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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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