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Bristol’s man in red trousers hopes independent streak key to mayoral poll

As reported in The Guardian, Wednesday 14 November

 

George Ferguson – architect, entrepreneur, wearer of bright red trousers – was on ebullient form. “I’m your independent candidate,” he was telling anyone who would pause to listen. “It’s between me and Labour. If I win I will only be answerable to you, not to any political party. I will be your servant.”

And with only hours to go before voting was due to start in the Bristol mayoral election, many people on the Stapleton Road in the Easton area of the city seemed prepared to believe him.

Debbie Taylor, a florist, said she did not usually bother to vote. “It seems to me the parties squabble rather than getting things done. The idea of an independent mayor appeals. And I like his red trousers.”

Mohammed Omer, owner of N Taxis, agreed that an independent mayor could be a boost to the city. “We need someone who is going to work for us, not for their political parties,” he said.

The unknown entity in Thursday’s elections – which include new police and crime commissioners (PCC) in 41 areas and three byelections – are the independent candidates. In the PCC elections there are 54 independent candidates – 28% of the total.

In Bristol, Ferguson said if he came out on top when the votes were counted on Friday, he would pick his candidate according to the best people for the job regardless of political affiliation.

Like most of the other 15 candidates, Ferguson vows to improve transport, housing and job prospects. But he argues he will be free to be more daring than those wedded to mainstream parties. “I would like to use Bristol as a test-bed,” he said. For example he might ask Westminster for greater planning powers to keep supermarkets at bay. “If these ideas fail they can blame me, if they succeed they can be used in other cities.”

Ferguson said it had been liberating not to have a party machine behind him. He reckons he has around 300 supporters actively working for him and the campaign will have cost around £50,000. Around half of the money has been donated; the other half from his own pocket.

Whether it is true that the race is between Labour and Ferguson, the Liberal Democrats – who run the city council – do appear rattled.

When Ferguson bumped into the Lib Dem team on Stapleton Road, its mayoral candidate, Jon Rogers, challenged him over the claim that he was really independent, pointing out that he had formed a political part, Bristol 1st. (Ferguson says he created a “party of one” to get access to electoral information and put his logo on the ballot paper, and that he remained truly independent).

Rogers could not resist a dig when Ferguson’s campaign car drove past with a loudhailer calling on people to: “Vote for the man in red trousers.” “A bit 1970s” was the Liberal Democrat’s verdict.

The Labour candidate, Marvin Rees, also appeared on the Stapleton Road, part of one of Bristol’s most deprived areas. He grew up close to here. If he wins will be the first directly elected mayor of African-Caribbean descent in Europe.

Rees is a defender of the party system, arguing that without the help of Labour someone from his background with modest means would struggle to compete. “My party is making it possible for me to run. The Labour party has backed me.”

He agreed the new mayor should not get sucked into the “ping pong” of local politics but bring together the whole city – the voluntary sector, faith communities, businesses, unions, educational institutions – and be a builder of networks, a broker, a diplomat.

In the Three Blackbirds pub, Ferguson was challenging barworker Aisha Kafele to name the current leader of Bristol city council.

She couldn’t (it’s Simon Cook, by the way). But she knew the name of the London mayor: “That Boris guy”. Ferguson explains that the new mayor here will be a Boris for Bristol. “I can do that job,” he said.