Bristol. Being different again.

04May13

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) made spectacular gains in this week’s local elections. But not in Bristol.

Some are wetting their knickers over the idea that this is the start of a new era of four-party politics. It so isn’t, you know. It’s ushering in an era that’ll deprive the Conservative party of votes and hollow the activists and local NCOs out of constituency associations in a way that could keep the right out of power in Britain for a generation.

You do have to feel rather sorry for some of the UKIP council candidates who were only standing as electoral cannon fodder to send a message of protest to Westminster, and who now find they have responsibilities. WTF are all these grumpy old men going to do now? Unilaterally declare Loamshire’s independence from Brussels? Demand that schoolchildren sing Baa-Baa Black Sheep in assembly? Turn sites earmarked for social housing into golf courses?

To be fair, there are some perfectly intelligent and well-intentioned UKIP activists who have honest and legitimate concerns about Britain’s membership of the EU. They are not all mad Little Englanders and closet racists who get in a froth about gay marriage. But many of them are, and in any event this vote wasn’t really about Europe at all. UKIP are hoovering up discontent of folks with all manner of beefs which they think could mostly be solved if we all went back to the 1950s when there were fewer immigrunts (as they say on the forums) and when bobbies on the beat could give youngsters a clip round the ear.

While the party made huge gains in many parts of England – among other things UKIP also functions as an English nationalist party – they got nowhere in Bristol. They only fielded six candidates where they could have stood in all 23 wards up for election. They took less than 5% of the overall vote in Bristol and didn’t win any seats.

The story in Bristol instead was that the Greens took two seats to double their presence on the Council, that the Independents for Bristol party/movement/thing got almost 6% of the vote and took one seat, and that the Lib Dems got stuffed, mostly by Labour. Labour gained six seats  and are now the largest group on the Council. The Tories, as ever, didn’t do much. They lost two and won two.

It was easily the most interesting local election in a generation.

What it tells us, yet again, is that Bristol is different. We don’t do politics the same as everywhere else. Last year, Bristol was the only place to opt for an elected mayor, and voted in an independent, George Ferguson, who used to be a Liberal. The Independents for Bristol group who stood this week were also part of that feeling some have that party politics has no place down the Council House, sorry, City Hall. They would have fared better if we knew what this assortment of candidates were actually for/against, but as things are, they did surprisingly well. Better than the Kippers, and with far less publicity.

This was all on a turnout of 27%. Just over a quarter of the electorate bothered to vote, even though it was a lovely sunny day.

Let’s call this quarter/third of people who turn out to vote in any town’s local polls the local civic class. These are the people who think voting’s important; with varying degrees of faith, they believe the system works.

In Bristol, this civic class is not right-wing. The Tories have been stuck as a minority on the council for decades, as a group rarely getting much bigger or smaller. Instead, the civic class here might be described as small-l liberal, from Lib Dem to Labour and Green – the three parties between them took 65% of the vote in Bristol last week. The Tories and UKIP between them made up less than 30%.

This is a pattern you can see in Bristol again and again. The Lib Dems took a pasting, but their votes are going to Labour and the Greens. What it probably means is that people want to punish the LDs as a party for their part in the Coalition nationally, but they still want broadly centrist politics with a progressive flavour.

The political character of this civic class may well be to do with demographics. It may be something to do with the fact that Bristol is better educated and younger than the national average. That’s all there in the 2011 census if you want to seek it out.

Education probably has more of a bearing on this political complexion than, say, wealth. You do get more people voting in the richer wards, but many of these vote Tory, and Bristol’s is not a Tory council, and hasn’t really been for a century. The other thing about rich wards is that they have settled populations and where councillors can count on a strong personal following, regardless of party.

You could caricature Bristol’s politics as “middle class liberal”. But this is by default, not by universal consensus. The majority do not vote; some because they can’t be bothered, have no interest, but some also because they have no faith in the process. And some because they’re just plain stupid, of course.

But in the meantime, the story is that Bristol didn’t vote UKIP, that it told the Lib Dems to go to hell and it feels the same way about the Conservatives that it always has.

Bristol also has two new Green councillors and an independent. In Lawrence Hill, one of the poorest wards in the region where the voters are definitely not middle class, the winning Labour candidate was Hibaq Jama, an articulate and plainly intelligent Somali-born woman and therefore the polar opposite of everything that UKIP stands for.

That will do very nicely for now. Bristol exceptionalism wins the day again.

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12 Responses to “Bristol. Being different again.”

  1. 1 harry mac

    Really good analysis, thanks. The one I don’t really understand is why Avonmouth votes Tory.

    • It’s a mystery isn’t it? Overwhelmingly white and working class, rather cut off from the rest of Bristol. It may be as simple as a couple of good organisers in local party. Might also be message of you all work right hard and your living standards are declining and it’s all the fault of dole scroungers, immigrants and Gordon Brown. Dunno.

      • The latter I suspect. Some of the people I know who are most anti-benefit are the people who are struggling on low-wage grind work and resent it when they see neighbours on the same estate staying at home and having half a dozen kids or partying most of the night at top volume or whatever.

        From a casual glance over the Graun’s coverage it looks like ukip did best in the Eastern side of the UK; Lincolnshire, Norfolk, where the fact that others are coming to do the agricultural work that locals don’t want to do any more is also resented for some bizarre reason.

  2. 4 Sasha Lubetkin

    Excellent and heartening. Many Bristolians seem increasingly interested in local politics which are not driven by the Big Three in Westminster.

    • I think this is partly due to a) Bristol holding elections when the rest of the country isn’t, and the national parties aren’t dominating the agenda and b) spreading out the protest vote across 2-3 elections.

      But we just scrapped that and returned to “vote only after brainwashing” quadrennial elections.

  3. 6 Richard McCarthy

    It’s the later Eugene, so Labour voters there who’ve been canvassed by the Tories tell me. They canvassed on the same themes when they won a seat in St George East

  4. Yes an interesting analysis in the OP, but am I alone in finding all this self-congratulation and back-slapping that seems to be going on over Bristol’s election results more than a trifle smug and complacent?

    Apart from glossing over the fact that Bristol is, as an entity, one of the richest and most privileged cities in the UK (so much so that the Neighbourhood Management funds were actually withdrawn on the grounds that Bristol was effectively skanking money off much poorer regions) the city is, last I heard, still firmly stuck in that Britain you seem to despise and can’t just stick its nose in the air and pretend the rest of us don’t exist.

    Apart from that, Briz ain’t as perfect as some seem to want to kid themselves it is. From what I hear your new Merchant Venturer overlord is well under the thumb:

    • Yeah, I can see how the article might come across as a little smug/complacent. Done in a hurry, initial pleasure that UKIP had come nowhere and all that. But the point I was trying to make is that the politifcal flavour of well over half of the class of Bristolians who actually bother to vote in local elections is left/liberal, even the anti-political-parties types. Moreover I could do you a long and tedious dissertation about how Bristol has been like that since the 1970s or sooner, and that part of the reason for it is precisely because Bristol is politically isolated from the rest of the country due to narrow and unrealistic local authority boundaries which suit a lot of vested interests on both left and right. It’s absurd to suggest I despise Britain. Some of my best friends are British and I have visited the place many times.

  5. 9 thebristolblogger

    Not sure this a terribly interesting election. There seems to have been a bit of maneuvering of personnel on the mild centre left ground largely at the expense of Lib Dems. Although you’d struggle to get a cigarette paper between the beliefs of those that have gone and those that have arrived.

    Meanwhile the real business of the council, as usual, is being conducted elsewhere – keep an eye on those KPMG personnel and our public services because our councillors sure as hell won’t!

    Oh! And I wouldn’t write UKIP off just yet. They seem to to be able to get a working class vote out, when, increasingly, the mainstream can’t.


  1. 1 Worth reading: @EugeneByrne: On Politics and #Bris… | Bristol Festival of Ideas
  2. 2 Participatory inequality and the rise of populist politics | Alex's Archives
  3. 3 Election epilogue: so long and thanks for all the votes! | Psycho Politico

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