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.

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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.