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The wrong trousers: how Marvin Rees won Bristol from George Ferguson

In a contest between a party candidate and an independent mayor, the Labour Party came out on top. 

By Joe Smith

Bristol has changed its trousers. On Monday the city waved goodbye to former mayor George Ferguson and his famous red chinos and welcomed in Labour’s Marvin Rees at a swearing in ceremony by Bristol docks.

In the event Rees’ victory was surprisingly comfortable, securing almost 30,000 more votes than his independent rival, winning  68,750 to Ferguson’s 39,577 in a race that many had said was too close to call.

However, the real story of these elections has been the significant rise in voter turnout. This time around 45 per cent of Bristolians voted, a sharp increase on the city’s first mayoral elections back in 2012 in which just 28 per cent of residents went to the polls. On that occasion Rees lost to Ferguson by a slim margin despite being the bookies favourite.

Ladbrokes had Ferguson as the odds-on favourite last week, proving that Bristol’s bookmakers are as hapless as the rest of us when it comes to divining mayoral results.

Rees has inherited a city on the up. Bristol currently has a buzz about it which is in part thanks to Ferguson’s efforts to sell the city as a nice place to live and work. House prices are up, businesses are moving in and bright young things are staying on after finishing university here.

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However, this tide has not lifted all boats and Rees’ campaign focused on tackling deprivation in the city and helping those who had been left behind – people in the private rental sector forced to the edges by rising rents and those in the poorest areas of the city who have not seen the benefit from Bristol’s flourishing arts and tech sectors.

Ferguson’s base of support was in more affluent northern suburbs with high turnouts, where his small-g green policies were appealing to Bristol’s liberal middle class voters.

Labour were always going to have to work hard to get the vote out in poorer wards where their support has traditionally been strongest, places like Easton and Filwood. They certainly did that, running a competent, well-resourced campaign across the city.

The highest turnout was from the wealthiest wards of Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze but working-class Easton – where Rees is from – was up there alongside more affluent areas with 51 per cent of its eligible voters hitting the polls.

Does Rees’ victory and the increased turnout mean Labour were successful in their efforts, or merely that Ferguson managed to annoy a lot of voters? Did Bristol vote for Rees or against Ferguson?

There can be no doubt that one of the key reasons for the increased turnout has to be George Ferguson himself. He was a personality. Very visibly in charge of Bristol, Ferguson cultivated the image of a mayor who got things done and was not afraid to stick his head above the parapet. He came in for a fair amount of flak personally on things like 20mph speed limits and residents parking zones. Like him or not, Ferguson’s high-profile stint as mayor made people sit up and take notice of the position and its importance.

Ferguson’s campaign made much of Rees’ party affiliations, warning that voting for a Labour candidate would be a return to the bad old days of a council gridlocked by political infighting. Rees’ response was that Ferguson, an architect and entrepreneur, represented the Bristol ‘elite’ and that Rees’ membership of the Labour Party was what had allowed people like himself, from a single-parent family in Easton, or Sadiq Khan, the son of a bus driver, to rise to elected office.

Throughout his campaign Rees has tried to show that he is more than a party frontman, and intends to lead with a more democratic, party-backed version of Ferguson’s individualistic leadership style including a cross-party cabinet. At the same time, winning Bristol has been a top priority for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who missed Sadiq Khan’s victory in London to congratulate Rees in Bristol.

Labour were keen to avoid a repeat of Rees’ defeat 2012 and put a lot into backing him, with activists out rallying support for Rees across the city. This effort has paid off for the party, but it remains to be seen whether this election means a return to the days of party politics and council infighting or a new mayoralty focused on sharing Bristol’s recent successes across its many communities.