Labour's contenders slug it out to be mayoral candidate
ONE of them will soon become the front-runner in the race to be Bristol's first elected mayor.
But first, the five contenders slugging it out for Labour's nomination at a hustings debate in Southmead must wait for the party's members to decide whose name will be on the ballot paper at November's election.
Independent George Ferguson was the bookies' favourite in the first set of odds produced last month but Labour's candidate, once chosen, is rated odds-on to win the political contest – although no one on the stage at the Greenway Centre on Friday night was taking anything for granted.
Labour's contenders are two heavyweights from the party's group on the city council – Helen Holland and Peter Hammond – former MP Dan Norris, who professed a liking for fighting against electoral odds, up-and-coming prospect Marvin Rees and former councillor Kelvin Blake, who has made a comeback from a motorbike accident that almost claimed his life six years ago.
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Many themes were agreed upon again and again – support for an integrated transport authority to sort out traffic and public transport problems, the need to create jobs and to make a successful Labour mayor a weapon in the party's battle to win back lost seats at the next general election.
So it was a case of picking out the differences in message, emphasis and presentation in deciding who would be the right man or woman for the job.
Mr Blake pledged to work to eliminate poverty and make Bristol "the apprentice capital of the UK".
He proposed term limits for mayors, to prevent one person becoming entrenched in the role, and to ensure the mayor was paid no more than an MPs' salary.
He said: "My focus and energy will be in delivering a fair and more equitable city for everyone."
Mr Hammond, the current Labour group leader on the city council, made much of his experience and practical achievements during 40 years of activism but said: "Don't vote for me if you want steady as you go – if you want a simple safe pair of hands. I'm offering bold leadership, change, engagement with people and working together to take Bristol forward."
Longstanding Whitchurch Park councillor and former city council leader Ms Holland pledged to stage a "listening campaign" to hear ideas from outside the party tent, and to hold mayoral surgeries so people could talk to her.
She said the city faced a massive challenge in creating jobs and said: "If we're not going to respond to that challenge, then what are we here for?"
Mr Norris said the city needed someone to give it "national clout" in securing new jobs from businesses and money from the government.
He said his experience from 13 years as MP for Wansdyke and as a government minister meant he knew "how to negotiate and argue for Bristol at the top table".
Playing the long game was a theme of Mr Rees's speech – he said he was looking to plan for Bristol's future not over two or three years but 40 or 50 years ahead.
The 40-year-old programme manager, who has worked as a BBC Radio reporter, political campaigner and charity coordinator, spoke of the need to bring people together across the city's divisions and get them working together. He said: "If anyone's expecting a messianic mayor to turn up with the answers to Bristol's problems in their pocket, that's not going to happen."
One area where there were significant differences was on who should be in the mayor's cabinet.
Mr Blake and Mr Hammond insisted the body must be a "Labour cabinet" while Mr Norris said that, until the next council elections at least, the mayor should include councillors from other parties to reflect "the make-up of the council as it stands".
Mr Rees said the mayor should consider "doing things differently" to reflect the mayor's mandate "to change the way we do local politics", while Ms Holland said she would look to create a "gender-balanced cabinet" to bring in more women.
Chairing the debate was Blackadder actor and Time Team presenter Tony Robinson, who was at pains to point out to the few who may not have already known that he was there as a Bristol Labour Party member of more than 30 years' standing and had held a number of positions, including on the party's National Executive Committee – and not just because he was "sometimes on the telly".
Ballot papers from party members are due in by Friday and the winner of the nomination will be announced some days later.