Preview: 16 Jan 2020

Welcome to the new year, the new decade, the new Parliament and the same old Andrew’s Previews. I hope you’ve all had a refreshing Christmas and New Year break – I certainly have – and that you’re ready for the tenth anniversary year of this column. There are many local elections to come in what looks set to be a full-length parliament, so let’s dive right in with the first by-election of the majority Johnson administration:

Brislington East

Bristol city council; caused by the death of Labour councillor Mike Langley at the age of 73. A retired bus driver and passionate Bristol Rovers fan with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, Langley had served for Brislington East since 2011 and had previously represented Frome Vale ward from 1990 to 1996. Tributes were paid to him at the full council meeting in November: the Labour group turned out in flowery tops, Bristol’s elected mayor Marvin Rees described Langley as a “true working-class hero”, and he is to have a street named after him in his ward.

Brislington is the first part of Bristol that visitors see as they travel into the city along the road and railway line from Bath, down the valley of the Avon. In days gone by this was a picturesque Somerset country village with many country homes occupied by Bristol merchants, but this is no longer the case; Brislington was annexed by Bristol in the 1930s, and has changed beyond all recognition since then.

The north end of the ward is St Anne’s Park, a council estate mostly dating from the 1930s, with the Broomhill area lying further south. At the eastern end of the ward is St Brendan’s sixth-form college on the Bath Road; this is in the grounds of Brislington House, a Palladian country pile which was built in 1806 not as a stately home for some aristocrat or businessman, but as a pioneering and influential lunatic asylum. The asylum building itself is now flats, and has been renamed Long Fox Manor after Edward Long Fox, the psychiatrist who set the place up all those years ago.

Bristol city council’s electoral cycle has been sending your columnist mad for a long time. The 1990s reorganisation that got rid of the short-lived and unlamented county of Avon left Bristol as s unitary local government district using the thirds electoral system, in which one-third of the council was renewed in three of the four years of England’s local government electoral cycle. Nothing unusual about that, but Bristol’s implementation had two strange features. All of its wards elected two councillors rather than the normal three, and its “fallow year” when no elections were held at all was at a different point of the cycle to every other thirds council. Those features caused me no end of grief trying to keep track of things. These days the Local Government Boundary Commission has strict instructions that thirds councils should have a uniform pattern of three-member wards unless there are very good reasons otherwise, which meant that several districts have had to face the choice of having radical new ward boundaries imposed or moving off the thirds cycle. Bristol, in common with most councils that have faced this question, chose the latter; which means that the city now has an electoral cycle which is not unique. Gloucester, Stroud and Warrington councils will join Bristol in holding elections for all their members in May 2020 and every fourth year afterwards.

The decision by Bristol to move to whole-council elections meant that Brislington East, along with many of the city’s wards, could carry on without much boundary disruption. For much of this century Brislington East has been closely fought between Labour and the Conservatives, although Labour generally had the upper hand – since 2002 the Conservatives had won here only once, in 2006, but there were plenty of other close results.

In those long-ago days of May 2016, the first and only previous poll on the present boundaries, Brislington East split its two seats between Labour councillor Mike Langley, who topped the poll with a big personal vote, and Conservative Tony Carey who gained a seat from Labour; the Labour slate polled 41% of the vote to 36% for the Conservatives and 13% for the Green Party slate. Since then it’s been all change, particularly for Councillor Carey who has had a number of embarrassing stories printed about him in the local paper: for example, in the 2017 general election campaign the defending Labour MP for the local seat of Bristol East included an apparent endorsement from Carey in her election literature. In September 2019 Carey left the Conservative party over Boris Johnson’s leadership, and defected to the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems have rarely troubled the scorers in Brislington East, but have long-standing strength in the neighbouring Brislington West ward and rumour has it that they are giving this by-election a go.

So this poll will serve as a curtain-raiser for the Bristol city council, Bristol mayoral and Avon and Somerset police and crime commissioner elections in May; whoever wins will have to be back on the campaign trail to seek re-election to the council in very short order. Defending for Labour is Timothy Rippington, a songwriter and campaigner for a functioning bus network (given that buses in Bristol are run by First, I understand his frustration). The Conservative candidate is Richard Williams, an urban designer who is fighting his first election campaign. Standing for the Greens is digital consultant Isaac Price-Sosner. Tara Murray, in the unusual position for an M of top of the ballot paper, completes the candidate list for the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary constituency: Bristol East
ONS Travel to Work Area: Bristol
Postcode districts: BS4, BS31

Tara Murray (LD)
Isaac Price-Sosner (Grn)
Timothy Rippington (Lab)
Richard Williams (C)

May 2016 result Lab 1370/1060 C 1208/1072 Grn 439/389 LD 342/323

Andrew Teale