A little over three years ago Marvin Rees did a talk at a charity for youngsters on the fringes of gang life. It was only two months since he lost the mayoral election to George Ferguson in what many saw as an upset for the Labour candidate, who was the favourite with the bookies.
“I was able to open up the talk by saying, ‘I’m Marvin Rees and I stood in front of 400,000 people as a failure’. It was a very empowering thing to be able to say.”
“It’s a painful feeling, of course,” he says, recalling the moment when he realised which way people had voted. “But it’s not as if I’m not used to it.”
He adds that he made a speech in the run-up to the election where he told youngsters: “If you are going to have aspirations, then buckle up because sometimes it’s not going to go right for you and you’re going to fail.
“That’s just part of the journey,” he tells me over coffee on Stapleton Road, just a minute’s walk from his mum’s house and the playground where he played cricket and football as a child.
To hear about Marvin’s journey is an insight to why he is back where he is, fighting that same election all over again – as passionate as ever.
Born in Southmead Hospital, he first lived in St Paul’s with his mum (“the only place we could afford to live”). His next move was to a refuge due to family circumstances, he says.
He had seven brothers and sisters. After a short period in Lawrence Weston, in 1978 at the age of six he moved to Easton.
He lived in Easton until he was 18. “I have a nostalgia for my childhood,” he says, recalling his “raucous” cricket games using Stapleton Road as the boundary, with balls smashing into buses. “But I know it was a tough childhood too,” he adds.
I ask why, and it’s at this point that he hesitates for the first time. Marvin is personable, direct, intriguing and good fun during the small amount of time we spend together in the cafe and walking around his old stomping ground.
But he’s also inquisitive (often answering questions with questions) and analytical. And there are a few moments of prickliness or apprehension which come with this where a sense of self-awareness is palpable.
“This is where I get nervous,” he says, explaining how he isn’t sure if I will be able to understand where he is coming from. I tell him to try me.
He continues: “Well, it was tough. We were poor. I was a poor kid. We lived on benefits. And that’s a tough life.
“There were nights when we were on an electric meter and the 50p would drop and we’d have no more 50ps. And that was it, you go to bed.”
Easing into it a little more, he adds that he wants to share something else, but is slightly conscious of people are already labelling him as the “inner-city black candidate”.
He continues: “I am black, but I’m a mixed race and I grew up in a racially fractured city. Being a mixed race kid, I had to go through the rigmarole of working out who I was in a city in which there were physical demarcations of where you could and couldn’t go. That was a challenging thing,” he says.
He talks briefly about his white grandfather, Charlie Bryer, who he claims was the first taxi driver in the city, and he talks about his dad, who came over from Jamaica at the age of 12, before we move onto Marvin’s later life.
Marvin had a dream of being a Royal Marine officer. But he was turned down at a medical where an eye condition was discovered. The rejection was the end of years of training – including press-ups and chin-ups every night in the park around the corner after watching Newsnight.
Instead of joining the army, he completed a masters degree in political theory and ended up working for Tearfund, a Christian anti-poverty charity. He moved to the US and did another masters at Yale on a fellowship and ended up working for one of Bill Clinton’s advisers.
He eventually returned to Bristol and got a job at BBC Radio Bristol as a broadcast journalist and ended up coming across Operation Black Vote, a racial justice campaign group. It was here that he was persuaded to put his ideas and energy into politics.
He says he chose Labour because they matched his core values. “I see a party that is about standing beside people who have been left out by the establishment. And I want to say it’s about the aspirations of communities.”
I suggest that now – with the party he is funded by, the experiences at Yale, the job at the BBC and the connections he has made – he is as establishment as the rest.
He argues that a man from his background being funded by a party like Labour cuts through the elitism of whoever can afford to run a campaign on their own.
He adds later: “How much is the mayoral campaign going to cost? In excess of £50,000. Who’s going to help me pay for that? Labour Party, unions, fundraisers. You get rid of parties, who runs?
“Who’s got £50,000? £50,000 in their pocket or the pockets of their friends? If you get rid of the institutions you get a country run by the people who are the wealthiest.”
I bring out an old criticism of him that he is too controlled by the Labour Party machine. It’s an accusation leveled at him at the last elections when he said he wouldn’t have a cross-party cabinet if elected (something he’s changed his mind about now). Tory candidate Charles Lucas has suggested that, if elected, Rees would be “Corbyn’s puppet”.
“I think it’s silly and Charles Lucas should know better,” Marvin responds quickly.
“You’ve got to analyse what you mean by independent,” he adds. “The idea that Jeremy Corbyn is up in London talking about Putin being implicated in the assassination of a Russian on British soil, looking at the largest people movement since the second world war, what he’s going to do about Trident, looking at London mayoral election, and he says ‘wait there, let’s stop the conversation, what are we going to do about buses in Bristol?’ It’s a nonsense.
“There is no Bat Phone from London where they are trying to dominate what goes on in Bristol.”
While we are on the Labour Party subject we turn to Jeremy Corbyn. Rees voted for Andy Burnham at the leadership elections and was slow to back Corbyn after he was elected. So, does he align himself with the politics of Corbyn?
“I align myself with the politics of the Labour Party. There’s a context with that. I want the Labour Party to form the next government.”
I draw a line on a piece of paper with Corbyn and Tony Blair at either side and ask him where he puts himself.
“So let me draw you another line,” he says, before stopping himself and wondering out loud if he should share this story with me. He says he is concerned about “flat categories”.
He turns to his communications manager Tim Lezard (described on his Twitter profile as “Campaigning journalist, socialist, anti-fascist, editor”) and asks: “Shall I tell it?”
“No, we’re worried about labels,” Tim says.
We leave the cafe and head to Armoury Square to meet Bristol24/7’s photographer. We speak about the area a little more. He points out a statue of Edward Colston, a replica of the original which was removed and placed in Bristol Museum.
We give his mum a quick knock to see if she is in and would be up for a chat, but she answers the door in her dressing gown, so we leave her be.
We walk down to Rawnsley Park, below the tower block by Easton Way. It’s the park where he used to play football and cricket. Back then it was just scrubland though.
Marvin’s smile is back and he is warm and friendly as we talk again of his past a little and other sports he was involved with including boxing, which he says helped give him the discipline and aspiration which comes through so strong. He calls himself “furiously aspirational”.
We also talk about his Christianity and how important it was to him growing up. “It was a big part of my life; sense of belonging, sense of purpose, sense of wonder, very supportive to my family.”
At Eastern University in Pennsylvania he studied a course called Biblical economics. So do his religious beliefs influence his politics?
“Did Martin Luther King’s religion influence his politics? Of course, of course. There’s a great line by Obama: ‘who would king be without his faith’.”
He says life his isn’t compartmentalised. His passions for social justice and all sorts of issues are linked. “Those passions are a mix of life experiences, faith and political influence.”
Close to his core values are his feelings about his family. Living with his wife and their three children in Easton, there is an obvious difference to his own upbringing.
“I want to be a good father,” he says. “Before everything, before politics, before career. The most important thing is to be a good father and a good husband.”
I finish by asking, firstly, what he would do on his first day in office if he won in May. “I go and meet all the leaders of the key city institutions. Those are the people who are going to be shaping the city,” he says.
I then ask him what he will do if he is staring at defeat again. He replies that he will go back to the people most important to him to figure out what to do next. “I will do what I did last time and spend some time with the family.”
Bristol24/7 is hosting a mayoral hustings featuring all candidates at The Lantern at 7pm on Thursday, April 28. Entrance is first come first served. For more information, visit www.colstonhall.org/shows/mayoral-hustings/