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14 February 2024

Can “yimby” Labour win the Kingswood by-election?

Inside the party’s fight to gain a suburban Conservative constituency on the green belt of Bristol.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The Kingswood constituency is like a pick ‘n’ mix of England. Bristolian suburbia, with all the elements of outer-city sprawl – scruffy high streets and tight estates of postwar housing. Villages and country pubs hovering around woodland and great grassy commons. Motorways and country lanes. Rolls Royces (well, their factory) and knife crime.

It seems to baffle electoral boundary commissioners too. It will be scrapped at the next general election – and largely subsumed into a new seat called Bristol North East.

With a no-longer-comfortable Conservative majority of 11,220, it’s a tough seat for any politician to crack. From my visit, it seems that Damien Egan, the Labour candidate, is trying the hardest.

Having grown up in a council flat on the Fairford Close estate in Kingswood town, he is disturbed at what’s become of his boyhood home. “The place where I grew up is honestly unrecognisable, just in how it’s been allowed to decay – fly-tipping, rubbish, smashed windows, overgrown. It’s very different. I had such a happy childhood there – beautiful green spaces, children would go out and play.”

Kingswood as a whole is “so different” today. “It’s hard to imagine how much it’s changed – there used to be clothes shops, jewellery shops, gift shops, a thriving indoor market. The high street has been left to decline.”

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Residents bring this up, as well as the prevalence of dog poo, potholes and closed shops. Egan – who until this by-election was mayor of Lewisham Council, southeast London – hopes he can help the local council do more to tend to the public realm.

Brought up by his mum, who worked in a shop on Kingswood high street, and his dad, who trained as an apprentice engineer to work at Rolls Royce (there is a tradition of manufacturing jobs at Rolls Royce, Airbus and BAE Systems locally), he is struck by how much more families like his are struggling today.

“Speaking to the women, they’re doing exactly the same sort of jobs that my mum did – like shop work, dinner ladies, cleaners, that sort of job, but they are a lot poorer,”    he observed. “People are now going to foodbanks.”

Also top of voters’ minds are the lack of NHS dental places in the Bristol area (a rather dystopian bird’s eye photo showed police managing a huge queue for a new dental practice nearby when it opened at the beginning of February), rising mortgage payments, and anti-social behaviour. Shoplifting is on the up, and there has been a spree of stabbings in Bristol.

“It’s antisocial behaviour, and that ‘nothing happens in Kingswood’, which keep coming up,” said Sean Rhodes, a Labour councillor for Kingswood, who is currently planning youth programmes in the town to try and combat this.

Outside the Labour campaign HQ, sandwiched between an elephantine Lidl and run-down shopping quarter, there are disused shop units and weeds growing on the town clocktower.

The Tories, who were thrown into this by-election when the pro-net zero MP Chris Skidmore resigned over the government’s plan to grant new oil and gas licences, have hidden their candidate away. After repeated attempts at contact, I rang the bell and waited outside the constituency HQ, which bore nothing but frosted glass and a small printed A4 “closed” sign. The lights were on but no one answered, and over about an hour there was no sign of the usual coming-and-going of stoic activists in anoraks clutching clipboards. Ministers and senior party figures have reportedly stayed away.

Their candidate, a local called Sam Bromiley, appears to be running a one-issue campaign against South Gloucestershire Council’s plans to build 8,000-odd houses on greenfield land. The Conservatives have also suggested that, as a London council leader, Egan isn’t truly local – even accusing him of switching from a south London to West Country accent. The latter came through strongest when we met, which was hardly surprising – Egan grew up here and even went to the same school as Bromiley.

“You’ve got to have moral authority to land a negative campaign and the Tories have got no moral authority at all at the moment,” said Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and shadow minister who is the party’s Kingswood campaign lead.

Conservative voters are switching to Labour. Partygate still comes up as a reason. “It’s obviously a very personal thing for people,” said Rhodes.

But Labour must also win over Liberal Democrat and Green voters: the two smaller parties did well at last year’s local elections here (winning 15 per cent and 9 per cent of the vote, respectively). Bristol itself is shifting Greenward: the party became the largest on the city council last year.

Another potential challenge for Labour is housebuilding. South Gloucestershire Council has built thousands of homes on the green belt in the past – but since it was taken over by a Lib Dem-Labour coalition last year after 16 years of Tory rule, it has been planning to build more.

“It’s really important to have green spaces, you’ve got the wildlife, flora and fauna, and this is a predominantly rural area,” said Martin Thomas of the Save Our Green Spaces group, showing me around the lush green hills and fields that surround villages on the northwestern edge of the constituency, which he called Bristol’s “eastern lung”. Half the parish he lives in would be built on if the housing plans went ahead. “I moved to this area because I didn’t want to live in a built-up urban sprawl.”

He told me fellow residents who feel similarly will be voting either for Bromiley, who is focusing on this issue, or the Green Party candidate Lorraine Francis who is also campaigning to protect green spaces (and to retrofit housing into disused buildings).

Is this tough for a Labour campaign, given Keir Starmer’s planning reforms intend to “ignore” local opposition to redevelopment? Though Egan pointed out that building on the green belt has gone up ten-fold under Conservative governments, he sympathised. “There needs to be a balance to it, because you don’t want to lose the character of what makes your part of Bristol special. Some of the fields are areas where I did cross-country, so I feel very connected to it, so I completely understand it.”

He emphasised that brownfield sites should be first for development, and where there would be further housebuilding, the requisite infrastructure needed to be included. “Labour is saying it will give local authorities more clout to get a better deal from developers – so if a doctor’s surgery’s been agreed, for example, they need to build that.”

Labour won a by-election in the semi-rural shire Tory seat of Mid Bedfordshire last year, despite Starmer’s firm stance on housebuilding – something that delighted strategists at the time. Nevertheless, all those I spoke to in the party about their chances in Kingswood were careful to play them down (our own model, Britain Predicts, forecasts a Labour win over the Tories by 44 per cent to 32 per cent).

The southwest isn’t a traditional Labour battleground. It holds six of the 60-odd constituencies in the region. What would it mean, then, to win Kingswood? “It means we’re on track,” said Bryant.

It could also augur the fall of Brexiteer and right-wing agitator Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose neighbouring seat of North East Somerset will merge with some of Kingswood in the boundary changes. If Labour can win in Rees-Mogg country, this could be the site of another Portillo Moment come the general election.

[See also: How indecision turned toxic for Labour in Rochdale]

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