Arise, the new Mayor of Bristol

There were months of cynicism, but as Bristol goes to the polls to elect its first mayor, our correspondent is surprised by a reinvigorated democracy
  • @louisjemanuel

“These elections have brought new life and vigour to local politics,” belted out the organiser of one of the last in a long line of debates with Bristol’s mayoral hopefuls. Stephen Perry, chairman of Bristol’s speakers corner, was passionately addressing a crowd gathered to see those vying to become Bristol’s first directly elected mayor take to the stage outside the Council House. Standing there, on a crisp November afternoon listening to the candidates as they were challenged - by both their fellow speakers and the public - it's impossible to deny the impact these elections have had on local politics.

It seems a long time ago now, but back in May, Bristol was divided over whether to adopt the elected mayor system in the first place. Even after (narrowly) becoming the only city in the UK to vote in favour of this new form of council leadership, scepticism remained strong. The “no” campaign had spent months stressing legitimate fears; Was centralised decision-making a good thing? Would local government be opened up to big business lobbying? A low turnout (24 per cent) and a small margin of victory (5,100 votes) raised further doubts about a legitimate mandate. Only 12 per cent of registered voters led Bristol into this new era.

Five months later and many Bristolians I have spoken to have warmed to the idea. Over the last month or so there have been 24 public debates across the city, injecting an unexpected level of energy into local politics.

A total of 15 candidates have managed to stir and invigorate discussion on a range of topics from culture to construction at hustings attended by hundreds and covered by local radio, television and daily in the Bristol Post.

Candidates from all the main parties and a host of independents are competing for approval from an electorate fed up with their historically dead-locked and often incompetent council. As a consequence, the candidates have been forced to make bold promises about how the city will change under their leadership.

The challenge posed by Bristol's most entrenched problems, has also brought the candidates together. For instance, creating an integrated transport system (a la Transport for London) has received almost universal support while regular bashing of the controversial First Buses has given hope to voters that something might actually change this time. The incumbent Lib Dems have even committed to chastising the transport company with a maximum fare of £1.50 under a “quality contract”.

Likely winner, Labour’s Marvin Rees, has answered with a grand long-term city “vision”. He has an audacious goal of building 4,000 desperately needed, affordable houses and making Bristol a “living wage city”. Meanwhile, a popular independent candidate, architect and self-styled philanthropist George Ferguson, says he is already in the planning stages of building a much-anticipated arena and is backing new football stadia at both ends of the city.

I would go so far as to say the debates have gone to the very core of democracy by questioning the openness of local government and the failures of neighbourhood partnerships. Ferguson has even suggested changing the name of the Council House to “City Hall” in a first step to opening the council’s doors and engaging the public in the mystic processes of local governance.

In the weeks preceding today's election there has been an overwhelming sense of positivity about the city and - for once - its politics. The past and present failures of Bristol are in the spotlight and people are talking with hope about its future. Voters are turning around and asking all-important questions like why Nottingham has trams and why people abroad only perk up when you say Bristol is near Bath - questions people hope a new mayor can address.

However, there is no guarantee that a mayor can force through any of the candidates’ bold promises, especially considering that the powers of the new role have yet to be clearly defined. The Government promised new powers along with £1bn of investment as part of the carrot-on-a-stick to get a “Boris in every city”. Cameron even offered a place at a table with him and all his little Boris friends, elected by cities across the UK. That table is looking pretty empty now while Westminster has gone eerily quiet on the subject.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that a much-needed, unprecedented and wide-reaching debate has taken place. The prospect of a new city mayor has generated a level of discussion about politics that we have not seen at local council elections for a long time.

The question is: can the enthusiasm translate into the kind of voter turnout needed to give the new mayor a legitimate mandate for the changes ahead? Well, to paraphrase a worried looking councillor who originally campaigned against the new position, all we can do is hope it doesn’t rain.