Writers on Bristol, from the Rev. George Heath in the 18th century to Bryan Little in the 20th, have seen in it ‘the London of the West’, a city that would dearly love to outshine its larger rival but is not above copying its every move. So ‘a Boris for Bristol’ stands firmly in that tradition. This week Bristol got, not a Boris, nor a Ken, but a George. Its first executive Mayor is an Independent (and former Liberal councillor), George Ferguson, a flamboyant local architect with a real love for his city, a man who can at the very least be trusted not to use it as a mere stepping-stone to a safe Westminster seat.
Independents did well too in elections for Police & Crime Commissioner, taking four of the seven posts available in Wessex, a logical response to public fears over a policy whose aim appears to be to politicise the police. The Coalition has some apologising to do over the comedy of errors that these elections became. No proper explanation of the change, let alone a justification of something that emerged half-baked from the think-tanks and was waved into law with no real debate. Inadequate publicity from the candidates, denied their traditional right to a free mailshot. No real choice of visions, with all of them putting forward the same promises of greater efficiency and effectiveness. And almost a media blackout, with far more focus on a US presidential election in which the 51st state doesn’t get to vote than on police elections here in which we do. The BBC suggested that national publicity was poor because London wasn’t taking part, as its policing arrangements differ. Nice of the BBC to admit how poorly it serves most of the country.
Voters had three ways to get their own back. They could elect Independents. Which they did, on an unprecedented scale. They could spoil their ballot papers, using them to tell the powers-that-be what they thought. Which they did, on an unprecedented scale. They could boycott the poll. Which they did, on an unprecedented scale. The reaction from the political establishment, given a no-vote of no confidence, has been furious. All the usual over-the-top froth about ancestors dying to secure the right to vote. What comes to mind is Bertolt Brecht’s quip about the easiest solution being to dissolve the people and elect another. The fact is that voters don’t like being shepherded into the polling booths to play a scripted part they would never have chosen to write. Cameron’s pet project, like Prescott’s made-up regions, crashed and burned because folk were given what was thought to be good for them. They felt insulted by it and excluded from the process of shaping it. It wasn’t the wrong answer. It was the wrong stupid question. And there was no box on the ballot paper allowing anyone to say so.
Direct elections to the (now-abolished) police authorities might plausibly have captured the public mood better, if change was inevitable. At least that way, a variety of viewpoints, representing the wide variety of localities, could have been fed into police decision-making. Much hostility was directed at the idea that one person should hold all the power, one person upon whom decisive pressure could then be piled by those behind the scenes. It’s equally an argument against directly elected mayors and one sign of the growing reaction was Hartlepool’s vote on Thursday to abolish the post there and re-instate the traditional civic Mayor and government by committee. Stuart Drummond – H’Angus the Monkey – therefore goes down in history as not just Hartlepool’s first directly elected Mayor but also its last.
A chapter is closing. We are used to having things described in terms of private sector versus public sector; an alternative terminology might contrast the commercial sector and the democratic sector. For a generation, commercial values have been in the ascendant, seeping in to areas that are literally none of their business. Impatience with the slow, gentle process of consensus-building has seen democratic traditions rubbished and big, finance-friendly bosses installed to bully through ‘necessary’ changes. The credit crunch has forced a rethink, now that we know what’s at stake when power is handed to the representatives of commerce, against whom we are allowed no redress.
Democracy requires genuine choices to be available. Instead, we have three main parties all starry-eyed about ‘choice’, solely as it is defined commercially, in terms of buying and selling. The more choice the commercial sector is allowed to give us, the less choice we have to uphold other values. Planning is one obvious example. Although public consultation is an integral part of the planning process, the right answers cannot be given because only the wrong questions are asked. Where would you like development to go? Never the ‘upstream’ question, would you like development?
Last month, planning permission was granted to CALA Homes to build 2,000 houses at Barton Farm on the edge of Winchester. Barton Farm has been a huge local issue for over a decade, with development bitterly contested through political and judicial channels. In 2000 we took part, parading the Wyvern, in a well-attended march through the city centre to a rally at the Guildhall. Now Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has ruled in favour. He accepts that the scheme will harm the landscape, inconvenience existing residents and increase traffic and congestion on local roads. But none of this can prevail against the greed of housebuilders, whose cause he backs.
Decisions like this demonstrate the deep contempt the London regime has for the good folk of Wessex. Its aim is to obliterate us, culturally and environmentally, as obstacles to ‘progress’. And so long as we continue to vote for its candidates it will go on winning.