came onboard, completing the triumvirate, at one of the early mayoral events.
"I got talking to Jaya, and I was telling her how passionately I felt about the issue," Christina recalls. "Jaya said 'well we need a PR person to help us'. I said 'fine, what's the fee?' She said 'there isn't one'. So I shrugged my shoulders and said, 'never mind, I'll do it anyway'.
"To be honest," Christina adds. "I wouldn't have missed the experience. It's been brilliant. It's great that the No campaign put up its own impassioned argument, because it meant there could be a genuine debate. That's what the city needed."
Jaya says initially nobody in the city seemed to know a referendum was even being organised.
"We started out initially as more of an information campaign, and only later evolved into a definite Yes campaign. Our initial concern was that nobody was talking about this – that nobody even knew a referendum was on the cards.
"We were incredibly lucky that the Post got behind the Yes campaign so determinedly – not just because it gave us a powerful ally in calling for people to consider voting for change, but also because the Post's campaign actually put the referendum on the agenda for the city. It got people debating the issue.
"What set us ahead of the other cities, I believe, is the fact that our Yes campaign was born out of a sincere desire to simply get the referendum known about – for us that was the democratic thing to do, that came first, even before pushing our belief in the need to tick the Yes box."
Jaya says even the most basic political campaigning techniques were "terrifying" at first.
"I'd never gone round the streets knocking on peoples' doors," she laughs, "and it could be dispiriting. Sometimes people were so belligerent towards us, it was quite shocking."
But the three women managed to get the Prime Minister to visit Bristol to back the campaign, as well as Lord Adonis and planning minister Greg Clark.
"Those visits boosted the visibility of the campaign," Christina says. "We had plenty of help with those events from Business West, the Festival of Ideas, Speakers Corner, Bristol Grammar School and Armada House, together with both universities."
The women were not alone. Young Bristol film maker Sol Stephens made a short film which got a few hundred views on YouTube.
Jason Budd of Armada House and Stephen Perry, a retired BBC journalist, also worked with them on elements of the campaign, while a team of volunteers came together to man the social media channels. But the three women remained the foundation upon which the campaign was built.
"It took over our lives for a couple of years," Marti says, before Christina adds: "We got used to juggling children, work and political campaigning."
They conducted the entire campaign with a budget of just £4,600.
"We had 19,000 leaflets printed, and that took care of most of our budget," Jaya says. "After that everything got a bit Blue Peter-ish. We were painting placards on cardboard, and relying heavily on the good will of the creative people we knew who were happy to help because they shared our vision."
Christina says another important key to the success of the campaign was grasping the importance of social networking.
"The debates were happening so quickly through online channels like Twitter and Facebook – it meant there wasn't a day when we weren't fighting our corner. We had to put ourselves out there on the social networks for better or worse, and we received plenty of abuse.
"I've lost count of the number of times people suggested we're Tories or that we're in the pockets of big business – both of which are totally absurd ideas to anyone who actually knows the three of us."
Jaya says: "In the end it came down to a simple notion – either people were happy to carry on with things as they were; as they have been for years – or they were prepared for a change; to try something new. I think it's brilliant that Bristolians came out and showed they were willing to give something new a try."