Next Tuesday, the 70 elected Bristol City councillors will select a new leader of the council, after the resignation last month of Barbara Janke.
In a normal situation, Tuesday’s council meeting would simply consist of the main body of the council rubber-stamping the pre-determined decision of the largest party group in the council chamber – currently the Liberal Democrats – to choose one of their number as leader.
Once the pretence of election by the whole council has been concluded, the leader will then select a cabinet from within their own party group, and “business as usual” will then proceed as the councillors of the opposing party groups then attempt to make cheap political points at the expense of the ruling party, and vice versa.
But this is not a normal situation.
Last Friday, Bristol voted to change its leadership model to one that involves an elected mayor. As a result, on November 15, Bristol will elect a mayor who will then choose their own executive cabinet. In essence what will be created on Tuesday will be a “caretaker” or “lame duck” administration, with a set expiration date.
In such a situation, “business as usual” is simply not good enough. There is a responsibility and an opportunity for the council to start now to ensure a smooth and efficient transition not only to the incoming mayoral system but also towards a greater democratic engagement that doesn’t result in less than 25% turnout in referenda and only a 30-40% turnout in local elections.
Almost anybody who canvassed for either the Yes or No campaigns in the lead in to the referendum will have realised that if the referendum question had been simply “do you want to change the current system?”, the turnout would have been considerably higher and would have resulted in a much bigger Yes vote.
What was also apparent was a deep discontent caused by the perception that too many politicians seemed willing to put their party first and Bristol second. Many of those supporting the move to an elected mayor did so because they hoped that the mayoral system would provide an opportunity to move away from what many saw as party first politics to an approach that encouraged a different type of working that puts Bristol first instead.
As a result, in six months’ time, we will have an elected mayor in Bristol and if there is any reality in the promise of a less party politicised future for the way Bristol will be run then there is a real possibility that instead a cabinet being selected based on which councillors supported the eventual leader, we will have a mayor, with a personal mandate from the electorate, who will be able to select a cabinet based on merit.
Indeed a mayor may even feel empowered to select councillors from outside their own party group. Of course, if the mayor elected is an independent, this latter aspect is a necessity.
But rather than waiting six months there is an opportunity now for Bristol’s elected politicians to demonstrate clearly that they can work together for the benefit of the city and its citizens, and at the same time prepare the way for a smooth transition to the mayoral system that has been chosen as the city’s future form of governance.
Following the last set of local elections, cross party working groups were set up to cover key areas of conflict – in particular the sell-off of green spaces. Given the unique situation that Bristol City Council now finds itself, I believe that it is in the best interests of Bristol as a whole to apply a similar technique to the Cabinet that will run the city for the next six months.
A cross-party cabinet with membership proportional to the number of councillors from each party that make-up the council – with numbers assigned using the same basic system that will be used next Tuesday to allocate places to the various committees by which the council run scrutiny, planning, licensing and so on – can demonstrate over the next six months that our local politicians can indeed work together for the greater good.
It will also mean that whoever is elected as mayor in November, regardless of political allegiance (if any), will have a pool of existing cabinet members with up to date experience of operating in a modern cabinet – even if they then choose to revert back to a single-party cabinet system.
The reality of Tuesday’s council meeting is that none of the individual parties have the votes to push through a cabinet consisting entirely of members from their own party unless the other parties allow them, but any combination of two of the three main parties can push through a cabinet that consists of members from multiple parties.
It is therefore up to the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties to decide whether they want to continue with “business as usual” or whether they want to recognise that the incoming mayor constitutes a major change to the way Bristol is governed which they need to start preparing for now, and also provides an opportunity to start to rebuild some of the lost faith that the average citizen has in their local council.
A lot can happen in six months, and there is a danger that a transitional single-party cabinet will either end up failing to achieve anything substantive and/or fall victim to the temptation to take just the easy decisions so as not to upset the potential electorate. There is also the danger of it being misused as a campaign tool for a prospective mayoral candidate.
A “lame duck” administration will be no good for Bristol and we can only hope our councillors will take the opportunity that the referendum result has thrust upon them, welcome or otherwise.
Business as usual is no longer an option, modern Bristol needs a new way of working and that should start next week rather than November.