Mayor hopeful Marvin Rees branded "naïve and weak” over anti-EDL protest
Labour’s Bristol mayor candidate Marvin Rees has been accused by a rival politician of being “naïve and weak” in his handling of the run-up to Saturday’s EDL march and counter-protests.
Mr Rees was also branded as “easily led” in the statement released today on behalf of Lib Dem councillor Gary Hopkins.
But the mayoral candidate has hit back – saying he is “disappointed” by the move.
Mr Hopkins’ statement notes that Mr Rees and other Bristol Labour politicians appeared on Unite Against Fascism (UAF) leaflets before the counter-protests on Saturday, and that violent clashes had broken out between counter-EDL protesters and the police.
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The councillor, who is in charge of community safety in his council role, said: “The Labour Party were well aware that there was likely to be street violence but still persisted in supporting direct counter-demonstration and, it is reported, speaking at the rally.
“Labour councillor Mike Wollacott faces calls to step down from his position of responsibility on the council after he tried to put pressure on the council leader to speak on behalf of UAF and then ignored police attempts to bring order by encouraging a potentially dangerous assembly in a provocative place. Does Mr Rees support Councillor Wollacott or not?
“This was totally irresponsible. Marvin Rees has shown himself to be weak, easily led and – if he didn’t realise violent disturbances might follow – naïve, as well.”
Mr Wollacott told ThisisBristol that the calls for his resignation after he had asked the council leader to speak at the demonstration made it a “disappointing day for democracy” .
Mr Rees reacted to Mr Hopkins by saying it was “simply not good enough to abdicate responsibility” when it came to the issue of the EDL march, and that Bristol needed “change and leadership”.
He said: “Let's remember the most important thing here is standing up against the dangerous and divisive politics the EDL represent. At the same time, it goes without saying that under no circumstances would I support violent protest.
“I'm disappointed in Gary and the Liberal Democrat press office. The challenges thrown up by the EDL march are just too important to Bristol's future to be used for Party posturing, yet that is what the Liberal Democrats are doing with them. Their press release lacks insight, understanding and accuracy.”
Mr Hopkins said in today’s statement: “Let’s be quite clear how serious this situation could have been. The violence could have been a great deal worse, had it not been for excellent policing and the calm, statesmanlike approach of the Muslim community.
“It beggars belief that a candidate for the highest office in Bristol should have let unelected Labour activists pull his strings and force him into the very embarrassing position he finds himself in now.
“It was the same with the other Labour leaders in Bristol. We urged all the other parties on the city council to sign up to a simple statement of support for the police and acknowledgement of the statesmanlike position adopted by the Muslim leaders. Labour alone refused to sign this statement.
“The Liberal Democrat administration was as opposed to the EDL march as anyone else.
“But we recognised – as the Muslim community did – that it would be better controlled if it was allowed to go ahead and we worked closely with the police and the Muslim leaders to help ensure things went off peacefully.”
But Mr Rees responded: “It’s disingenuous to insinuate that all those at the 'We Are Bristol'
anti-EDL march were intent on violent disorder. There were many ordinary Bristolians there simply wanting to express their opposition to what the EDL stand for.
“And it’s dangerous to take a position that suggests there is a division between Bristol's Muslim community and those who attended 'We Are Bristol' - it’s a division that doesn't exist. In fact, in talking up such a division, it is Gary who risks breaking up the social ties that the EDL want to destroy.
“We faced a challenge last weekend. It was up to our political leaders to help the city - the whole city - frame a response to the EDL march. If we do not, someone else will. So it’s simply not good enough to abdicate responsibility. Bristol needs change and leadership."
Mr Wollacott said: “It is a disappointing day for democracy, when an elected councillor is asked to resign simply because he had offered the opportunity to the leader of the council to speak at a demonstration that was designed to promote greater community cohesion, in the face of a demonstration that so clearly was designed to create social division and promote racial intolerance.
“Whist recognising the right of all political parties to demonstrate, it is also perfectly reasonable for those who have strong feelings against particular groups to be allowed to protest too. The negative press on the counter demonstration in the run up to the protest on Saturday ensured that there was a smaller turn out than expected, but the vast majority of protesters were peaceful, and they reflected the mood of the majority of the community in Bristol, including Liberal Democrats.
“My involvement with the UAF was in an attempt to ensure that there was a minimum public order issues, and I have worked closely with the Police in the run up to and on the day of the counter demonstration. The leader of the council has said that he did not want the EDL in Bristol, so I do not understand why there is such a reaction after the event, especially when the Police have praised the behaviour of the demonstrators.”
Mr Hopkins also criticised Bristol Labour MP Kerry McCarthy for letting herself be reported calling for a ban of the EDL march, which he said was “wholly irresponsible”.
“She has some explaining to do,” he said. “Was she deliberately stirring up passion and anger for political gain or was she genuinely so ignorant of the facts that she thought a ban was possible?”
Kerry McCarthy replied: "Yet again Cllr Hopkins and the Liberal Democrats have taken a cowardly and unprincipled position which has been characteristic of their time in office.
"I am, of course, opposed to all violence and that is why Cllr Wollacott and I were in frequent contact with Pride, UAF and the police to ensure these groups were talking to each other and working together.
"It is a disgrace that the Lib Dems failed to take leadership. They have focused all their energy on attacking those standing against division and violence, while failing to speak out against the disruption the EDL brought to Bristol."
Another Labour MP in Bristol, Dawn Primarolo, has also been incensed by Mr Hopkins comments - even though she was not personally named in his statement.
She contacted ThisisBristol to say: "Even by his own standards, attempts by Gary Hopkins to equate Labour with any trouble on Saturday are a particularly shabby piece of petty politicking.
"The reality, as so often is the case, is very different to Cllr Hopkins’ version of events. The EDL tried to divide Bristol with their dangerous views, and they failed miserably. It is deeply disappointing now to see a senior councillor trying to make political capital out of the EDL’s presence in our city."