Changes to Bristol City Council’s constitution have been branded a “shameless power grab” that will “effectively neuter local democracy”.
The Labour administration insists that the move will make the democratic process fairer and more transparent, as it effectively gives elected councillors from the ruling party more opportunity to make their voices heard on behalf of their constituents.
Under the changes, Labour will increase the number of its backbench councillors taking chair roles in committees and decrease opportunities for opposition parties to put forward ‘golden’ motions for debate – which will reflect the proportionality of the chamber instead of working on rotation.
All three opposition groups slammed the “constitutional power grab” as an affront to democracy at a full council meeting on Tuesday, with Tory John Goulandris, councillor for Stoke Bishop, likening the administration to a totalitarian regime.
“Bristol is not and never should be a one-party dictatorship,” he argued.
Labour councillor for Avonmouth and Lawrence Weston Don Alexander argued that the changes will actually give a voice to underrepresented communities in the city, saying that the group is committed to addressing inequality in the city.
“Our group will be voting for everyone in this city to have an equal chance – we will not have it dominated by Southville, Bedminster and Clifton,” he said.
“It’s telling that the other parties seem to have been united by a shared need to support privilege over democracy on this.”
He was met with loud jeers and laughter from the other side of the chamber.
Geoff Gollop, a Conservative councillor for Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze said it is “quite frightening to see a Labour party choosing to grab more power when it already has excessive amount of power brought about by the democratic system”.
Labour did an apparent U-turn on proposals to increase the number of signatures required on a petition to trigger a council debate from 3,500 to 0.1 per cent of Bristol’s population, which is currently 4,500.
Estella Tincknell, a Labour councillor for Lockleaze, said changing the threshold would send the wrong message, adding: “It makes us look closed and lacking in transparency. If it ain’t broke, let’s not fix it.”
Responding to the U-turn, Tim Kent, a Lib Dem councillor for Henrove and Whitchurch Park said: “I’m pleased that you’ve seen the light and decided that it would not be good for democracy in the city, but I’m worried that that was the cover – you put forward a completely unacceptable proposal to cover up your other unacceptable proposals.”
Also among the proposals was a plan to change the selection process for the lord mayor, turning the role from the current apolitical one, to a democratically elected position.
Labour councillor for St George Fabian Breckels said the change would bring the constitutional convention “out of the shadows”.
He questioned why a party that came fourth should have as much chance of choosing a lord mayor as the one with the majority, adding: “At present it’s all done behind closed doors with a nod or a wink.”
Charlie Bolton, Green councillor for Southville, argued that politicising the role is not the right direction to take, saying: “I sat on the constitutional working group for some months. This proposal was never raised there. It has been sprung on us from a Labour party smoke-filled room.”
The motion was put to a vote and lost, but all other changes passed thanks to the Labour majority.
Speaking after the meeting, Carla Denyer, Green councillor for Cilfton Down, said: “Labour taking control of almost all golden motions – which are the only opportunities other parties get to propose votes at full council – is effectively neutering local democracy.
“The Green Party group does not accept Labour’s dismemberment of the constitution to make it harder for other voices to be heard in the chamber.”
Read more: ‘Out of many, we can be one Bristol’