Julia Rampen
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Can the Greens take Bristol West from Labour?

The Greens were a credible second place in 2015. But are the winds of change still blowing in their favour?

Overgrown gardens spill over the sandstone walls and onto the quiet, sloping streets. A grinning graffiti skull and a church spire mingle in an unconventional skyline. Shops sell handmade pottery and vegan supplies. Academics pass artists and scientists on the street. If there is such a thing as the typical Green constituency, it probably looks a bit like Bristol West.

In 2015, a Labour candidate, Thangam Debbonaire, took the seat from the Liberal Democrats, with 22,900 votes, and a majority 5,673. But in second place, with 17,227 votes were the Greens. And this general election the candidate is the most high profile yet – the MEP and economist Molly Scott Cato.

I meet Scott Cato on a bank holiday Monday in the new Green party office, where volunteers are piling placards and arranging signs. Maps of the constituency are pinned to a wall. “What has changed is last time was that lots of people really wanted a Green MP but they didn’t believe they could make it happen,” Scott Cato says. The 2015 election made it seem possible. She argues voters are rebelling against the first past the post system: “People aren’t prepared to settle for the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of politics.”

The Greens are often pilloried as almond milk-guzzling climate warriors. But Scott Cato wears jackets – colourful ones - and talks about clamping down on tax havens more than the transition movement. As an MEP, she can also talk with authority about Brexit. 

Molly Scott Cato with Green Party activists in Bristol West

Roughly three quarters of voters in the area voted to stay in the EU (in Bristol as a whole the vote was 62 per cent Remain). The incumbent Labour MP Debbonaire is also anti-Brexit. She defied the party whip and joined the one existing Green MP Caroline Lucas in voting against Article 50. But while Labour struggles on a national level to define its position on Brexit, the Greens are calling for a “ratification referendum” on the final UK-EU deal. “Somebody came into the shop yesterday, and said ‘Would you vote against triggering Article 50?’” Scott Cato recalls. “That was easy – it was definitely yes.”

As this suggests, Scott Cato does not spend her time on the doorstep simply debating climate change. In addition to Brexit, voters are worried about the lack of affordable homes. On Twitter, Scott Cato shares messages in support of refugees, against privatisation of the NHS and local businesses. She visits the mosque to hear about Islamic banking and discuss the British government selling arms to Saudi Arabia. 

Scott Cato says it is “a bit of a myth” that Green voters are middle class: “If you look at their voters their incomes are below average. That’s not surprising – we campaign for progressive taxation.”

All the same, when I meet Alex Teague, a Green party member, who has just been out handing flyers, he believes the demographics of Bristol West are part of the story.

A chemistry teacher, he did a PhD in environmental science, and argues that this middle-class, university area is the “ideal constituency” for the Greens: “It is left leaning, liberal.” He tells me the city has one of the highest concentrations of PhDs and medical graduates in the country (when I look into it, I find that according to the 2011 census, Bristol ranks 63 out of 359 in the most qualified areas of England and Wales). 

Teague describes himself as a “socialist and environmentalist” and wants a party that can “look 50 years into the future”. When I ask him about Brexit, he jokingly asks me: “Can I just have a little cry first?”

Still, for all the Green posters unfurling in the bay windows, the party’s victory is far from certain. As I wander to St Werburghs, a neighbourhood known for its city farm, a wildlife centre and a sustainable self-build housing programme, I pass terraced brick houses with Labour posters in the windows.

When I speak to Debbonaire on the phone, she argues that there is nothing the Greens can do that she isn’t doing already. “The Greens have been talking a lot about a progressive alliance,” she says. “We already have one – it’s called the Labour party.” As for the environment, Labour’s commitment to tackling climate changes “is in its constitution”.  A resident of the constituency for 26 years, she says the response on the doorsteps has been positive: “People are happy with how I have been as an MP.” They are aware that she voted against triggering Article 50. 

Debbonaire was one of the MPs who publicly criticised Jeremy Corbyn in the summer of 2016, when she described how he had appointed and then sacked her from a role in the middle of her cancer treatment. Bristol has an active branch of Momentum, Corbyn’s grassroots organisation. So can the party overcome its internal divisions?

“I think when you come to a general election, Labour members want to elect a Labour government,” she says. Her message to Bristol’s Corbynites is: “If you want to have a Labour Prime Minister, you want to have Labour MPs.”

So far, this seems to be resonating. Ollie Turnbull is a member of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, a forum for anti-austerity views founded in 2013 by figures including the late Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and the Green MP Caroline Lucas. 

In his work as an activist, he hears less about Brexit per se, and more concerns about “a Tory Brexit”. He is wary of the Green demand for a second referendum, and thinks a Labour-led deal could turn the situation “into a positive”. 

Indeed, for all Labour’s dismal national poll ratings, Corbyn seems to have invigorated the party's supporters I encounter in Bristol West. In 2015, the Greens were the only party to put “end austerity” on their manifesto. Other policies now echoed by Labour included raising the minimum wage to £10 an hour and scrapping tuition fees.  

For Turnbull, it’s enough to sway him. “I voted Green in 2015,” he says. “I won’t do so this time round because the Labour party is offering a genuine alternative.” The Greens may have long been the revolutionary party in Bristol West. But since 2015, Labour has experienced a revolution of its own. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.