The Improbable Rise of Britain’s First Elected Black Mayor

Marvin Rees is one of the Labour Party’s brightest stars. Can he maintain progressive support while working with conservatives?

On June 7, Bristol protestors yanked down a bronze statue of famous slave trader Edward Colston, rolled it through the streets, and dumped it into the harbor where Colston’s slave ships had once docked. Colston had surveyed the city since 1895. But his imposing monument was no match for the roughly 10,000 Black Lives Matter demonstrators who were marching through Bristol’s streets in solidarity with Americans protesting George Floyd’s killing.

That evening, city mayor Marvin Rees labeled Colston’s fall a piece of “historical poetry” in an interview with Channel 4 News.  That the statue fell under Rees was itself poetic. Rees is the United Kingdom’s first directly elected Black mayor. Born in 1972 to a Black Jamaican father and a white British mother, raised in an impoverished Bristol neighborhood, his ascent has been improbable. But after a successful career in progressive journalism, and a stint researching racial inequality, Rees became the Labour Party’s Bristol mayoral candidate. In May 2016, Rees swept to victory and now governs a city of almost half a million people.

In office, Rees has tried to make racism and inequality central to his administration. In 2016, he promised to build 2,000 houses a year—forty percent at affordable rates—by the end of his term. In 2018, Rees launched the Commission on Race Equality (CORE), to look for and fight against racism within the city limits, and Stepping Up, a program to create a corps of minority civic leaders.

But it wasn’t Rees’s administration that toppled the statue and, after it fell, activists and politicians to the mayor’s left wanted to know why it still towered above the city four years into his term. “We have campaigned for this for years without success, been fobbed off and ignored,” said Cleo Lake, a prominent Green Party city councilor. It wasn’t just the statue. In Bristol, people drink beers at the Colston Arms, children study at Colston School, and, if you follow Colston Avenue, you’ll arrive at the concert venue Colston Hall. The city is peppered with the legacy of the slave trader who bequeathed his riches to the city when he died in 1721. Shawn Sobers, a Black filmmaker and professor at the University of the West of England, told me it causes daily “psychological damage.”

It’s also not just Colston’s name. Colston Hall has an annual budget of roughly £500,000, which dwarfs the £20,000 allotted for St Paul’s Carnival, the yearly African Caribbean celebration whose organizers request £80,000. “If Black lives matter, you need to support Black cultural institutions,” Lake told me. Under pressure from the national government’s budget cuts, Rees has also reduced funding for social care and community centers, which disproportionately hurts Black families. It’s a severe hit for a city with the third-worst educational inequality—measured by the disparity in high school achievement between Black and white students—out of 348 districts in England and Wales. Another burden for Black people in Bristol is that they are five times more likely to be unemployed than the white British population.

Rees argues he’s doing what’s possible at the mercy of a Conservative national government. But he’s also been critical of some Black Lives Matter protestors for, in his view, prioritizing style over substance. “No memo [of demands] arrived on my desk the day after Colston got pulled down,” Rees told me. “At the Selma march, they didn’t just provoke a confrontation, chucking loads of dust in the air to see what happened. They had specific policy outcomes.” He has earned plaudits from national commentators for working alongside the business community and government ministers. Many see him as a future Labour leader, and perhaps even a future prime minister. But in his compromising style, Rees risks alienating the progressive community from which he came.

Marvin Johnathan Rees grew up on a public housing estate in Easton, Bristol. Life as a Black kid in the 1980s was challenging. “I felt vulnerable constantly,” he told me. He would often receive racist threats and other verbal abuse on the way home from school.

As a student, Rees suffered from low self-esteem. His teachers flagged him for his potential, but his fear of failure paralyzed him from trying in class. “What if I start to do some work and they find out I’m not as clever as they think I am?” he recalled worrying. Rees gravitated to kids like him—underachievers who were smart but distrusted the system. Most were students of color.

But when Rees was fourteen, two lines on his school report card swiveled his future in a whole new direction. “Marvin, the world could be your oyster. But the way you’re behaving, you’re not going anywhere,” his geography teacher wrote. For many students, it would have been an admonishment. For Rees, it confirmed that he had potential after all. “I took that home and read it and read it and read it,” he said.

Rees began to change his habits. He started boxing regularly, studying for the exams needed for college, and slowly building up his low self-esteem. But it came at a cost. He began to live what he described as a “parallel reality” from his Black peers, who couldn’t understand why he set his sights on going to a university rather than earning money straight from high school. “Yo, Marv, you’re behaving like a white man!” Rees remembers a friend telling him. “That’s what white men do.”

He argued back. “No, that’s wrong,” Rees recalled saying. “How you gonna make money putting tires on someone’s car in a garage all day?”

Rees eventually left Bristol for Swansea University in Wales, graduating with a bachelor’s in economic history and politics in 1993 and a master’s in political theory and government in 1995. In August 1998, he flew to the U.S. to work for the Christian social justice magazine, Sojourners. Afterwards, he attended Eastern University, a private Christian college in Pennsylvania, graduating in 2001 with a second master’s degree in global economic development.

From there, his career took off. He spent five years reporting for the BBC after returning to the U.K. In 2010, he was named a Yale World Fellow—part of a competitive program for future leaders run by Yale University.

Rees said he still struggled with low self-esteem. When he arrived in New Haven, Rees remembers the World Fellows director, Michael Cappello, mentioning something to the class about how the application process can yield surprising results because it’s conducted entirely online. “I thought they were talking about me,” Rees said. “I thought, ‘Oh, they’ve realized they made a mistake.’”

In reality, Cappello told me the opposite was true. “He never felt like he was a worthy choice,” he said. But as the months rolled on, Rees “really emerged as a leader among the leadership group.” Eliot Abel, another fellow, said Rees’s personality was mediating—“he had an interest in bringing people together”—but that he was never afraid to challenge anyone, including prominent guest speakers like former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair.

Rees’s trajectory contrasted wildly with his teenage peers, and it did so in ways he considered structurally unfair. He’d regarded many of his friends as cleverer, smarter, and more confident than him. “The people I was at school with—intellectually—were the equal of anyone,” he said. Years later, some had gone to prison, a couple had passed away, and others were still in unfulfilling jobs—all were underachievers. He attributed his success in no small part to luck: a short note from his teacher containing needed affirmation, which his peers never got.

In 2011, Rees again returned to the U.K. to work for the National Health Service on improving racial equality in mental healthcare. Not too long after, Bristol voted in a referendum to introduce the city’s first-ever elected mayor. He won the Labour Party’s nomination and ran in 2012 against George Ferguson, a flamboyant Liberal Democrat-turned-independent. Ferguson campaigned as an anti-establishment populist despite his immense personal wealth. He “assumed he should be mayor,” Rees said.

Ferguson won, but by a small margin. Rees remained a rising Labour Party star, and he was again chosen to run in 2016 against Ferguson. Rees campaigned on a platform of building homes and reducing inequality. As much as 15% of the Bristol population—70,000 people—live in the most run-down areas of the U.K., according to last year’s city government data. It was a compelling campaign message. This time, Rees won.

Since assuming office, his style has been careful, conciliatory, and pragmatic. Following the £106 million in local budget cuts, Rees has worked closely with the predominantly white business community to pursue his policy goals on housing, poverty reduction, and inequality. It has delivered results. Public records show he exceed his goal of building 2,000 homes—40 percent affordable—by 2020. His administration has also received plaudits from progressive campaigners. Sado Jirde, director of Black South West Network, a racial justice charity, said it was impossible to get a seat at the table before Rees was mayor.

But for some on the left, the reforms lack a radical edge. “I’m not sure they go far enough,” Lake, of the Green Party, said. Labour leftists are disappointed that he paired back city services in response to national budget cuts, rather than fighting to pass a “no cuts” budget by tapping into Bristol’s monetary reserves or extending city borrowing

His policies have also earned him critics on the right. As part of his One City Plan, Rees encouraged local private businesses to invest 25 percent of their corporate responsibility budgets into “CityFunds” to alleviate poverty and achieve other sustainable growth goals. That helped him raise cash while offering 4 percent returns to investors. But not everyone is convinced he has local companies’ best interests at heart. The “job of people like Marvin should be to remove barriers [to business],” Heather Macdonald Tait, who runs Why, a local communications business, told the Financial Times, criticizing his CityFunds advocacy.

Jidre told me that behind his back, Rees is subject to more abrasive criticisms. “I’ve had people say, ‘Marvin cares too much about poor people,’” Jirde said. “They call him ‘the Black mayor’ or ‘the inner-city mayor.’”

For Rees, the varying criticisms cut to the heart of what it means to be a Black politician. “The irony is, more is expected of you on issues of race and poverty, and yet you have less space to maneuver,” Rees told me. Figures like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson can criticize the establishment all they like, he said, “because they are the establishment, right? If a Black person did that or a person from a working-class background, you’d be accused of having a chip on your shoulder or being an angry Black man.”

However, Rees’s initial response to the toppling of Colston kept most of Bristol’s communities on board. He dredged up the statue from Bristol harbor with the intention of sticking it in a museum and began a citywide discussion on what should replace him. “I think the moment found him,” said Cappello, of Yale. “There aren’t a lot of people who’ve come out of this recent chaos looking better than before.” Many locals I spoke to saw him as a future top-table Labour politician. The Times of London editorial board wrote, in July, “If Mr. Rees continues to lead his city with such consummate skill, one day he may even merit a statue of his own.”

Colston’s stone plinth sat empty in the center of Bristol for 38 days and nights. Then, at dawn on July 15, the artist Marc Quinn erected a resin statue of a local Black Lives Matter protestor with her fist raised.

Rees got a text right after the statue went up. He had spoken to Quinn four weeks beforehand and declined his bid to build a new statue. “It’s a fantastic offer, and I really appreciate the sentiment, but I don’t think now is the right time to do that,” Rees recalled telling him. Rees wanted the whole of Bristol to decide what replaced Colston. After Quinn built it anyway, Rees ordered it down. “We don’t just stick a wet finger in the air [and] see which way the wind is blowing and go with it,” he said. Twenty-four hours later, the plinth was once again empty.

For Rees, it was just in time. He had received reports far-right counter-protestors were planning to vandalize the statue. “If a statue of a black woman is attacked and dragged through the streets, that’s a whole different piece of imagery that we don’t need,” Rees said. But many on the left were unhappy that the statue couldn’t stay even temporarily. “What a shame this wonderful statue wasn’t kept there” while the city decided on an alternative to Colston, said Diane Abbott, a senior Labour Party politician and the first Black woman ever elected to parliament.

This friction—between a progressive politician committed to incrementalism and bolder liberals—is somewhat reminiscent of Barack Obama’s presidency. Obama’s central achievement, the Affordable Care Act, helped minority communities by increasing the poor’s access to health care. But his overtures to Republicans, his willingness to compromise in negotiations, and his reluctance to address race head on drove more progressive Democrats mad. It was under Obama’s administration, after all, that the Black Lives Matter movement erupted.

But for Rees, like Obama, economic issues are race issues, and careful compromise with other political actors is necessary to accomplish these ends.

This wasn’t always Rees’s view. As a young progressive, he was influenced by Tony Benn, a long-serving leftist Labour politician. Benn retired from parliament in 2001, in part to protest the policies of Blair, who had moved Labour decidedly to the center. “I left parliament to devote more time to politics,” Benn famously declared. Rees told me that while the phrase once inspired him, he has come to view it as counterproductive—and even irresponsible. “Now I look back, I think it was unforgivable to make a statement like that without thinking about the impact it would have on people like me. Because where else are people like me going to go and get power?”

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Jem Bartholomew

Jem Bartholomew is a freelance reporter based in London