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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?

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?

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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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.