The world won’t listen: representation and democracy in city governance


Dr David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies

Dr David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies

George Ferguson is Bristol’s directly elected mayor (DEM). The most controversial policy he has introduced so far is the introduction of parking restrictions radiating out from Bristol city centre. In a bid to cut traffic and boost public transport use, he is using the powers available to him to address an issue that was amongst the most high profile in the election campaign: transport. This policy has echoes of Ken Livingstone’s introduction of the congestion charge in London. In much the same way as Ferguson, Livingstone was cautioned against introducing what was then seen as a foolhardy and unpopular policy.

Ferguson is under considerable attack from many in Bristol as a result of this policy. Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of this approach, the implication, either explicit or implicit from his critics, is that he is subverting the democratic process. The letters page of the local paper contains references to him as a dictator, and the paper itself has run a survey which appears to show low levels of support for the parking scheme amongst Bristolians. The message is that he is not listening to local people, and that he is out of touch with what they want. Consequently, they argue that the scheme should be dropped.

Yet these sorts of criticisms miss the point. Part of the debate around the introduction of DEMs in English local government – and in Bristol – relates to their decisiveness. The argument goes that DEMs, backed by a direct mandate to govern, and given a four year term, can take difficult decisions and develop radical policies for the benefit of their local areas in a way that indirectly elected leaders might find more difficult. As the Plain English Guide to the Localism Act put it:

…elected mayors can provide democratically accountable strong leadership which is able to instigate real change for the benefit of our largest cities. Mayors will be clearly identifiable as the leader of the city and will have a unique mandate to govern…

Bristol residents voted in favour of introducing a DEM in a referendum. They also chose Ferguson to lead the city. DEMs are the epitome of local representative democracy, where citizens choose directly the city leader. Drawing on democratic theory there are broadly three forms of representation. First, the representative can do what the electorate wants – s/he is a ‘delegate’, enacting the wishes of their constituents. This form is hard to reproduce in a large city with diverse communities demonstrating different wants, needs, and opinions. The second form is that of ‘party soldier’, where the representative acts in line with the party under whose banner they stood. Ferguson is an independent mayor without a party, and therefore unable to be a party soldier. Hence that only leaves for him one form of representation, that of ‘trustee’ – where the representative uses their own judgement in decision-making.

In a recent exchange between Ferguson and one of his constituents, Ferguson articulated exactly this form of representation. In defending himself against a charge of not listening to local people, he said ‘I was elected to do what I think is right’. He also put it in even blunter terms, which captured many headlines. In doing so, in addition to making clear his preference for the trustee form of decision-making, he resurrected a famous figure in Bristol’s history, Edmund Burke, MP for Bristol between 1774 and 1780. Burke, in his speech to electors upon his election stated:

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

This forms the defence for Ferguson’s style of decision-making, and the basis of the role of the DEM in city governance. The mayor is elected to introduce decisive leadership. This is, of course, not to say that there need not be an effective system of citizen participation in the city – of course there should be. And also the onus is on the mayor to engage and listen to his or her constituents in a multitude of ways. Nevertheless, the pivot of democracy for DEMs is the ability for citizens to have their say by voting them out of office at election time, an opportunity unavailable in other systems.

Here a note of caution for Ferguson can be heard from one of his predecessors, George Micklewright, Leader of Bristol City Council in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He pointed out that after Burke ‘had lectured the electors of Bristol about the importance of his judgment, they decided they had had quite enough of this arrogant sod and they gave him the boot’. This opportunity is one that is also available to Bristolians for Ferguson. It wasn’t available to Bristolians for Micklewright, as he was elected as Leader of the Council by a handful of councillors, and only ceased to be leader when his ward constituents – a fraction of the population of the city – voted him out of office.

At election time, the citizens of Bristol shall have the opportunity to give their verdict on Ferguson in the same way that Londoners gave their verdict on Livingstone after the introduction of the congestion charge. Londoners gave Livingstone another four year mandate.

6 thoughts on “The world won’t listen: representation and democracy in city governance

  1. Hi David,

    Great point… direct accountability to an electorate confers a mandate in quite a different (and possibly unintended) way than through the management of a ‘selectorate’ of a local party machine. In our work in Liverpool on evaluating Mayor Anderson this is a really key change – in addition to enhanced visibility, public profile and name-recognition of the mayor.

    I am struck, though by how exposed Mayor Ferguson is without a party to draw on… I wonder whether a risk of executivisation is that it creates huge pressures on the figurehead themselves. I know that people are very down on politicians in general and view them as self-serving but honestly in the core cities of the UK – coping with the demands of austerity localism – and seeking to make big changes the pressures of the job looks unenviable!!


  2. The problem with this kind of representative democracy is the yang of the “yin” that is the ability for a DEM to be decisive. Unfortunately decisive can also easily mean divisive. We moved, in my opinion unfortunately, away from a system of moderation to one where the opinions of individual wards in this city can be ignored.

    Of course I recognise and understand the quote, the idea that we need direct democracy rather than representative democracy is not one I subscribe to…just because some people feel one way doesn’t mean that everything else *must* be stopped.

    However there are no safeguards that a DEM will act on behalf of the greater Bristol area, taking in all views. George may be doing this, others may not. The idea that if “we” don’t like it that we will simply vote a different way? I unfortunately find that argument simplistic. The vote will ultimately come down to two people, and in a city with as diverse a range of political views as Bristol that does a disservice to the diversity of the city. With there being no evidence that voting participation will increase substantially, who will be the Mayor next time around can swing heavily on just how organised small groups are rather than the wider opinion of real performance or policy potential.

    Indeed isn’t the problem here with the system that while the DEM is given that role to be trusted to make the right decisions, the voting system does not and will not encourage that in the future…instead causing those that want the power to concentrate on the views of the most vocal areas of the city, a vocal minority that will make a voting majority?

    I fear in the future, regardless of good intentions now, we will have Bristol DEMs that are essentially ward representatives for one of two or three areas, and everyone else will get caught in the cross fire of those opposing politics.

  3. “the voting system does not and will not encourage that in the future…instead causing those that want the power to concentrate on the views of the most vocal areas of the city, a vocal minority that will make a voting majority?”

    That seems to me to be an odd critique of a democratic process. It amounts to saying that open campaigning and voting cannot be relied on to achieve an electorally just outcome. Or, perhaps, that democracy itself needs to be regulated by some wisdom that lies beyond electorates.

    In practice any elected Mayor (or other executive power) will be counterbalanced by existing restraints and practices, by national law and executive power, and by economics. The many voices that are raised are heard. It is clear that Ferguson does pay attention to them. Paying attention cannot be expected to result in automatic changes.

    In practical terms. a lot of the twittering and grumbling about George Ferguson that I have seen and heard so far has been primitive grudge polishing – demanding “consultation” when it is already underway and name calling when reasoning is unavailable. At its best it has been no more than “scrap the policy because we don’t like it” rather than “here are some changes that would make us hate it less”. Personal abuse and prejudice have been at least as common as reasoned argument or presentation of evidence. As is normal.

    In practice, policies have shifted, adjusted or re-scheduled in response to opposition. Quiet, loud, informed and uninformed voices from all sorts of directions and a variety of neighbourhoods have been raised. As you would expect.

    To the extent that the largest minority in Bristol politics said “yes” to the adoption of a Mayor I sense that it was informed by a sense that a belligerent atmosphere of party rivalry has more or less strangled any sense of progress in the City for a long time. The aftermath of the Mayor’s election was one more example of the normal intransigence, wasting months of time by refusal to join a cabinet.

    It does seem sad that there are still Bristol voices shouting “it’s not fair!”… “I don’t like you!” while what you might call proper opposition politicians are failing to articulate those feelings and convert them into valid policy alternatives or modifications.

    The poverty of local reporting on political affairs (now normal even at a national level) doesn’t help democracy to “work” on a day to day basis. Social media and click-bait opinion threads run by news media do tend to over-emphasise the incoherently disgruntled and the angriest opponents. As far as I know, the only opinion polling is done by the highly dubious means of the on-line newspaper polls on a loaded questions. It seems unlikely that anyone has a reliable sense of what majority opinion might be on anything.

  4. I’m genuinely not sure how democratic an election that commands less than 3 in 10 people turning out to vote can be. The turnout in the vote to elect the Mayor was 27.92%, and we somehow call that democracy? If a general election to appoint a national government commanded a 30% turnout there would be cries of “fraud” and “manipulating the system”, and rightfully so the question of whether said government would really have a mandate to govern would be brought before them.

    I really want to pick up on the low turnout in relation to Lee’s comment as I think the two are directly comparable, and I also think that the analysis in this article, specifically that Mayor Ferguson not being a ‘party soldier’ is not the case due to his independence, is rather too presumptive. Yes, Mayor Ferguson stands under an independent banner, which I propose is probably the reason why he garnered the popular Bristol vote (or at least the majority of three tenths of it), however he is a former Liberal Democrat councillor and must, by logical conclusion, share many of the political views with many of his former and current colleagues. To therefore dismiss the approach that Mayor Ferguson has to management of the city being non-partisan, I feel is not really a sensible one.

    On the point of low turnout, and how this relates to ‘warring of wards’, this phenomena is simply demonstrated by the vast chasm of turnout in individual wards, where in the less affluent eastern Bristol turnout was an average of 18%, whereas the western wards had an average turnout of 28%. It therefore follows that for a person to be elected mayor they only need garner the vote from a few areas of the city, so as Lee pointed out, the election of the Mayor is driven by the winning of vote of the few most vocal wards (them least likely to feel disenfranchised with the political system).

    A further point worth noting is that just because someone is being decisive doesn’t mean they are doing the right thing. Decisiveness could also be described as steam-rolling, possibly by a blind political ambition. This is certainly a trait that has been described of Mayor Ferguson is relation to the parking schemes, though in general, I hope, Mayor Ferguson is not steam-rolling through policies driven by a left-wing political ideal, though instead considering the impact on the people and businesses of Bristol, both good and bad. If he is not, then maybe he should consult and be advised, and if he has consulted, altered, tweaked or ‘u-turned’ on policies then he should maybe be more vocal on this. I personally feel that the politicians who garner the most respect are those who listen to the people who elected them, and if the people know this then the disenfranchised are likely to become enfranchised.

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