Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Why George Ferguson won, or why Labour lost

Bristolians have always known what makes their city special: its beauty, diversity and edginess, as well as the locals’ refusal to follow the herd. Once again, for the second time in six months, Bristol has dared to be different. There are several reasons why George Ferguson won last week’s mayoral election. Some of them are the same reasons why Labour lost, some are not.

If it were a choice between who had the better manifesto and the most alluring pledges, Marvin Rees, Labour’s candidate, should have won hands down. Rees understood from day one the key issue Bristol needed to address: its social inequality. Yes, the buses are a disgrace, we all know that. And, most of the candidates promised to fix them. But, only Rees was talking the language of equality, or lack of. Who better to address the alarming gaps in quality of life – be it housing, work, crime, or even just life expectancy - between residents of Lawrence Hill and Westbury on Trym, than a resident of the former, who has seen with his own eyes what happens when parts of the city get left behind?
Whilst Ferguson played lip service to this crucial issue, Rees made it a centrepiece of his campaign. But it wasn’t enough. Voters across the country have been in punishing mood for some time now. Punishing the establishment that is.  For many, Rees, irrespective of many of his qualities – such as freshness and authenticity – was the Labour Party. The same Labour Party that people blame, along with the Tories and Lib Dems, for the stalemate and inertia at the council. It’s often been my belief that Bristol is a wonderful city, despite, not because of the work of the council.

Voters were clearly not prepared to take a chance on what they perceived to be just another Labour councillor in the making, with a far bigger paycheck, no matter how unfair that may seem or how strong a candidate Rees was.
Seeing a steady stream of the Labour Shadow Cabinet visiting Bristol would also have convinced many that Rees was, and would be, answerable to Labour Party HQ down in London. Whatever policy ideas Ed Miliband put forward, people would wonder if they’d be replicated here. Opposition attacks on the government? Bristolians would assume these were also Rees’ views.

The mayoralty should be an opportunity for political independence, or at least a little free-thinking, no matter what party you are standing for. That’s part of its appeal. Ken Livingstone, and even Boris Johnson, have made a name for themselves doing just this. The sight of Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, Diane Abbott, and even Ed Miliband, swanning around East Street or Cabot Circus reminds people of the very politics - or should that be the very politicians? - they are rejecting in greater numbers than ever before.
This is not about you; this is about us, Bristol. This should be an election about local issues, led by local activists, some may have thought. Not by big hitters vying for a return to government.

There’s no doubt that the low turnout – at 27.9%, only marginally better than the 24% who voted ‘yes’ in May – benefited an outsider. Historically, low turnouts tend to harm Labour. By the same token, it is the Conservatives who usually benefit, confident that their supporters will turn out on polling day. It’s simple demographics:  the elderly are statistically more likely to be Tory voters and they vote in greater numbers.  
Both of the above happened, but with a twist. The Conservative vote, like the Lib Dems’ (as expected) collapsed. Among Labour activists, there was concern that the Tories would vote in larger numbers than Labour folk. They were right to be worried. Except they didn’t turn out to vote Conservative. They voted for George Ferguson. Right across the city, people snubbed mainstream parties in favour of the untested independent.

There’s little doubt that George’s charisma, his refreshing honesty to admit to not knowing something in hustings, and his ‘none of the above’ appeal, won him many admirers, both old and new.
Ferguson’s main theme was to convince that he could transcend the squabbling party politics that have dogged the council for years. I was never swayed by the argument that he was being disingenuous in proudly proclaiming his independent credentials, when he had been, until recently, a long-standing member of the Lib Dems. He’s always maintained that he hadn’t been an active member for a while. But, more than this, I always felt this line of attack was fruitless and unlikely to have much of an impact on voters. Clearly they agreed.

It is also worth mentioning that, in general, this has been a pretty clean campaign, thankfully devoid of the dirty tricks and cynicism that can often dominate local politics. To this, all the candidates must take credit.
There was however one exception: politics as practised in the Twittersphere. As a Labour Party member (yes, cards on the table time) I was often appalled and rather disappointed at the incessant taunting and baiting of Ferguson online. Some Labour supporters seemed to feel it more worthwhile to devote their energy to unleashing a barrage of negative tweets in his direction, rather than singing the praises and highlighting the strengths of their own candidate. This is the kind of thing that drives people away from politics. To his credit, Ferguson, more often than not, refused to let it get to him, and responded, as far as Twitter is concerned, by being civil, respectful, and good humoured.

Finally, to all those who voted against having a directly elected mayor in May (that’s most of you), let me say this. At least now we know who’s in charge. Who to blame when things go wrong. And who to thank when they go right. Because I imagine most of you couldn’t name our last council leader. A victory for local democracy, if nothing else. (It was the Lib Dems’ Simon Cook, by the way).
This article was first published on thisisbristol on Tuesday 20th November 2012  

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