Source: Election Maps.
Case study: Bristol
Control: No Overall Control.
Numbers: Green Party 24, Labour 24, Conservatives 14, Lib Dems 8.
Change since last local elections: Green Party +13, Labour -13, Conservatives and Lib Dems unchanged.
All out or thirds: All out.
Background: Bristol City Council, as currently constituted, was formed in 1974 with elections the previous year. Since that time, it has mostly been under Labour control, though at various stages it was a hung Council and, for a couple of years, the Lib Dems took charge. It was given unitary status in 1995 and has had a directly elected Mayor since 2012. Before 1974, the Council was called the Bristol Corporation. Until 1963, the municipal bus company operated a “colour bar” – with the support of the trade unions and the Labour-run council.
Former Bristol MPs include Edmund Burke and Tony Benn. Labour easily won all four Bristol constituencies at the last General Election. Thangam Debbonaire won Bristol West for Labour with a majority of 28,219. That seat used to be held by William Waldegrave, for the Conservatives, until 1997. As recently as the 2015 General Election, there was a Conservative victory in Bristol North West – Charlotte Leslie won the seat with a majority of nearly 5,000. Last time round there was a Labour majority of over 5,000. Boundary changes mean the city is due to have five constituencies in future.
Results: The local implications of the results are limited as Marvin Rees was returned as the directly elected Labour Mayor. That means Labour is still in power even without a majority of the councillors. But the results do highlight challenges for both the Conservatives and Labour. Sometimes Sir Keir Starmer is advised that to win back traditional, patriotic working class voters all the “woke” barnacles must be stripped off the boat. Labour must desist from all the sucking up to Extinction Rebellion, Stonewall, Black Lives Matter, et al. Sound advice overall, perhaps. But the Bristolians seem worried that Labour isn’t woke enough. In this volatile age, might Bristol start returning Green Party MPs?The friction isn’t new, of course. George Orwell complained of socialism attracting “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist.” Tricky. Labour risks losing the sandal-wearing vote in Bristol without winning back the bitter-drinkers in Burnley.
For the Conservatives, the difficulty in Bristol is rather more stark. We didn’t lose any council seats. But this was in a year where significant overall gains were made by the Conservatives nationally. In the directly elected Mayoral contest, the Green Party came second with the Conservative candidate a distant third. This is an affluent city. Why should the party of free enterprise find it so hard to win votes?
The graffiti artist Banksy might have prospered under the capitalist system. But he is not very grateful. In the 2017 General Election, he offered electors in Bristol a free print if they did not vote Conservative. The junction of Stokes Croft and Jamaica Street has one of his murals. It depicts a teddy bear lobbing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police was voted Alternative Landmark of Bristol. There is a community group called the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft which dedicates itself to protecting and promoting graffiti. Stoke Bishop Ward still returns Conservative councillors but while it used to be a safe space for Bufton Tuftons it is gradually turning into a hipster colony.
There is a section of the City’s population that is more politically centrist – many work in financial services, for instance. But while mildly economically liberal they would regard themselves as “socially progressive”. They tend to be “anywheres” rather than “somewheres” as David Goodhart would put it. Bristol voted Remain by a large margin in the EU referendum. Only 55 per cent of housing in the City is owner-occupied.
Perhaps the biggest part of the explanation is that Bristol has two universities. These days, a university in a constituency is electoral poison for the Conservatives. It is not just the student vote but also the graduates who decide to stay on for a few years. Then there are a large number of college employees – the academics, the researchers, the adminstrators, and so on. The sector is increasingly bloated. Those who work in it are not merely temperamentally hostile to the Conservatives but (quite understandably) feel a Labour Government would safeguard their financial interests. Slashing the subsidies so that many of the more futile courses are scrapped, and many colleges close, is the way forward. That would also mean reversing the trend to require a degree as a qualification for an ever-growing list of public sector jobs. Such reforms would certainly further antagonise those working in the universities. Yet it is hard to see what the Conservatives have to lose. The motives for “rebalancing” the career paths of the young into more fruitful directions are rather wider and purer than seeking to get a few more councillors and MPs elected in Bristol. Yet that might be a welcome by-product of such a bold endeavour.