The May local elections saw a raft of changes at the city council. The ruling Liberal Democrats lost their majority, Labour and the Conservatives appointed new – yet familiar – party leaders and for the first time The Green Party had more than one councillor. This week Sam Rkaina talks to all four party leaders about their ambitions for their group and the city. Today it’s Labour’s Peter Hammond.
Labour in power by 2014 at the latest” – that’s the new party leader Peter Hammond’s message to the people of Bristol. Mr Hammond has put the ruling Liberal Democrat group on notice that his resurgent party wants to be running the city – ideally winning control at the 2013 elections.
It’s a bold statement for someone who wasn’t even a councillor six months ago.
It’s been two years since Mr Hammond lost his seat in the great Labour massacre of 2009 – after three decades as a councillor – and it’s been seven years since he has led the Labour group.
But both he and his party have had a dramatic turn around this year – winning four seats at the May elections and a fifth at the Southmead by-election earlier this month.
That last result – although admittedly in what is traditionally a Labour stronghold – was particularly successful as it pushed the Lib Dems from having the seat to third place.
Mr Hammond’s own fortunes have also seen a turnaround. He won the St George seat – another safe bet for Labour in Bristol – in May and within a matter of days replaced Helen Holland as leader.
How much of Labour’s growth this year is down to local issues and how much to national is not entirely clear but it’s likely both play a factor.
The Lib Dems have done themselves few favours with the electorate by joining up with the Tories at a national level – one reason why Bristol has seen no such alliance locally.
Another is the clash of personalities between a number of high-profile councillors, who have been locked in battle for years if not decades.
The idea of some of the bigger personalities on the notoriously turbulent authority burying the hatchet in anything but each other seems highly unlikely.
Mr Hammond said: “The external perception is why can’t we work together for the people of Bristol – I’ve got a lot of sympathy for that view.
“The truth is the things that are political debated only represent five per cent of things that happen at the council. There is cross party understanding on a lot of issues.
“It is exceedingly difficult to work with the current majority party.
“In political campaigning terms I find the way that they campaign is intensely personal. They make attacks rather than political points, and that makes it difficult to work with people who two days earlier may have insulted you.”
Mr Hammond said he’s more interested in engaging with the electorate than the “great and the good of Bristol”.
He said: “Lots of things have changed since May. I think we’re more outward focused. But I don’t want us just to be in power because we’re not someone else.
“I want to be a campaigning Labour Party and to be in power by 2014 – possibly by 2013.
“We have to relieve ourselves of the baggage of the past – that frees us up to take a fresh look at things.”
Mr Hammond said that if Labour achieve power again they would do things differently.
He said: “There are two ways of running a council – either officers run it or politicians run it.
“But what happened in the past was that Labour was too managerial.
“Labour in one guise or other has been running Bristol for some considerable period of time
“Bristol built the first tower blocks. They were revolutionary in the 1950s but society has changed.”
Mr Hammond one of the keys to Bristol’s future is transport, an issue he feels the current administration does not have a handle on.
He said: “We’ve got tremendous communities but our transport system is a dis-insentive to pulling Bristol together.
“If you ask people who they are they say ‘Meaders’ before ‘Bristolians’.
“What pulls communities together is the transport system. London is not perfect but you can travel between communities – that’s one thing that hasn’t happened here. There’s no connection between communities.
“It hampers our creativity and even our understanding of each other. There is a world of difference between Sneyd Park and Easton, St George and Hartcliffe.”
Although Labour have won five more seats on this council this year, the younger candidates they put forward in May were no so successful.
But Mr Hammond feels new – and diverse – blood is essential.
He said: “I want to move away from the old ways Labour was perceived.
“We are already determined to ensure the election of a lot more Labour councillors. There’s a lot of new young people interested, and being prepared to stand as candidates.
“There will now be a chance to have more diverse candidates.
“In 2013 we will be running far more women candidates. You’ve got to try and represent the diversity of Bristol’s society.”
Ultimately, Mr Hammond says it’s time for a change in Bristol.
He said: “I don’t think the council is currently demonstrating leadership on anything.
“I don’t detect someone speaking for Bristol politically.
“On the schools issue there has been no leadership, it’s like being washed over by the sea
“Transport – they can’t get that right. Those are the two key issues Bristolians care about.
“Fundamentally leadership is the problem with the current administration.”