Abdi Mohamed – Since Saturday, enough has been said about the election of Marvin Rees: The first elected Black and Minority Ethnic mayor in Bristol; ‘the first directly elected city mayor in Europe of African or Caribbean heritage’; the ‘working-class son of an English mother and Jamaican father’; a great day for race equality in Bristol; a symbolic victory, a new dawn, a historic moment – amongst many other adjectives. It was a historic moment, indeed, that many people have never anticipated to happen in their life time.
Arguably the implications are clear; Marvin Rees has simply challenged the ‘stereotypical Establishment figure’, which Owen Jones described as a ‘white male who followed an effortless path … into a lucrative an influential job’. But dealing with the processes of the local governance which have created exclusive environment and structures for the stereotypical figure will be more problematic.
Possibly the new Bristol mayor understands that he cannot ride roughshod over the acolytes – including his former managers – of the local establishment’s processes. And probably that’s why in his swearing-in speech he said that he doesn’t want a ‘command and control leadership’ and suggested a leadership that is based on ‘convene, ask and serve’.
Serving the interests of all communities in the city in equal terms is going to be one of the biggest challenging issues facing Mr Rees because of the persisting ‘inequalities that exist between different parts of the city’, as well as structural racism, that have prevented many parents in the local communities realise their aspirations for their children.
There is no quick fix to these issues and it cannot be expected the newly elected mayor to resolve them an overnight. But the governance system can be gradually improved with patience, transparency and fair leadership. In addition to setting up a ‘City Office’ which Mayor Rees will invite leaders of large and small institutions and community groups, and ‘commissioning a report on the European Green Capital’, he should overhaul the council’s delivery system.
Chief among them is the delivery of community engagement and development – and lack of participation – which created a multiple layers of inequalities. Thus a sizeable population of Somalis, the largest BME group in the city, for example, have been treated as an invisible minority group – though they were visible in large numbers on election day and have, certainly, influenced the change of leadership in the city.
Mayor Rees should also redefine the role of the local councillors, who felt powerless under the leadership of his predecessor, whilst ensuring that they must maintain a fine line between party loyalty and constituency accountabilities.
As the elected mayor has ultimate responsibility for all major policy decisions, the councillors could perhaps be given specific tasks in addition to the usual constituency casework. For instance, they can take an active role in tackling educational inequalities and underachievement of children in many schools in deprived areas, and generally in the city.
An inner-city school governor, who said he voted for Labour, was in no celebratory mood when I met him in Stapleton yesterday evening. He said that he just had a meeting with his chair of governors and they were looking at what services to be reduced or stopped because of the planned cuts. “It will profoundly effect the teaching and the educational progress of the children [already in an underachieving school].”
He added: “We are struggling to provide educational services that will empower every child in the school achieve full personal potential, but the elected officers are still dancing. Do they understand what our [primary] schools are going through?”
“Councillors can do much in schools,” says Sayid Ali, prominent member of the Somali community. “They must gain an understanding and practical experience of how schools work and what are the barriers they face.”
It seems that there is a strongly accepted opinion amongst Somali school governors and community leaders that the majority of councillors do not fully understand what is going in our schools. Nevertheless, developing working relationships with schools and becoming governors will enable them contribute to the educational progress and lives of children and young people in their wards. This will consequently empower elected officers understand that the political process and accountability do not end on election day.
It will also help people like Abdi Abdalle, a Lawrence Hill resident, who said that Mayor Rees should “not close the door” as politicians become elusive and are usually nowhere to be found once they get elected. “They [elected officers] will come back and nock your door after 47 months [when they want to be re-elected].”
Mohamed Cantoobo, former vice chair of Bristol Somali Forum, agrees and believes that the mayor should “increase engagement and meet them [communities that he serves] day-to-day.”
On the other hand, it is crucial that constituencies understand how to hold the politicians to account. They should also make sure that the mayor follows through the pledges he made during the election campaign.
The state of euphoria that many supporters and elected representatives are still in after the election of the first Black and Labour mayor in Bristol, a member of the Bristol Manifesto for Race Equality steering group, can help neither the image of the city nor the confidence of many young voters who are hoping better employment opportunities. So there is nothing to be relaxed about as the road to equality is long and difficulty. The sooner the euphoric mood is managed, the quicker the delivery of the new mayor’s plan for the city: “Building a better Bristol.”