Wednesday, 21 November 2012

It’s a no brainer: if invited, Labour should join Ferguson’s cabinet

Newly elected mayor, George Ferguson, may soon find that winning proves to be the easy part. The tricky bit will be bringing all the city’s power brokers together. It’s pretty much accepted that the Lib Dems will find themselves in Ferguson’s cabinet, together with the Greens. After all, it was those disenchanted Liberals who helped get him elected.

What about Labour? Noises coming out of Bristol’s Labour’s Party suggest things may not be quite as straightforward. Early indications are that being a “constructive opposition” would be preferable to accepting a place at the top table. An opposition which scrutinises and holds its leaders to account is essential in a democracy. I accept this.
Except, this isn’t Westminster. This is Bristol. Local democracy should at times be able to rise above the dog eat dog world of the Commons. Now with an elected mayor, it’ll finally have some bite. For the first time in a generation we have a chance to get this city moving and release its untapped potential.

Labour can sit idly by watching/opposing Ferguson implement cuts they perceive to be damaging, disproportionate, and unfair, or they can do something about it. By not joining, they are showing the city that they are putting their own party’s interests above the city’s. Or that’s how some might see it. Remember, perception is everything in this game.
In Bristol, we exist beyond the suffocations of the Westminster Village. Labour can have a very real and positive influence. In an ideal world, it’d be great to see Marvin Rees, Labour’s mayoral candidate, offered a prominent role. As I mentioned in my previous posting, of all the mayoral candidates, only Rees truly grasped the damage that is being done to the city by the gaping chasm that is its social inequality. If anything, his concession speech proved what Bristol stands to miss out on. I had always hoped that whoever won would offer the losing candidate a significant role in the mayor’s first cabinet.

But, I find some of the reasons given for why Labour should turn down possible cabinet posts incredibly depressing. In a piece for LabourList, Labour’s premier grassroots blog – independent, but supportive of the party – its editor, Mark Ferguson, outlined his rationale, warning Bristol Labour people why they should do just this:
Some Labour people will be placed in a difficult and uncomfortable position – being offered positions in an independent administration, perhaps alongside Tories, Lib Dems and others. In a way it’s understandable if some consider taking roles working alongside independents. Four years in opposition is a long time, and the need to help those who only Labour can stand up for is great.

“And yet by working for an “Independent” – those Labour people could end up doing a great deal of harm to Labour voters, and the party.
“Labour politicians helping a politician push his anti-Labour agenda would leave a bad taste in the mouth for sure, but it would also damage the party in Bristol… It would be a betrayal of the party that got them elected to advance their careers.

“Bristol is the kind of place where Labour needs to maintain and extend its support, and this task will be made harder if local Labour councillors are acting as apologists for a non-Labour Mayor who will (like everyone else in local government) be forced to make unpopular cuts.”
Normally, I have a lot of time for what Ferguson writes. He is often astute and measured in his analysis. But, on this, I think he is wrong.

Firstly, it’s hard to pre-judge what kind of mayor George Ferguson will be. Labour doesn’t know. None of us know. Part of his appeal was this unknown quantity. Yes, cuts will be on their way. Up to £32m, so we’re told. This is therefore a chance for Labour to help in shaping the mayor’s agenda, ensuring it isn’t the city’s most vulnerable who bear the brunt.
In fact, this is a chance for all the four parties in Bristol, (including the Greens) to show that for once, they are above party politics. Don’t you think this city has had enough of the pettiness and the mud-slinging? It’s held Bristol back for years. Now, with a mayor, with cross-party support, we can put the past behind us.

Some may dismiss this as idealistic and naive. I’m happy to accept both charges. There’s nothing wrong with believing that all parties, and none, can work together.
Labour accuses George Ferguson of having run an unashamedly “anti-Labour” campaign. Of course he was going to do this. He knew full well that getting voters to reject Labour represented his best chance of cashing in. In the end, it was their rejection of the Tories and Lib Dems that benefited him the most. Of course asking voters to reject one party, rather than positively endorsing another, is negative and cynical. But, everyone does it. It’s just electioneering.

Not joining Ferguson’s cabinet would be short-sighted, foolish and wrong. It would also show voters they were right to reject business-as-usual party politics. It is also worth pointing out that Ferguson doesn’t have to bring Labour along with him. Let’s be honest, had Labour won, would Ferguson be invited to join the cabinet? Unlikely.
Rather than putting their careers ahead of the party, as Mark Ferguson says they would be doing, I ask Labour to put Bristol ahead of their party. After all, it could end up benefiting the party rather than harming it.

This article was first published on thisisbristol on Wednesday 21st November 2012

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