Post Editor: George made mincemeat of three major parties
Post editor Mike Norton saw the candidates at close quarters during a series of Post election hustings. He was also at the election count. Here, he gives his thoughts on the result
IT was a strangely sterile environment for such an emotional, dramatic – even historic – outcome.
The count to determine Bristol’s first elected mayor unravelled in an aircraft hangar of a room echoing with the sound of papers being laid out by the careful hands of a thousand counters – all dressed incongruously in high-viz jackets. At first glance, the scene looked like a convention of highway maintenance workers.
And around the regimented tables walked candidates, council officials and boy-in-suit-politicos who looked like they had wandered in from the set of The Thick of It.
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Slowly and deliberately, the massed ranks of counters thumbed through the ballot papers in both rounds of voting. The council had legislated for a 40 per cent turn-out – the actual 27.9 per cent meant that the first round of counting was completed in less than four hours and the second in less than two.
And in that six hours, Bristol’s political landscape was razed to the ground.
No one should underestimate the size of George Ferguson’s achievement in winning this election.
He has taken on the full force of three major party machines and essentially made mincemeat of them.
In an election that often looked like it would end up with more of the same, George dared to be different. He offered independence. And Bristolians took him up on it. Just like at the mayoral referendum, the voters dared to be different, too.
When George announced – through The Post – that he was going to stand as a candidate, I admired his optimism but doubted he could win it.
But then I saw him in action at the five hustings I chaired. Like every candidate, he was by no means the finished article. But what he lacked in policies and political sharpness he made up for in personality and a surprising honesty.
If George didn’t know the answer to a question – like on the effectiveness of the Greater Bristol Bus Network – he admitted it. When expected to play to the gallery – like on the question of care home closures – he was prepared to be considered and frank about the complexity of the issue.
At the hustings, there were always vociferous supporters of other candidates who were quick to barrack George. But I spoke to many “ordinary” voters who had come along to see the candidates in person and – if they were impressed by any candidate – the majority seemed to have been impressed by George.
And that impression transferred itself to the ballot box.
There is no doubt that this is a victory for personality and independence. I’m sure Marvin Rees would argue that his policies were much clearer than George Ferguson’s. But – whether he accepts it or not – Marvin’s campaign seems to have been hamstrung by his intention to appoint an all-Labour cabinet. Every time the issue came up at the hustings, I saw lots of heads shaking at the prospect of a one-party administration.
But there was obviously much more to it than that. Just like the referendum, it was voters in the city’s affluent wards who turned out to make their mark – Henleaze, Stoke Bishop, Westbury-on-Trym, Knowle, Southville, Windmill Hill, Bishopston, Clifton and Redland. In other elections, they might have voted Conservative or Liberal Democrat. This time, they voted for George and independence.
Meanwhile, in the Labour strongholds of areas like St George, Southmead, Filwood and Hartcliffe Labour voters did not mobilise. Only Labour will know why. It may well have been an issue of engagement. Or it may have been the weather.
The final declaration felt genuinely historic. Both George and Marvin gave dignified and moving speeches, the arc of camera lights and flash bulbs revealing a glint of emotion in both their eyes. The audience of supporters, journalists and vote counters (still in their high-viz jackets) fixed on them with wide-eyed attention.
And both men looked tired. It has been a long road – and the real journey hasn’t even started yet.
Many challenges await our new mayor. In the short term, there is a budget to set. In the long term, there is the not-insignificant task of uniting this disjointed city and restoring its people’s faith in leadership.
At the very least, however, we have a mayor who has pledged to put Bristol first. And that is a great starting point.