“I can walk on water”. That was the irreverent and rather over-the-top thought that kept going through my head after the big victory I scored as LibDem candidate for Bishopston Ward in 2009.
To be charitable, (though political success is a heady experience, especially as I’d never intended to be a politician) perhaps the idea is better expressed that it looked as if we’d been doing the right thing locally. But complacency is dangerous; as I used to remark to my old colleague David Kitson, it was only a few years before he took over from Labour that they achieved a massive victory in Bishopston. And if you go back to the 70’s, it used to be a very safe seat for the Conservatives. Bishopstonians like to ring the changes every so often.
So we kept in touch via our leaflets and ‘Bishopston Matters’ and continued to work on local issues. That seemed to work well, with David Willingham getting as good a vote in 2010 as I had the previous year. And some of the best successes were yet to come – the opening of Brunel Field as part of Ashley Down Primary School, then work started on an extension to double its intake; the start at long last on work for Bishopston’s new library and medical centre; agreement for new children’s play areas on Horfield Common and next to Dirac Road; 4 new road crossings and other road safety improvements, and much else. So what could go wrong electorally?
One change in the political landscape was the failure of the Conservatives to gain a majority in the 2010 General Election, despite the utter rejection of the Labour Government. I think it was the responsible course for LibDems to go into coalition to form a stable government at a time of economic crisis. But the LibDems have paid dearly for that step.
A momentous change locally was the decision by Bristolians, albeit by a narrow majority on a low turnout, to go for a Mayoral system. As momentous, but again on a low turnout, was the election of an Independent Mayor. In my opinion this was a mistake. I opposed the Mayoral system because I thought it would give too much unaccountable power to one person, and this was made even worse by the election of an Independent who was able, eventually, to coerce all the other parties into his Cabinet even though he makes all the decisions and they are no more than assistants.
I think people (a pretty small minority overall, we must remember) thought George would now enact all their individual pet schemes, this being, in their individual opinions, the obvious thing to do. But as my short experience in Cabinet showed me, it is rarely obviously crystal clear what to do, and policies had to emerge, often with difficulty, through a process of debate and reformulation over a period of time. Crucial in this process is the challenge and probing from opposition Parties. This can at times descend into or appear to be what George famously called ‘bickering’, instead of getting on with things. But I think this is a price worth paying for a proper democratic examination of issues. Democracy is not a tidy system but in my view it does depend on a multiparty political landscape that offers differing views and values, and can, and must, challenge the actions of the ‘big battalions’ in power.
However, of the Bishopstonians who actually voted in the Mayoral election, a majority did not take the views expressed above. They wanted a Mayor and they wanted an Independent Mayor, quite decisively. But when it came to the local elections this May, this didn’t help the Independent Party Candidate, and it was the Green Party which triumphed - again on an historically low turnout.
It’s a bit banal I know, but I say the only thing I’ve learned about politics is that you never know what’s going to happen next. I did think with our solid record of local achievement that the LibDems would survive, but with a lower majority because of the national situation. We shall have to see whether the Green Party can trump our LibDem green record. And it’s too early to pronounce on the mayoral experiment – so far George has quietly got on with many things people were angry about, such as the Social Care decisions and BRT. Most of the things he’s announced so far are LibDem policies coming through the pipeline, but he has now made a major decision of his own, about Residents’ Parking, and we shall have to see where that goes.