Bristol's would-be Mayor Marvin Rees explains his views on the new Mayor's cabinet
IWAS recently asked why I had not joined the Mayor's cabinet? The questioners were sincere but the assumptions that lay behind their challenge were built on a misunderstanding of how things work. I explained that there were two straightforward (and possibly related) reasons for my absence. First, only elected councillors can become members of the political cabinet and I am not a councillor. Second, you need to be asked and I have not been asked.
While these answers explained my personal absence, I was very aware they didn't get at what the questioner really wanted to know: what I thought of the Labour party's decision not to taken up the places offered them in the Mayor's cabinet.
I put three qualifiers in place before rushing to an answer.
First, I no more claim to be able to speak with absolute authority for the Labour party than I do for the many other groups of which I am a part: British, English, working class, mixed race; black minority ethnic; Christian, male; non-disabled, ad infinitum. What I can do however is share a perspective that is informed by my membership of those groups.
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Second, I stress that I place as much importance on how people make decisions as the decision they finally make. I think it was TS Eliot who said there is no greater heresy than to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Flip this observation and we create space to work with people we disagree with because we respect the possibility that they made their decision for the right reasons.
So, to return to the question: What would I do if I was a councillor and I was invited? How would I make my decision? I start by sharing my own frustration with any needless political skirmishing that contributes to undermining our city's ability to get things done. That is a given. But there are three questions I would want to work through.
First, I think it is important to remember that political debate, disagreement and the division of power is critical to the health of local and national democracies. I would want to keep mind of the fact that there was a very strong "No" campaign in Bristol built around concerns of a possible concentration of power in an individual inhabiting a role that was not clearly defined. My first tweet in response to the victory of the "Yes" campaign was to mention the need to respect the legitimacy of these arguments, particularly as 76 per cent of the electorate did not vote. This makes it critical that we retain our ability to distinguish between party political bickering and genuine political debate between people who have come together around different differing understandings of the world and different priorities. So while we need to get things done, this immediately opens up the legitimacy of taking a position that protects the public space in which ideas are tested.
Second, before publicly endorsing any leadership I would want to know what that leadership stood for and what those things it wanted to get done. What is the big vision for the city, where does it want us to be in 30-40 years and how will that shape the policy decisions we make today? Taking up a cabinet position is no small thing. To enter into a relationship without testing compatibility would cheapen the role and undermine the possibility of challenging leadership decisions felt to work against the interests of the people of Bristol. The American political activist Jim Wallis once told me it was more dangerous to invited to breakfast at the White House than to be opposed by the White House. It's a warning that speaks to the dangers of losing the space to debate at test a leader.
Third, I would want to know how much power the cabinet position brought with it. All the Mayoral candidates were briefed that on taking office all executive power would be invested in the Mayor and one of the first decisions they would have to make is how much of that power they would share with their cabinet members. At one extreme we would be able to retain all power and use the cabinet as advisors. The alternative would be to give the cabinet members direct power over their portfolios. If I were to take up a position of public responsibility, I would need to be sure I had some institutional power and was not being held accountable for decisions over which I didn't really have any control.I am sure the Mayor feels this about his relationship with central government.
I am always open to discussion but at this point I would need more convincing on all of the above. I would want more clarity on the Mayor's power and position in the city – in relation to the city councillors, the cabinet and other city institutions. I would want a clearer indication of the vision for the city and the values and priorities that will shape the policies that deliver that vision.
There is one final consideration that I would suggest needs to be borne in mind: the political cabinet is not as critical to the future of the city as the column inches and broadcast time given to it of late would suggest. Over the years I have been involved in many work-streams meeting the challenge of how we make Bristol a leading European city and never has the focus been on the cabinet. The challenge was always how we get the city and regional key institutions working together while influencing policy and making our case on the national and international stage. Of course the city cabinet is very visible and has a role. I just suggest that we would be wise to do the power analysis and share our energies with some of the other institutions and networks that shape our lives and determine our futures. Let's mature this debate.