Something green in the neighbourhood (Image: Getty)
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Bristol West: Painting the Town Green

Can Darren Hall take the Greens from obscurity to first place in Bristol? We visit a seat that is turning into a three-way marginal between the Liberals, Labour, and the Greens.

Stokes Croft, a road running through Bristol, is a raggedy festival of pop-up shops, fixie bikes and inventive graffiti. The dishevelled tattoo parlours and music dives give off the same jovial grunge you find in the centre of Brighton, or on the fringes of East London.

I am meeting the Green Party’s candidate for Bristol West, Darren Hall, at The Canteen. Rather than the strip-lit greasy tabletops the name suggests, this place is a community “collective space” full of artists, architects and students, poring over iPads and chatting cosily at mismatched wooden tables. There is a “daily agenda” chalked on battered blackboards at the entrance, including events that will take place on the rickety stage at the far end of the café.

Adjacent to this spot, Banksy’s Mild Mild West – a much-loved mural from the anonymous Bristolian graffiti artist depicting a cartoon teddy lobbing a Molotov cocktail at riot police – is saluted by an enormous breakdancing Jesus spraypainted onto a wall opposite.

It is difficult to spot Green Party activists in this earthy bohemian hub, and Hall laughs when I tell him so after he eventually finds me. Incidentally, he is wearing a smart dark blazer, white shirt and jeans, and some tortoiseshell FCUK glasses – a far cry from the rumpled plaid shirts and floral headscarves of our surroundings.

“It was tough to break the fluffy, green image of the party,” notes one of Bristol’s Green councillors, called Gus Hoyt, as we sit down to tea at a table engraved with a spiral of illustrated fish.

It’s getting easier being Green

As the Green Party is becoming increasingly popular, it has to do what Ukip has been attempting over the last year – lose its image as a single-issue party and bust the stereotyping of its members.

Hall, level-headed and smart, who worked in the civil service for 10 years, is helping it do this in Bristol West. He only just joined the party seven months ago. Now he could be its next MP:

“The Green Party is now much, much clearer about its social values, about the NHS, about the rail system, about living wage – that’s been really big for us, to be able to go out there and make it absolutely clear to people that we’re not a single-issue party.

“And it’s certainly why I was much more comfortable to join them. Because it wasn’t just environmental issues – albeit those are important, it’s where I started from.”

As company director of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership, Hall won Bristol its European Green Capital Award, which it will be awarded next year. He also runs the city’s Big Green Week festival and is the founder and editor of Good Bristol magazine.

His experience and contacts make him a good candidate, and Bristol West itself is a good candidate for the party’s second seat. Privately, senior party figures say this is the only other seat, after Brighton Pavilion, that it has a chance of winning in May 2015. And Hall reveals that only two months ago, it was chosen by the national party as its “number two constituency”.

It is perfect Green territory here. Bristol is the only area in Britain to have its own alternative local currency, the Bristol Pound, which is in place to benefit local employers. Three years ago, residents rioted over the arrival of a new Tesco Express in Stokes Croft. The seat has a young population (27 per cent of its population is 16-25, and 25 per cent is in full-time education).

Plus lots of residents work in the tech sector here – its zone of digital start-ups has been dubbed Silicon Gorge – as well as in “green industries” like social enterprises.

What I gather from those I speak to – local politicians and residents – is that this is an increasingly cosmopolitan, racially-mixed constituency.

Also, new wealth has moved in via young businesses and high-paid jobs in the public sector, such as at the universities and the BBC, and it is a largely well-educated, young, middle-class seat. It is the third fastest-growing city in England behind London and Manchester.

This mix seems to bode well for the Greens. I meet a flannel-shirted 24-year-old engineer on the main road, and he tells me that although he voted Lib Dem last time, “the Green Party offers a much more coherent set of economic priorities, rather than the neoliberal policies we always hear about.”

I hear a similar enthusiasm from a thirty-something man in a serious fleece wheeling his bike along, who works as a medical statistician at Bristol University: “Focusing on climate change, fairness in society, recycling, cycling infrastructure – it all makes logical sense.”

Small-g greenery

“Bristol is becoming increasingly green, small ‘g’, non-politicised,” Hall tells me, as he shows me the mass of protest-fuelled graffiti surrounding the area’s offending Tesco.

“Thousands of people work in the green industries here, masses of people are cycling a lot and all that stuff. We’re saying to people: ‘vote in the same way you behave in your working life’.

“And now that people are becoming politicised about it, it’s a pleasant surprise. People are choosing to vote in the way that they feel, rather than a tactical, political vote.”

He chuckles that in the space of a few months, he has gone from having “no chance” to “I actually might win”.

And he actually might. Bristol West’s natural greenness is translating into support for the Green Party.

The party has gone from having zero councillors in Bristol West wards in 2010 to five in 2014. It has six overall on the council. It also won its first MEP for the southwest region, Molly Scott Cato, in May this year.

In the local elections this May, the party won 15.7 per cent of the vote. Its vote share has doubled since 2010, when it won 7.9 per cent.

There is also a radical tradition in Bristol. Hoyt tells me, “Bristol’s already had a revolutionary, rebellious history.” He refers to the riots in the 1830s, the St Pauls riot in 1980, and the recent Tesco riots.

“It has a very long history of rebellion, and it’s almost now become institutionalised,” he smiles. “Of all the revolutionary figures here, one is now the mayor, which is quite funny.”

Bristol is the only city to have voted for a directly-elected mayor in the 2012 referendums. It voted in the independent candidate George Ferguson. A source who worked on his campaign tells me, “although he was an independent, he was basically a quasi-Green”.

Having its own mayor is another way that Bristol does things differently, and also another hindrance to the parties that traditionally have the most support here: Labour and the Lib Dems.

Labouring the point

Mention the phrase “Green Surge” – which is how the party refers to its recent popularity boost – to a Lib Dem or Labour figure and they will look at you more like the Day of the Triffids has arrived than the green shoots of a small leftwing party are beginning to take hold.

Labour’s candidate for this seat, the exquisitely named Thangam Debonnaire, is very dismissive of the Greens’ apparent success here.

“A three-way marginal? Well, that’s what the Greens will tell you,” she says, as we walk along a shaded footpath beside the railway line in Lawrence Hill, the poorest ward in the whole of the southwest. “I actually think it’s a four-way marginal, because the Tories could do well.”

Debonnaire says this area, which is Britain’s 52nd poorest ward, “typifies why we need a Labour government”. Its greying terraces and imposing tower blocks tell the story of a completely different city than the organic cooperatives and artistic affluence of Stokes Croft.

The way Lawrence Hill residents have been left behind by the progressively prosperous centre is one of the main reasons Debonnaire is a candidate: “The effects of not having a Labour government here are keenly felt.”

Nevertheless, we find a stylishly rustic café on the corner of the main road, and Debonnaire immediately produces some knitting needles and ball of mauve wool from her handbag. She knits her helpers’ fingerless gloves for cold days out canvassing. Even the Greens weren’t this touchy-feely.

It’s clear from the way Debonnaire frames the fight for this seat that she is attempting to represent this election as a ‘Labour versus Tory’ one to her constituents, and yet sees “unseating a Liberal Democrat” as her main challenge.

Labour used to hold the seat prior to 2005, when Stephen Williams won it for the Lib Dems. But what about the Greens eating into Labour’s vote?

“It’s interesting where the Green Party are getting their support from,” Debonnaire replies carefully. “A lot of people who are currently thinking of voting Green voted Liberal Democrat last time. Some of them voted Tory last time. Some voted Labour last time. It is a complicated pattern of people…

“Obviously I think they should be voting Labour, because we have Green policies but a whole load of other stuff besides. It’s possible to be both green and Labour.”

Stalwart students

Similarly, the MP for this constituency, Stephen Williams, is ambivalent about the Green ascendancy here. Although he insists it’s “not a three-way marginal here anymore”, his apparently comfortable majority of 11,366  may not be that easy to hang on to – particularly as a Lib Dem in a student-saturated seat.

One international relations student stomping through the town centre in his chunky navy cable-knit jumper and military boots tells me, “I was very, very let down by the Lib Dems”.

He is on a mission to encourage fellow students to vote: “I want more students registered, as they’re more likely to vote Green. I want to get people into it. What will happen at the next election will be make or break for the Greens,” he grins nervously.

“Things are now much more fluid going forward,” sighs Williams, when I visit him at the majestic Edwardian central library, where he is holding a surgery. “It is an unpredictable period… On paper, it looks like a safe Liberal Democrat seat, but I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t thinking about it.”

Although Williams insists that neither the Labour nor Green candidate will know as many of the diverse communities in Bristol West as well as he does, he admits there is a Green threat to his vote:

“Obviously it’s an irritant, because we’ve not really had to think about them [the Greens] before. Every general election I’ve fought as a candidate – this will be the fourth one – we’ve never even discussed the Green Party. They’ve always been a bit of an irrelevance…

“There is obviously a danger that, to some extent, they fish in the same pond as us. Traditionally a lot of the people who haven’t liked either the Tory party or the Labour party, who would regard themselves as progressives, might be tempted by the Green Party… My fear is that if I lose votes to the Green Party, then it could well hand the seat to Labour by default.”

The only political certainty here seems to be that, whatever the election result in May 2015, Banksy will have something colourful to say about it on a wall somewhere nearby.

The Greens launched their election campaign today. This profile originally appeared on our sister site May2015.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.