Bristol and the Lib Dems


For hundreds of years, the English ruling class had all its political rows by splitting into two factions – court and country, roundhead and cavalier, Whig and Tory then Liberal and Conservative.

These two factions date from Tudor times, but remained fundamentally the same. On the one side (country, Cavalier, Tory, Conservative) you had the party of conservatism, monarchy, the countryside and the Church of England. On the other was the party of new money, industry, religious nonconformism and, occasionally, radicalism and social justice, but let’s not get carried away here. For every Lloyd George there were ten Sir Josiah Sweatshoppes.

This system held sway throughout the period in which women and proles didn’t have the vote.

In Bristol the factionalism could be bitter; there were frequent punch-ups at election time, even the odd riot. In the 19th century you could even argue that North Bristol was Tory, while South Bristol was Liberal. Long story, let’s not go there.

And yet in 1926 the Conservatives and Liberals on Bristol’s council came together to form a single party. Three hundred years of bitter rivalry gone in an instant.

Why? Because the old establishment saw an existential threat from Socialism. They’d had a revolution in Russia (and murdered the royal family!), Germany looked as though it might go next, and in Britain the General Strike was all about bringing about revolution in Britain, wasn’t it? Tories and Liberals on Bristol’s council joined forces as the Citizen party.

The Bristol Citizen party remained in existence until 1973. There were no Liberals or Tories on the Council for almost 50 years. Just Citizens and Labour. ‘Course by the end of it the Liberal element in the Citizen group had more or less disappeared.

Everyone knew the Citizens were Tories, but they only “came out” as such in the 1970s because of the new county of Avon, where Conservatives were much more likely to be voted into power standing as Conservatives than they ever would in Bristol. In Bristol being “Citizens” suited them nicely; people were much more likely to vote for a group claiming to put the interests of the city before the interests of a party.

Something else happened in 1973. In the Bristol council elections, three Liberals were voted in. First Liberals down the Council House in nearly 50 years.

QUIZ QUESTION: One of the three new Liberal councillors in ’73 is still very active in Bristol politics. Name him.

(Answer at the end.)

(If you already know the answer you are a sad, sad local politics anorak who needs to get a life.)

One of the main reasons why people voted Liberal in 1973 was as part of a wider civic revolt against what they saw as a too-cosy relationship between Labour and Tory/Citizen councillors on planning issues. This was a period of massive concrete building and road schemes, and various civic groups were now mobilising against it. By 1973, the Labour group were also saying enough is enough, but they didn’t say it loud enough to stop three Liberals being voted in, a lot of it on the back of various civic and amenity groups set up to stop all the bloody concrete being poured over the old city.

And that, Virginia, is how the Lib Dems began their long, long march to eventually take control of the City Council.

A poll published in today’s Post shows the Lib Dem candidate struggling to make an impression in the mayoral contest.

Doubtless a lot of this is connected with people’s feelings about the Lib Dems in government. But as the tedious history lesson above tries to demonstrate, there is no iron law which states that the Lib Dems will continue to exist locally in the same way that we’ll (probably) always have Tories and Labour. The Lib Dems still have a core of loyal supporters and workers, they can punch above their weight when it comes to campaigning, but this mayoral election, and next year’s local elections might, just might, be the beginning of the end of them as a political force in Bristol. They disappeared once before, and it can happen again.

Some will doubtless see this as cause for celebration, particularly Labour tribalists who in Bristol’s political arena hate Lib Dems way more than they hate Conservatives.

But really, absolutely last thing Bristol needs is a return to the dreary old Labour/Tory revolving door. The late 1960s/70s civic revolt against concrete was entirely because arrogant councillors and aldermen were telling everyone what was best for them. The fewer political alternatives you have, the less democracy you’ve got. Besides, most councillors are idiots; each party only has a small share of capable men and women, and while no-one will miss many LD members, Bristol can ill afford to lose the talented ones.

If the Libs are going to be wiped out, or reduced to a Cliftonite rump, one suspects that the Greens (who have the only woman candidate – from a total of 15 – in the mayoral elections, fact fans) will reap at least some profit. Maybe in Bristol terms the Greens are now where the Liberals were 40 years ago.

QUIZ QUESTION ANSWER: One of the three new Liberal councillors elected in 1973 was George Ferguson, now a leading independent candidate in Bristol’s mayoral election.

Ferguson’s opponents have made much of how he used to be a Liberal like it’s some sort of sin, or he’s some sort of opportunist. Supporters of the red-trousered one, on the other hand, would surely say that all this proves is that he’s consistently campaigned to make Bristol better.

Everyone play nicely, now. If there are any comments on this one, let’s not get personal.


10 Responses to “Bristol and the Lib Dems”

  1. 1 Tony "Anorak" Dyer

    Your follow up question; which councillor is the only councillor still in the chamber who was elected as a “Citizen Party” candidate before being one of those “out of the closet” Tories who transferred to Avon County Council?

  2. 5 thebristolblogger

    The characterisation of the Greens as the new Liberals/Lib Dems is spot on if slightly depressing.

    Obviously what’s missing is a party or political force to occupy that huge space to the left of Labour and the Lib Dems. Where is it?

    • The 1970s Liberals and present day Greens have a lot in common. Both, for instance, were/are rooted in white, middle-class protest, though the Greens have a far stronger commitment to social justice. You could even argue that in conventional party political terms the Greens are that party you are seeking, though they’ve yet to make a significant electoral breakthrough because of their image as hippies and sandal-wearing killjoys who’ll stop us eating meat and take away our leather jackets and cars. If you want a party of the socialist left operating under the terms of liberal democracy you probably need proportional representation, as per many European countries where you tend to have a centre-left party in parliament along with a (usually, though not always) smaller socialist left party. That condemns you to eternal coalition government, but then given that Labour and Tory parties are both coalitions themselves it’s what we’ve got in UK anyway.

      • 7 thebristolblogger

        The Greens are convincing as liberals but unconvincing as a left of centre party. The social justice agenda seems poorly tacked on to a set of middle class lifestyle politics.

  3. 8 Richard

    Ferguson is not an independent candidate; he is standing on the ticket of a political party created by himself. Please correct.

  4. Excellent post, Eugene, particularly the historical analysis.

    However, surely the ‘us’ and ‘them’ factionalism goes back further? After all, ancient Rome, for instance, had the plebs and patricians: indeed it may go back as far as our ancestors’ preferred grooming partners for keeping one free of fleas.

    Mine’s the anorak with the copies of Cicero & Darwin in the pockets.

  5. 10 Rod

    Interesting comments on the Green Party on this thread. I would say that their policies support the working class more than Labour and the Lib Dems. I’m from a very working class background and do not feel that Labour represent me in any way at all these days.

    As far as I can tell, they are not out to stop everyone from wearing leather jackets and eating meat. However, with the world going the way it is with a rapidly rising population, anyone who says that we eat too much meat (as it simply isn’t going to be sustainable to go on as we are for much longer) is not exactly advocating a middle-class lifestyle, they are just being pragmatic. For what it’s worth, I probably spend less on food since giving up meat than I did before.

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