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Meet Marvin Rees, Britain's first directly elected black mayor

28th June 2016

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Walking into Bristol things feel fresh. On the green outside City Hall groups of college students congregate, all smiles, relaxing under the sun in one of the most desirable British cities for young people to live in.

Not far away, Britain’s first directly elected black mayor is going about his day, “battling with all the forces in the city”, as he says, to make sure the commitments he was elected on are seen through.

Talking to Marvin Rees it’s not difficult to see why the people of Bristol voted so overwhelmingly for him to be their mayor. He’s refreshing. In a climate where it’s rare to hear a politician answer a question directly, speaking to Marvin can at times feel like being in conversation with Big Foot. Not only will your question be answered, but the root cause of the problem you’re discussing will be the answer’s focus.

Marvin Rees, Bristol's first black mayor
(Bristol City Council)

But it’s not all been plain-sailing for Marvin. As a mixed-race child growing up in Bristol during a time when the city was deeply uncomfortable with its black population, the journey from the streets of Easton to City Hall has been eventful.

“I’ve always had a tense relationship with identity. Growing up as a mixed race kid in 1980s Bristol, people were asking whose side was I going to be on, black or white, in the middle of all the tension and the riots that went on back then.

“We face real challenges of fracture and segregation, along poverty lines and racial lines, but we’re a lot more integrated than we were ‘when I were a lad’ growing up here,” Marvin tells us.

But what does it mean to be British, and black, in a city with a history such as Bristol’s?

“Being British I suppose for me, is, I would say it’s birthright. I don’t go around necessarily with a song in my heart, not when I’m here. When I go overseas interestingly I’m very patriotic, very proud of the BBC and the NHS and I’m proud of our culture and our society.

“But like many people when you’re in it… when you love something that’s when you’re the most frustrated with it. I love my Britishness but because of the intensity of that relationship I have incredible amounts of frustration with it and where it falls short.

“But I think you can only have that intensity of disappointment when you truly do value and love something. So that’s where I am, moving backwards and forth on it.

“But definitely birthright. I have had my Britishness questioned. Someone once said to me ‘where are you from’? I said ‘Bristol’ and they said ‘no, where are you from?’ as in, you know, I’m not really British. And that was only a couple of years ago.

“So in that sense I will not allow anyone to challenge my Britishness. It’s my birth right.”

Mayor Marvin Rees 2016 bristol city council

Bristol as a city is now going through many of the same challenges facing London – rising house prices, increased inequality. For Marvin, it all comes back to the same cause.

“We’re on the receiving end of a global economic system that compounds inequalities. Our levels of social mobility in the UK are appalling. Your parental background is the single greatest indicator of where you end up in life.

“There are no easy answers right now. This is a product of the way we’ve chosen to do politics and economics. It’s a product of the way our society and our culture works. If you’re born poor you’re likely to end up poor.”

This may not sound like a message of hope. After all, we already know these things. But Marvin is determined to make change happen, and becoming Bristol’s mayor is, he feels, the best way of doing that.

“When I was younger I thought making change was just about being an activist, going on campaigns, doing petitions. And there’s an element of that that is about change but sometimes you need to get hold of some levers of power.

“When you take a position of authority, a position of power, it doesn’t mean you get a blank sheet of paper to do what you want. It just means you’re playing in a new league and you’re contending on a different level to get the things done you want to get done. You need to be at that level, but you also recognise there are political powers, business powers – impersonal economic forces shaping life all around us all the time.”

Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn (left) with Labour's Marvin Rees
(Claire Hayhurst/PA)

It seems a frank admission; that elected officials battle with unelected forces – whether they be individuals focused on their bottom line or a much tougher-to-tackle economic system.

We spoke to Marvin before the vote to leave Europe but he revealed a few of his thoughts on why there’s such discontent felt outside of Britain’s major cities.

“We are… in a country that is interdependent with the world. Many of the brands we buy are global brands, it comes into: what is the biggest challenge to our national identity? It’s not immigration, it’s the globalisation of demand and products. If you go to a shopping mall in Manila it’s exactly the same as a shopping mall in the UK. That’s where our Englishness has gone – swept away by the market and consumerism.”

Following the vote to leave the EU it doesn’t seem like these problems are going to disappear – and what’s more, racism and xenophobia are once again on the rise. Things Marvin has seen before, but doesn’t want to get caught up in.

“If your definition of racism is about insulting people, then it’s unacceptable to go through what I went through as a kid with people calling me names, whether about my blackness or my mixed-ness – calling me a ‘half-breed’ and so forth. These things are not acceptable now.

“But racism is not about insult, racism is about power and economics. Why would I care if someone calls me a name if I have a position where I can pay my mortgage, I’ve got a good career, my kids are going to a good school (shrugs). Names don’t matter.

“So while no one wants to be insulted ultimately it’s about power, and unfortunately you look at the make up of our council, you look at the make up of Parliament, you look at economic inequalities and they’re actually getting worse.”

“It comes from a misunderstanding of racism, that people get caught up and think we’ve solved racism if we have a campfire, sit round, like each other and sing khumbaya. That is not the response. The response is how do we level the political and economic playing field – and that’s where it translates over into class, where racism and class are not the same thing, but are inseparable.

“The white working class are also excluded, they’re also subject to low levels of social mobility, they’re also subject to exclusion from the political system and decision making opportunities.”

For his part, Marvin does have a few ideas for how to tackle inequality, but it seems a big task for one man to take on alone.

“Tackling inequality is… the easiest place to go is to look at personal decisions. But that’s only part of the story. Some people do make bad decisions, but we have to remember people make decisions with the tools they have put in their hands.

“Ultimately our inequality is a product of the way we do economics and politics. These can be impersonal forces – that the drive is to make profit, without social concern, the primary aim is to produce a return to the shareholder of the big corporations, who don’t want to pay their taxes.

“They externalize the cost, they externalize the environmental cost of harmful activities. These things all impact on poor people. It can also be the impact of direct government policy.

“When I used to work for Tearfund we used to look at the effect of structural adjustment programmes on Africa, Asia, Latin America, where the IMF and World Bank and Washington Consensus would demand that countries cut subsidies for food, privatise their water supply, reduce their barriers to foreign corporations…

“Martin Luther King said back in 1968, no, sorry, 67’, a year to the day before he was shot, he gave a speech called A Time to Break the Silence, which everyone should read. He said there will come a day when corporations invest in Africa, Asia, Latin America and extract their profit with no regard for the welfare of the people. Now, some of those kinds of policies are being brought back to the UK…”

As our chat reaches an end a few people have gathered around to hear what the mayor has to say. One begins grilling him on the issues she feels Bristol needs to tackle. Another asks for a picture. One, after listening to Marvin wax lyrical on everything from poverty, to racism, to Brexit, to mental health, remarks to us “he’s still got it”, with a very hopeful look on his face.

That’s what it is about entering Bristol, the feeling you get. There’s a clarity in the city that seems to come with Marvin’s leadership – or maybe the clarity existed here before and Marvin talks so openly as a result of being brought up in it. Either way, you can sense, and witness, that Bristolians have elected a leader who’s able to identify issues, determine the obstacles that might stand between the issues and the problem, and then speak honestly about it all.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the future of democracy (openness, accountability), it’s what democracy should be. It should be direct. It should be engaging.”

By now the interview has overrun. Marvin blames his “long answers”, which we’d prefer to describe as detailed. As we say thanks and begin packing up, the mayor, checking his schedule and realising there’s a small window of free time, offers to show a disabled man he’s been in conversation with around city hall. This, coming after the conversation we’ve just had, helps to compartmentalise Marvin in a different place in our mind to other politicians. This, it seems, is the “kinder”, “new” kind of politics Jeremy Corbyn so often eludes to. And even after the week we’ve just had it’s hard not to feel encouraged by it.

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