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7 April 2016updated 05 Oct 2023 8:16am

Will Bristol re-elect the Marmite Mayor?

Has the divisive mayor George Ferguson won over enough voters to secure a second term when Bristol heads to the polls on 5 May?

By Joe Smith

His face stares down from parking signs, lampposts and municipal brickwork – his smile at odds with the one-word command stencilled beneath: “Obey”. These graffiti paste-ups dot the city, a parody of Shepard Fairey’s famous image of Andre the Giant and a very Bristolian kind of political statement – this is Banksy’s home turf, after all.

Bristol mayor George Ferguson’s critics accuse him of being authoritarian but others praise him as a mayor who gets things done – a refreshing change from the ineffectiveness of previous councils. Either way, he gets Bristolians talking, and it’s hard to think of many other local politicians who have inspired their own semi-ironic dystopian graffiti campaign.

Bristol’s “Marmite Mayor” has polarised opinion in the city but has he won over enough voters to secure a second term when Bristol heads to the polls on 5 May? He was voted into office on a 27 per cent turnout. Will his highly visible but not uncontroversial stint as mayor encourage more people to vote this time around?

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Out of ten cities voting on switching to an elected mayor system in 2012, Bristol was the only one to go for it. Ferguson ran as an independent and was the surprise winner, narrowly beating the bookies’ favourite, Labour’s Marvin Rees, to become the city’s first elected mayor. Rees is having another go this time round.

When Ferguson came in, Bristolians were angry at being left behind – particularly in terms of being overtaken by Cardiff. They saw the stadium, the bay development, the Senedd, and in the run-up to the mayoral election there was a feeling of: “What’s wrong with Bristol?”

Ferguson has done much to raise the city’s profile both nationally and internationally during his time as mayor. He’s been an ambassador for the city, banging the drum for business, promoting Bristol’s green credentials and alternative lifestyle. The city’s improved image is attracting lots of newcomers – the Bristol was behind only London and Cambridge when it came to increases in house prices last year.

Ferguson has lived in Bristol for 50 years. His father was in the military and the family moved often – the young George lived in Norway, Gibraltar and the north of England before going to boarding school in Wellington from the age of eight to 17. He came to Bristol University in 1965 to study architecture and has lived here for the last 50 years.

As his campaign literature boasts, Ferguson – a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects – made his mark on Bristol long before he became mayor. He campaigned to save the city’s floating harbour from being concreted over and helped set up Bristol Ferry Boats, which now plies its waters as well as supporting the regeneration of the steam railway that runs along the docks.

He also regenerated the Tobacco Factory in Southville, turning the old industrial building into a café, theatre and arts space with loft apartments on the top floor where he now lives.

The theme and tone of Ferguson’s policies has consistently appealed to middle class, liberal voters – of which Bristol has many. Policies like car-free Sundays and his support for independent businesses and the Bristol Pound – the community currency in which his salary is paid.

During his first term as mayor, Ferguson has managed to woo the kind of people who are likely to vote in mayoral elections. He has strong support in more affluent areas like Southville, Redland and Henleaze. His green image has had a lot to do with that in a city where the Greens are the third biggest party on the council with 14 seats, after the Conservatives with 16.

Last September, Darren Hall, the Green parliamentary candidate in the Bristol West seat at the last general election, said he was backing Ferguson for another term as mayor – a major embarrassment for the Green mayoral candidate, Tony Dyer. Dyer, a former bricklayer who hails from the working-class district of Hartcliffe on the southern edge of Bristol, is focusing on expanding the Greens’ recent successes in local elections by trying to expand support from the suburbs and appeal to low-income voters.

But not everyone is as fond of the mayor’s policies as Hall. Bristol is one of the country’s most congested cities and transport has been a bone of contention there for decades. Ferguson’s attempts to reduce the number of commuters driving into the city have received what could be called a mixed reaction and could well end up being a key issue in the upcoming election.

The residents’ parking schemes, which have been rolled out across the city, have been at best divisive. Opponents say residents were not properly consulted and that Ferguson forced them onto communities.

The response has been vocal, and, in some cases, Bristolians have taken matters into their own hands, showing their disapproval by painting over double yellow lines, plastering the “Obey” paste-ups over parking signs, filling ticket machines with expanding foam and driving a tank through the streets of Clifton in protest.

However, residents’ parking has been needed in the city for a long time, and Ferguson has argued that it took strong leadership, lacking in previous party councils, to get it implemented. Tellingly, his main rival Rees has said he would not reverse the parking schemes should he win in May.

The mayor denies he is anti-car but his policies have had the effect of making it harder to drive in the city. There have been a lot of policies to discourage driving (car-free Sundays, 20mph speed limits, residents’ parking schemes) while there hasn’t been much in return in terms of making serious changes to public transport.

Ferguson’s key effort in this area has been the Metrobus scheme, providing dedicated bus routes into the city centre. Protesters took to the trees last year to try and save green spaces from the Metrobus development, and currently roadworks are in full flow, affecting traffic in the city, especially in north Bristol. He’s hoping voters will take the long view and associate the Metrobus plan with more than just lengthy traffic jams.

George is up against some other interesting independent candidates as well. John Langley, former vice chairman of Bristol Ukip, better known as Johnny Rockard, was expelled from the party after shooting a porn film in a city centre park, and is now standing as an independent.

Paul Saville, 27, an artist and campaigner who videoed the mayor telling him to “f**k off” after an altercation has crowdfunded his own mayoral campaign promising to reduce homelessness and make Bristol more democratic.

While Ferguson is a hit with middle-class voters, Bristol is also home to some of the most deprived people in the country. Not all parts of the city have benefited from its recent success, and it is to those on the margins that Ferguson’s real competition, former mayoral rival Rees is hoping to appeal this time.

Rees, who was born St Pauls and grew up in Easton studied at Yale and worked as a BBC reporter before unsuccessfully running for mayor in 2012. This time round he’s pledging to tackle growing inequality in Bristol and promising to build 2,000 new homes a year – 800 of which will be affordable – by 2020, by making land available to developers.

He also says that the current interpretation of the mayoral model has concentrated too much power in the hands of one person and he’s promised to give the city back to Bristolians.

A latecomer to the Jeremy Corbyn fold, Rees has been keen to emphasise that his party membership does not mean that Bristol will be run from London. But Corbyn does appear to have high hopes for Bristol. Rees was mentioned in Corbyn’s acceptance speech when he became Labour leader, he sent his: ‘congratulations to Marvin Rees selected yesterday as our Mayoral Candidate in Bristol. We’re all going to be down there Marvin, helping you and supporting you to win Bristol.’

Rees and Bristol have been on Corbyn’s radar since he became leader and Corbyn clearly sees the mayoral election as a contest Labour should be winning. Corbyn is popular in Bristol – as his recent mobbing there proves and importantly a win here would be a boost to Corbyn’s prospects as long-term leader.

Rees’s support is strongest in low-income, low turnout areas like Filwood and Easton, and he will have to energise voters there with a strong on-the-ground campaign. Bristol historically has a Labour bent; it’s Tony Benn’s old stomping ground, and the party means to have it back. Ferguson has irked plenty of people in Bristol but plenty of people are also completely unaware that there is an election coming up, and it is these voters that Rees must galvanise if he wants to win Bristol for the second time of asking.

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