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2 July 2024

Inside the Greens’ battle for Bristol Central

As her party surges in one of the UK’s most climate-conscious constituencies, Carla Denyer threatens to unseat Labour’s shadow culture secretary.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

At a busy junction at the bottom of one of Bristol’s many hills is a billboard declaring: “The Conservatives are toast.” The advert was paid for by the Green Party. It alerts voters that “change is coming”. But approximately one mile – and a moderate climb – away, at a trendy café where toasted sourdough goes for £4.20 a slice, Fadumo Farah, a Somali campaigner, told me she pays the Tories little attention. Instead, Farah, 35, is focused on using her influence among the area’s Somali (Bristol’s largest ethnic minority group) and Muslim communities to scupper the chances of the Labour candidate.

Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow culture secretary, who is standing in the newly formed Bristol Central seat, has represented the area since 2015. Farah is campaigning for Debbonaire’s main rival, Carla Denyer, the co-leader of the Green Party alongside Adrian Ramsay, a role she assumed in 2021. Over a glass of ginger beer, Farah, who voted for Debbonaire in 2019, insisted: “Labour’s lost me.”

She’s not the only one. The Green Party, long considered marginal nationally, is surging in Bristol Central. (Its former leader, Caroline Lucas, the Greens’ first and only MP, has stood down.) The contest in Bristol is in effect a rematch of 2019, when Denyer came second to Debbonaire, winning 24.9 per cent of the vote compared to Labour’s 62.3 per cent. Constituency boundary changes have greatly benefited the Greens in the area; internal party data suggests it will halve Debbonaire’s previous majority. As such, bookies and pollsters generally consider the race too close to call, and both parties predict only a few hundred votes will decide the winner. But there is a clear overlap between those who voted Labour in 2019 and those who intend to support Green in 2024. According to YouGov, Debbonaire is predicted to lose 25 per cent of the vote compared to 2019, and Denyer to gain 24 per cent – and ultimately win the seat.

What is behind the Greens’ rise – and Labour’s fall – in Bristol? “As you can imagine, it’s quite a left-wing city,” 20-year-old Finn told me while volunteering for a charity in the city centre. At May’s local elections, the Greens won every ward within the Bristol Central parliamentary constituency, and fell one seat short of gaining overall control of the city council. Local contempt for Labour also applies nationally: “Tory-lite” was the verdict on Keir Starmer among a group of food-traders lunching outside St Nicholas Market. Three paint-covered women in their early thirties taking a break from their jobs in the arts agreed: “It doesn’t feel like a left-wing party any more.”

Denyer is perhaps best qualified to answer the defining question: is the Labour-to-Green swing in Bristol Central being driven by the former’s shift to the centre ground – anathema to the city’s left-leaning politics – or is the latter simply winning the argument? I joined the Greens co-leader while she was out canvassing, flanked by volunteers in paisley shirts and sandals. “I think it’s a bit of both,” Denyer, 38, said.

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The Bristol Greens surge is not a surprise to her. Denyer, a former renewable energy engineer, became a councillor for the party in 2015. While canvassing for the 2019 election, she sensed the Greens had won the argument locally, but national circumstances had led constituents to vote Labour. “They knew they agreed with me more than [Debbonaire],” Denyer said. “That really wasn’t the challenge; the challenge was that constituents wanted the Conservatives out, and they felt that they had to vote Labour to do that. We had people saying: ‘We agree with you more, we love your policies – [but we] have to vote Labour this time.’” Labour’s “return to form”, after its shift from Corbynism and towards the centre of British politics, together with the expected Tory wipeout, means that, according to Denyer, “all of the reasons people reluctantly voted Labour last time just aren’t there any more”.

The first person who spoke to us on the doorstep was Andy, a previously politically disengaged man in his early thirties. “We’re big advocates of Novara Media,” he said of the radical left alternative media outlet when he met Denyer (she was recently interviewed by Novara). “We’ve just lost faith in the main two political establishments,” Andy said, agreeing to take Green posters to display outside his property.

Once Denyer had finished canvassing, we hopped in a red, petrol-powered car bound for an event to celebrate the 20th birthday of Bristol Wood Recycling Project, a social enterprise Denyer has long supported. There, she told the crowd gathered in the workshop’s courtyard that her party wants “organisations like this to have a bigger role in our local economies”, before cutting into a vegan cake made to look like wood.

Denyer first canvassed for the party in 2011, and told me she was politicised as a teenager by the Iraq War. She helped organise coaches to the protests in London from her sixth form in Farnborough. “I, and a lot of people of that age, didn’t even ever consider joining the Labour Party,” Denyer recalled. “As far as we were concerned, they were the party of the Iraq War.”

Labour’s slowness to call for a ceasefire in Gaza has upset many, particularly among minority ethnic groups such as those Fadumo Farah is involved with. Last October, the Greens formally backed a ceasefire, and four months later called for a ban on arms exports to Israel. By contrast, in November many Labour shadow cabinet members, including Debbonaire, abstained from a SNP parliamentary motion calling for a ceasefire. Has the war in Gaza come up on the doorstep? “A lot,” Denyer said, before pausing. “I think there’s not many voters for whom it’s their only motivating issue. But there’s a lot of voters for whom it was the final straw.”

Debbonaire was a notable shadow cabinet absentee at Labour’s manifesto launch in Manchester in June. She instead launched a star-studded offensive on her own patch; party heavyweights including Keir Starmer, Sadiq Khan and Ed Miliband have helped campaign in this once-safe seat. “We’re campaigning hard,” Debbonaire, 57, told me over the phone (she was not available for an interview in Bristol). “I never take voters for granted in any election… We’re getting a really good reception on the doors.”

A broad coalition of voters – Tories, Lib Dems, even Greens “put off by the style of [the party’s] campaigning” – are switching to Labour in Bristol Central, she claimed. Debbonaire stressed that Labour’s “bold” pledges on rail renationalisation, NHS reform and investment in the green economy were doing well on the doorstep: “The Green Party does not have a monopoly on green values.”

Bristol Central will decide what brand of leftism it prefers come election day. In Thangam Debbonaire, Bristolians would have a representative at the heart of the next cabinet; in Carla Denyer, they would have a party leader beholden to no whipping system, who promises to be a strong “voice of constructive challenge to the incoming Labour government”.

Debbonaire is not too concerned by the polls. “They have been wrong many times before,” she cautioned. “People here know that. I’m ready to set to work on 5 July, and I really hope that’s what I’ll be doing – but I’ll be fighting for every last vote.”

[See also: How Labour should handle the rise of the Greens]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain