Marvin Rees has described the vote to hold a referendum into the future of the position of the Mayor of Bristol as ‘a crack on me and a go at Labour’, and slammed the councillors who made the decision.
The present Mayor gave a robust defence of his record and the present directly-elected mayoral system, which began in Bristol in 2012 but could end at a referendum next year.
Mr Rees said the quality of debate in Tuesday’s council chamber ‘wasn’t up to GCSE essay’ standards, and said councillors were trying to take a vote away from the people of Bristol.
During his fortnightly press conferences, Mr Rees poured scorn on the argument put forward by his predecessor in the role as Mayor of Bristol – George Ferguson – who now says he thinks the role should be scrapped.
Mr Ferguson said that the creation of a ‘Metro Mayor’ for the West of England region meant Bristol didn’t need its own directly-elected mayor, something which Mr Rees said was ‘a nonsense argument’.
“When someone says to you ‘we don’t need a political leader in Bristol, the Metro Mayor’s fine’, it’s someone who has very clearly little understanding of the role of the Mayor of Bristol, and has little understanding of the Metro Mayor role – who has three areas of responsibility that overlap with local authority leaders: transport, housing and adult skills.
“There’s nothing about children’s education in there, for example. Vast areas of what we do at local authority level are not covered by the Metro Mayor.
“Either they are showing an absolute lack of understanding of the roles, or they do understand but they are choosing not to share that with the public, for the sake of trying to advance their own argument,” Mr Rees added. “It doesn’t take ten seconds to pick that apart. It’s a nonsense argument.
“The fact that the first mayor of Bristol, who campaigned so energetically for there to be a mayoral model, and then did the role and then lost the role, and now campaigns against the role, that speaks for itself really,” he added.
Mr Rees said because he is not going to stand for re-election for a third term as Mayor of Bristol in 2024, it gave him a freedom to talk about the role and the system of governing Bristol objectively, because it was ‘not my future I’m talking about’.
“The first and biggest change Bristolians will experience if you move away from the mayoral model to the committee system is they will lose a vote,” said Mr Rees. “No longer will Bristolians have the opportunity to vote for the political leader of Bristol – that decision will be made by councillors, in committees.
“No pro-democracy movement I’ve heard of is actually arguing to take away a vote from people.
Bristolians will lose a vote – that’s what’s in this referendum here – who is going to choose the leader of Bristol?” he added.
At a Bristol City cull council meeting on Tuesday (December 7) councillors voted to hold a referendum next May, and ask the people of Bristol whether to continue with the model that has councillors and a directly-elected mayor, or switch to a new system that has councillors, who then form committees to run the city.
The Liberal Democrat motion was supported by the Greens and the Conservatives, with that opposition easily defeating the 24 Labour councillors.
Mr Rees said afterwards the result was expected, but that he was not impressed by the arguments put forward for having a referendum and calling for a change.
“My thoughts were on the poverty of the debate. The quality of the arguments in the chamber were incredibly poor. They often are,” he said.
“We reached a low last night. No one is claiming that there’s any political model that’s perfect, I’m not saying the mayoral model isn’t perfect.
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“But if you’re going to have a debate about the model of governance, that you want to bring in for the next ten years, at least have a debate that would meet the quality of a GCSE essay paper. It’s got to pass a minimum test,” he added.
Mr Rees pointed out all the challenges and emergencies Bristol is dealing with as a city, and said how the city is run is not one of them. “We take full council to debate our internal processes, and I’ve not heard anyone in the city apart from the odd person on Twitter – there’s a bubble on Twitter – talk about this – what are people’s priorities in Bristol right now?” he said.
“That’s an absolute taste of what will happen – the council begins to talk about itself. The Mayoral model at least drives the political leadership out into the city and allows the council to engage with that in the city,” he added.
“There’s a big question the councillors should ask that was not asked yesterday: In the face of all those challenges, what is the model of governance that will best enable Bristol City Council to play its role, with Bristol in meeting those challenges?” he said.
And Mr Rees said he felt at least some of the motivation to hold a referendum was against him as mayor rather than the mayoral system as a whole.
“It was the councillors talking about the councillors, and how they do or do not feel empowered, not about the city,” he said.
“It is an attack on me, of course it is, for some. For other people it is about Marvin Rees – that’s the nature of oppositional politics.
“What we have here is a conflict – you’ve got a mayoral model that’s focussed on delivery, but we have a tradition in the UK of oppositional politics that’s focused on an argument and failure..
“What’s happened here is the chamber has applied its oppositional politics to a discussion about how to lead the city. We know that this hasn’t worked in the past. This is obviously a crack on me and a go at Labour,” he added.