Tom Baldwin laughs out loud for the first time in roughly an hour of chatting about his bid to become mayor of Bristol. He’s tickled by the idea that he might enjoy putting his anti-cuts rhetoric to people like Charles Lucas, the Clifton-based wine merchant and property developer running for the Tories.
“If I can win them over in some road to Damascus conversion, well, then I’d be very happy,” he says with a deep West Country burr during one of his long impassioned mini-speeches which come after most questions. “But I’m not expecting it and I can’t say the most enjoyable part of my time during the election is spending it with them.”
The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidate says he’s really here to put the arguments to the public about the “myth of austerity” and stand up for the principle that, in fact, Bristol and its council doesn’t have to just sit there and take successive cuts in funding from central government.
However, to sell him as a one-ticket candidate if unfair. He’s also focussed on delivering public housing, public transport as well as protecting existing public services, the latter of which Baldwin has been attempting to do since the last time he stood for mayor in 2012.
As incumbent George Ferguson has cut £100 from the budget while the Government has reduced its funding by about 25 per cent, Baldwin has been at just about every protest – placard in hand – for every service under threat; from the libraries to residential care homes.
In fairness, even before the last election he could be found at the very same types of protests, spending countless nights outside City Hall (or the Council House as it was known back then) chanting and heckling.
“Politics for me is not just about elections and the ballot box, popping up every few years and going away again,” he says. “I’m not in this for any kind of career.”
In terms of his actual career, Baldwin is employed part-time by the Socialist Party. He studied physics at the University of Bristol after moving from his home town of Trowbridge.
He was keen on maths and science in school, but also developed an interest in politics early on. “In school it was just a bit of a passion for social justice for, you know, sticking up for ordinary people like myself.”
People like yourself?
“I mean we were relatively comfortable growing up, actually,” he says. “You know, we weren’t rich, but money wasn’t usually a problem. But the same wasn’t true for everyone I saw.
“There’s a whole lot of people that are really only one or two paychecks away from poverty,” he says. “You know, you work forty hours a week or whatever it might be, and you can keep your head above water.
“You’re not getting any richer, and I think that’s the nature of this society, that it’s based on profits, based on exploitation.
“And with representatives like the Tories we’ve got in government, they’re definitely pushing a programme of transferred wealth, from the ordinary people up to the biggest businesses, up to the very wealthiest in society.”
Baldwin joined the Socialist Party when he came to university. He also fell in love with Bristol during these student years and has lived here ever since (“partly because I like it here, partly because I don’t want to go back to Trowbridge”).
He says he can’t pinpoint a precise moment when he decided to leave the sciences and take up politics. “It’s just a passion,” he says.
“Sometimes you need a bit of that, when you’re out there on a windy evening outside the Council House and there’s only 25 of you, but yeah, you know, some of the people you’re standing alongside they are people that are desperate.
“I can’t really sit by and watch the way things are and not wanna try and do something about it and change it.”
Baldwin stood in the last election, coming 10th out of 15 candidates. This time he’s up against fewer candidates, but was slower to throw his hat into the ring.
He says he and his party coalition were unsure of whether to stand or to leave it up to one of the other major parties to tackle the austerity subject – and even back them if appropriate.
He says he knew the political landscape had changed since Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership, but ultimately he was unsatisfied with the party and its mayoral candidate in Bristol.
“We saw that as a very positive thing, a step forward for representation of working class people,” he says, speaking about Corbyn.
“But the Labour Party is kind of two parties in one. There’s the Corbyn wing and then there’s a lot of the old leadership. We took a lot of effort to try and speak to people like Marvin Rees to see to what extent they had shifted their position and to what extent they would be offering an alternative to austerity.”
He says he got no response from Rees or any of Bristol’s Labour councillors apart from Ron Stone, who died suddenly in December.
“But it’s not just that they’ve snubbed us so we’re standing against them. We’ve looked at their record on the council, and on the last budget this year the Labour group was the only group as a whole who voted in favour of the cuts.
“I’ve looked at Marvin’s stuff out there and there’s not a lot of stuff about the funding the council gets or the cuts. This is about more than austerity and cuts to this or that service. If you’re not looking at the funding that the council’s got, well that’s central.”
But maybe the debate has just moved on, and Baldwin and his party, which has shrunk slightly to 100 members since the last election, are on the fringes for a reason.
“I think for all the obituaries that have been written for socialism, for the worker’s movement, they’ve all proven to be premature,” he says.
He points out that 5,000 people marched in Bristol last year after the Conservatives were elected in a protest organised by sixth-formers – dispelling the myth of apathy, he says.
But the march had nothing to do with socialism, did it?
“Well, we were involved in it. I think there were a lot of people there who were certainly against the policies of austerity and that Robin Hood in reverse that the Tories are carrying out.
“And, you know, I think in a very broad sense people were looking for a different type of society; a change in the way things are run to benefit ordinary people and not the super rich.”
Aside from the anti-austerity rhetoric, Baldwin’s main policy focus is housing. He wants to explore a possible rent cap and he dismisses other candidates’ policies to build so-called “affordable” homes, saying that genuine council houses need to be built.
“We think it’s important that council houses are built so the public has a say over how it’s used, where it’s built and rents – the money that comes back to the council,” he says.
He also plans to take the buses into public ownership, although this policy seems to need a little more time to develop.
“You could pass laws to take over or try to,” he says.
How would this work at a local level?
“I don’t know. With by-laws it might be possible. You certainly would be able to reduce the subsidies and begin to run services out of the council and prove that they are better and take the private companies on in that way.”
Is this not a bit unrealistic with continuing cuts from above?
“I would oppose those cuts and try and get them reversed and win back the money stolen from the city,” he answers.
Baldwin says he is confident he could pass a legal budget using reserves that the council holds for emergencies and campaign for the government to reverse its cuts to local councils.
“This is a weak government,” he says. “They’ve U-turned on disability cuts and I think they could be pushed back on this as well.
“What’s the alternative? Sit back and do nothing? We’ve already had £100 million plus out of this city under George Ferguson. It’s around a quarter of the total budget when he took over.
“We’re talking about care homes, libraries, domestic violence support services. These are not luxuries in my opinion.
“These should be building blocks of society in the 21sat century. If the choice is to cut services or put my job on the line I’ll protect the services and put my career on the line. I ain’t in this for a career.
“Besides, there’s plenty of money when it comes to hand outs to the rich from this government.
As Baldwin winds down from his mini-speeches, he admits that Bristol is relatively well-off compared with many other cities in the UK where a higher proportion of the population get a raw deal.
But he says that in the six years he has been living in Windmill Hill, he has seen the gap between rich and poor widen – and this is the fight that Bristol has on its hands.
“I get the 90 bus into town most days,” he points out. “You get on that bus in Knowle West and you get off at Cabot Circus. You go into Harvey Nichols and you see the £8,000 handbags. That’s two different planets within one city.
“The story of one bus journey, two entirely different worlds, and I don’t think that’s right to be honest and I would be doing this wherever I was.”
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/