Mayor Election 2016: Meet the mayor candidate: Tony Dyer
It started in Southville. Then it spread to Ashley. And then in the last couple of years Green Party support exploded a little bit into Redland, Bishopston, Clifton and Cotham.
But now the party, which has double the number of councillors compared with this time last year, must take its next bold step, says mayoral candidate Tony Dyer.
And that’s a step away from the leafy middle class suburbs and prosperous central wards and into the fringes of Bristol – as far even as the doorstep of Dyer’s mother’s home in Hartcliffe where we sit discussing his party’s upward trajectory since he joined in 2009.
“Yep, I’d like to take credit for all that,” the 51-year-old laughs in his suit, relaxing back into the sofa among the family photos.
He adds that his fourth place result in the Bristol South parliamentary elections in 2015 shows he is already making inroads in the place he was born and raised.
“Given the size of my family, it’s no surprise we grew to 12 per cent when we lost the deposit the election before,” he laughs.
During our interview, Dyer is warm, mild-mannered and engaging, but always only one question away from drifting off on another long anecdote about one of his huge extended family and their proud working-class background.
His father was a postman, his brother is a postman and he trained as a bricklayer before moving into computing with the help of a government college course and a community work placement.
His aunties, uncles and dozens of cousins are spread all around Hartcliffe and Withywood and his grandfather is immortalised in a famous photograph (below) standing up for workers’ rights in unemployment riots in Old Market in 1932.
“You can see a couple of people on the ground with police over them with batons,” Dyer explains proudly. “He was only 17. He, I think, had a big influence on my values.”
You have to remind yourself that Dyer is a Green. Given all this background, surely the Labour Party would have been a better fit?
“My family was very definitely Labour to the core for a long while, but less so in recent years,” he says.
“From the late 1980s onwards, they felt the Labour Party had left them. Rightly or wrongly, they didn’t feel the party any longer reflected their ambitions and what they wanted to do.”
He pauses and then adds: “I’m bringing them over now.”
He says that he joined the Green Party when he moved back to Bristol from working in London and the US for its commitment to fairness and social justice.
“You can’t separate what you do for society and what you do for the economy and what you do for the environment. The three of them have to work together,” he says.
But for all the Green Party’s success getting their message across in Bristol in recent years, they were hit by a big setback last year when their parliamentary candidate for Bristol West bizarrely deferred to George Ferguson’s camp.
Darren Hall, who spearheaded an unprecedented (but ultimately failed) Green surge in the constituency said on a parting note as he moved out of Bristol that he would like the current mayor to have another term before allowing the Greens into the mayor’s office.
How’s that for a kick in the teeth?
“I could have done without it. In the end though, he’s an adult; he has an opinion and he’s allowed to have that opinion.
“Would I have preferred it if he hadn’t made that statement? Yes, of course. I’m sure the Lib Dems would have preferred it if Abdul Malik hadn’t made his endorsement of George either.”
I suggest Hall’s move might reflect a wider mood in the Green Party and among their supporters.
“I think there is a section of the Green Party which think that George is the next best alternative and I can see their point of view – I don’t agree with it – that if we can’t get a Green mayor then George is the next best thing.
“The problem with that approach is that’s what happens in other elections too. People want to vote for us but end up voting tactically. People who are doing that need to look in the mirror and ask, ‘what do you really want?’
“Do they want a Green mayor who would instigate Green policies or do they want a slightly green mayor who, fair enough, does have a background being involved in a lot of green issues but occasionally does allow himself to do non-green things like backing a big supermarket at the Rovers ground.
“If you want a green mayor, vote Green. If you want a mayor who will implement the type of environmental and socially-just things that Greens want, then you’ve got to vote for me.”
We leave Dyer’s mum’s living room and take a short tour of some of his old haunts. Before we leave, I foolishly ask if he’s City or Rovers. He regails me with a tale of a Cardiff away match where he was beaten up by angry members of a Welsh firm who also happened to be associates of a few girls Dyer and his mates had met in a bar after the game – and gone back to theirs.
“We climbed out of the window in the end and got chased, we got cornered,” he says. “It’s partly why I’m a bit deaf in one ear. I didn’t look pretty for a while, but it was lucky to a certain extent they didn’t have knives.”
On our walk, we pass the flat where Dyer grew up, the school where he taunted rival pupils through the railings, the house where his aunt lived, a man tinkering with his car with an open can of Natch on the pavement next to him and the park where he celebrated the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977.
I ask him what his top priority is. “Housing,” he says, before quickly changing his mind to “cuts”.
“You need to find ways of trying to reduce the impact of cuts in order to do the other things.
“For example we have Hawkspring drug and alcohol service just up the road. I popped in to congratulate them for being saved from going under.
“They were panicked because they were due to close and they suddenly get a cheque from a charity. We just need some stability from local government.”
The next thing on Dyer’s priority list is housing. He points to his old school, Whitehouse Primary, where there are plans to develop new properties.
Inside the detail of his promise to get Bristol building 2,000 homes a year – more than a quarter of which will be affordable – are plans to increase intensity in places like this.
He also believes the council should be prepared to sell similar sites at discounted prices to allow developers more financial room to build more affordable homes. “We need to think about social value not just financial value,” he says.
On our way back to his mum’s house a car speeds past and screeches around a corner. “That’s 20mph for you,” Dyer says gesturing to the markings on the road.
I ask if he really believes people around here are that bothered about green issues – enough to gain him the support he needs for a serious shot at the mayor’s job.
“Well, to be honest, people in areas like this are doing their bit for the environment because they tend not to be so energy intensive and not to use so many resources than people in some of the wealthier parts of the city,” he argues.
“But it’s not just about the environment,” he adds. “A lot of people here get angry when they see politicians on £60,000 or £70,000 a year reducing disability benefits by £30 a week.
“I think people in places like Hartcliffe and Withywood have a strong sense of fairness. I think what they need is to be shown that what you’re doing is going to be fairer for them.”
He pauses as we walk. “I’ve started to use a phrase. For a lot of people in Hartcliffe, Southmead, Hillfields, it feel like Bristol is a very successful city, but it’s like there’s a party going on and not all of us have been invited and it’s breeding a lot of disenchantment with the city as a whole,” he says.
One thing which some argue hasn’t helped was Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. Dyer agrees the focus was “a bit too much about arts” in the city centre when there could have been more attention on actual green places like the nearby Dundry Slopes.
But he says some of the criticism is in danger of “undermining a lot of hard work done by a lot of people across the city” during the whole project.
The battle is to keep the momentum going and build towards creating a genuinely green city like some of the great European examples.
“We need to look more at Copenhagen or Barcelona,” he says, “not Nottingham or Grimbsy as to what we should model ourselves on.”
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/