Why Bristol's Mayor Vote Matters

12/11/2012 15:03 GMT | Updated 12/01/2013 10:12 GMT

If Labour's Marvin Rees is elected Mayor of Bristol on Thursday I for one will be celebrating. It will be a good day for Bristol. Many more people outside that city will rightly be inspired by Marvin's election.

Bristol is a major city, a lively, exciting place with a strong local character and an appeal to the best and the brightest. It is a city with enormous potential, hampered by the absence of a big-city vision at a municipal level.

Deadlock is palpable. The present Liberal Democrat council trumpets its plan of building just 12 new homes as if that is ambitious. Bristol is a major urban centre that has contributed directly to British art and culture yet it is largely off the major concert circuit and is home to a champion boxer who cannot find a venue in the city large enough to defend his title. New stadium plans for the city's football clubs and a city centre arena have been held up for years.

Bristol has high bus fares not matched by a reliable, frequent service, is regularly heavily congested, and has failed to meet its promise as a cycling city.

Not all of Bristol's problems can be traced back to the weakness of the present city council but the absence of a serious vision makes things a hundred times more difficult.

That is why Labour's Marvin Rees represents a chance for real change on Thursday. Though he has been bolstered by support from Ed Miliband and the front-bench and he rightly emphasises the need for voters to register their unhappiness with the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, his is a Bristol vision first and foremost.

Thus Marvin has set out the big city plans Bristol needs that are among the first responsibilities of a mayor serious about their home town's future. I see in Marvin someone who will live and breathe their city as mayor.

Marvin has led the argument about the need for the sporting venues and arena the city needs. His big city agenda is combined with one of fairness - so that Bristol must be prosperous but fight every way to ensure no one is left behind.

Marvin's touchstone policy of making Bristol a living wage city has drawn a clear divide between him and the other candidates talked about as his main electoral rivals: the Tories, LibDems and 'Bristol 1st'.

Whilst Marvin and the Green candidate Daniella Radice have promoted the living wage, all the others have come up short. The Tories oppose it, the Lib Dems pay lip service but voted it down in the city council this March, and the Bristol1st candidate George Ferguson has been the most critical of Marvin's plan for the living wage.

As I see it, this is an election about a pro-investment, big-city, fairness candidate versus more of the same and austerity.

Despite claiming to be independent, the Bristol1st candidate has told voters he is fiscally right wing. No one in this period needs a fiscally right wing mayor of any city. That simply equals austerity. Indeed he has consciously appealed to right wing sentiment by posing as an anti-Labour candidate. Moreover no voter who wants some kind of alternative to Tory-Lib Dem austerity could vote for those parties on Thursday.

I have one other reason to want Marvin to win. Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote has argued that it would be an historic moment: "Marvin stands before the people of Bristol to represent all its citizens fairly and honestly, but he could have stood before its citizens some 280 years ago as commercial chattel, or, crudely put, as a slave." Bristol in the past was one of the most important of the British slave ports. All around Bristol are the names and institutions born of that - from Colston Hall to the Merchant Venturers.

It is an indication of how far we have come that it is possible that a man of African heritage may become the mayor of that very city.

But though Marvin has the momentum the change he represents is not a foregone conclusion.

When the Bristol campaign began the media reported George Ferguson as the favourite. Marvin changed that dynamic. Momentum is his. But with the polls showing what Labour activists know - that the Lib Dems are on the floor - and with the Tory machine able to rely on bigger turnouts, change is not guaranteed. The Tories are edging their way towards challenging Marvin if it goes to a second round.

As a former Mayor myself I wish Marvin Rees all the best. We can get fixated on Westminster, but what happens in city government matters too.