Looking at the 2010 result alone, Bristol West could be considered a safe Liberal seat — with a majority of over 11,000 — and a straight Lib/Lab fight. In the last 15 years, though, it’s been held by all three of what were then the major parties. Before then, the seat was held by the Conservatives for over 100 years.
In 2015, the race has been thrown open by the collapse in the Lib Dem vote and the intervention of the a fourth force: the Green Party. At the 2010 general election, the Greens in Bristol West got just 3.8% of the vote. So what’s happened since then to make this the second target seat for the Greens?
Darren Hall, the Green candidate for Bristol West, had a long and a short answer to the question — as he did for most. The short? “Electing local councillors”.
“After we got the first one we replicated that in two or three other areas, and grew it bit by bit. Tim Malnick and Martin Fodor were elected on more local votes in their ward than we got in the entire constituency in 2010. When I got the nomination last May, we had three local councillors, and it was at that point that I think something clicked.”
“Now I can’t tell you if that was people genuinely looking at the local councillors and thinking ‘we want more of them’, or a broader shift in people’s consciousness about — shit, we need to do something different here. Probably it was a bit of both.”
“That set the scene really: not only for people to get used to what a Green councillor was going to stand for, but also to provide a model of how they went about it. On a ward team we have a candidate, a ward manager, bunch of volunteers hitting the ground and just bombarding — talking to locals, handing out leaflets, fairly standard stuff.”
This model for growing the Green voter base closely resembles the campaign methods of the major parties. But what’s remarkable about the Green campaign is the speed with which it’s yielded more support. The same strategy would not have produced such remarkable results in other parts of the country. There’s evidently something about Bristol West that has made it such fertile territory for the #GreenSurge.
The cafe in Stokes Croft in which we met with Hall has a history rooted in the small-g green movement in Bristol, which pre-existed the political party’s strength in the area. The street is populated with pop up stores and eco-conscious cafes, many of which are covered in murals by noted street artists — often lurid, often beautiful, and sometimes both. It’s not a bad place to start when looking to understand the constituency’s distinctiveness.
The Canteen began as an informal meeting place in the previously unoccupied office block Hamilton House. “Powered” by social enterprise Coexist, Hamilton House was gradually taken over by collectives with various artistic and social leanings. It’s now a focal point for the community in Stokes Croft, which is also home to the Tesco store of Tesco Riots fame.
The green movement isn’t just confined to Stokes Croft. Bristol is the Green capital of Europe for 2015, and was the UK’s only shortlisted city. The city council has a target of reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2020, it’s home to the Soil Association, and has its own energy cooperative.
So the green credentials of the area aren’t just superficial — but they aren’t just a millenial phenomenon, either. “Bristol has differentiated itself form the other core cities for quite some time”, Hall tells me. “In the late 60s, early 70s there were just enough people involved in green issues here — plus some that came down from London, for example George Ferguson and Alastair Sawday — to set Bristol on a slightly different path.”
The party’s poor showing at previous general elections seems discrepant to the city’s cultural identity, then. This was picked up on by the Green leadership: Hall says that 2012 was an important year for the party here, when Caroline Lucas visited and identified the area’s potential. But why did it take so long to make the connection?
“Frankly it’s because the Green party locally hadn’t made enough progress. As soon as they did, people were saying ‘yep, now we’ll vote for you'”
It isn’t just collectivists and lifelong greens who are supporting — and being targeted by — the party. Bristol West’s political mainstream is left-leaning as well as its fringes. The current Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams won with 48% of the vote in 2010. Labour were second with 28%, and the Conservatives third at 18%.
With a significant student population likely to rebuke the Lib Dems for their U-turn on tuition fees, as well as broader unease with respect to coalition compromises, some redistribution of votes is inevitable. And the more radical stance of the Greens – and their track record of maintaining an independent voice in parliament – is, Hall argues, advantageous in this seat.
“In Bristol West we’ve got probably 2/3rds of the constituency that are highly educated and values-based in their voting. The constituency has a large portion of ethnic minorities who also have a good understanding of what’s going on globally, either as second generation Bristolians or because of their own experiences in different countries. UKIP’s going to get nowhere here – that’s so far from the mentality in Bristol West”
This is perhaps a little over-confident. UKIP were only 4 points behind the Greens in their vote-share at the most recent city council elections. But the point stands that the majority of voters in Bristol West are left of centre – and the Greens’ strongly redistributive economic stance certainly sets it apart from the mainstream parties.
Green fiscal policies include a universal Citizen’s Income – “an unconditional, non-withdrawable income payable to each individual as a right of citizenship” – and allowing negative economic growth in pursuit of sustainability, so long as it doesn’t cause “hardship”. You might think this would divide opinion considering the socioeconomic makeup of Bristol West – but Hall believes otherwise.
“Yes, we have some of the biggest health and wealth disparity within a single constituency in the country. You’ve got Lawrence Hill on the one hand, with 40% child poverty, and then you’ve got Clifton at the other end that almost has more private school than state school places.”
“But the people in that area are very aware of that disparity; they’re the kind of people who will vote to bring it down. I think that’s why the Conservatives don’t do very well in Bristol West. A lot of people here believe, and we believe, in being paid on performance — wages can be differential — but they have that sense of a limit. And I think that’s why, even in those wealthier areas, we’re picking up votes.”
Some voters still challenge the idea that the Green agenda is credible, though.
“There’s that sense of stereotyping the Green agenda which we still get asked about on the doorstep. People who are bumping into it for the first time pick out our crazy stuff. We’ve seen it in the press a bit recently, they’re saying ‘aren’t you trying to shut down zoos?’. And I think that we have moved on from that.”
Hall also admits that some voters considering going Green are concerned by the idea that it’s a wasted vote. Tactical voters see the seat as a Lib Lab contest, and expect the erosion in Lib Dem support to make the election much more marginal than in 2010. This is a difficult argument to address, but with the example of Caroline Lucas as a well-respected MP for Brighton Pavilion, Hall believes the door is open to replicate Lucas’ success in Bristol West.
With current polls indicating that no party is likely to achieve a national majority at the next election, a hung parliament is a probable outcome. This adds an additional layer of complexity to left-leaning voters’ decisions in Bristol West: detracting from a possible Labour plurality nationally could influence whether or not a left of centre government can be formed.
If elected MP, Hall is open to the idea of lending fluid support to a minority government; but not to a formal, whipped agreement. “Where we’re at the moment is not about going into coalition, it’s about a vote by vote conversation”, Hall tells me. He’s by no means a detractor of the concept of coalition in general; merely the way that it was realised between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.
“It’s unfortunate that the idea of Coalition is now coming under so much scrutiny, because of what has happened since 2010. My own personal view is that when they signed that agreement at the beginning of the 5 years, it was like a gagging order. The poor old Lib Dems have suffered every single day for not being able to go out in public and say “we believe this, and we’ve done this”.
“I do think that people like Ed Davy and others have actually done some really good work, but that’s why I wouldn’t want to be in that kind of coalition. I’d want to be in a coalition where we could say “there is a genuine kind of political debate where I can stand up and openly agree with my colleague from another party.”
“People will trust that as an authentic agreement; because on the other hand, on different issues I’ll stand there and say ‘he’s talking absolute bollocks, I will not stand by and let that go through!”
On the national agenda, Hall identifies a few core areas where he sees a real prospect for collaboration with Labour. “We’ve got very similar concerns regarding issues such as housing, planning, and transport. Somewhere in the region of 200-300 people are applying for every social housing position that becomes available in Bristol, and I’m sure that’s true elsewhere. Equally, you can barely get through a conversation here without a comment on how bad the transport is.”
“We’re very happy to work with them on issues like this, but we will ask that they allow us to experiment with new methods.”
With this idea of innovative methods for delivering policies comes a belief in the need for further devolution away from Westminster. Though policies like the Citizens Income increase the power of the central state, much of what’s on the Green agenda is to do with decentralising power; but by placing it in the hands of cities and social enterprises, rather than with privately operated contractors.
The devolution agenda is highly relevant for Bristol – which, as Hall earlier remarked, has differentiated itself from the other core cities in terms of both its cultural, political and economic identities.
“Bristol as a city could look after itself much better if it had greater powers. This hypocrisy from Cameron about wanting greater powers from Europe but not handing them over locally has got to be challenged”
It’s clear that Hall’s local concerns in Bristol feed into the national — and international — framework of laws and regulation , and that they are part of a wider worldview. It’s also clear that partisanship isn’t a value he adheres to. But the Green’s haven’t yet surged across the country. There are many areas with a strong tradition of left-leaning politics in which the Greens have little to no traction.
This skewed geographical distribution of support is reflected in the Green target seats: Norwich South, Bristol West and Brighton Pavilion are all southern seats with a strong Lib Dem showing. So we asked Hall: do the Greens have a problem in the North?
“I think local action will start to spread. I went to Derby recently to talk to a load of people there, and there is that same sense there that there was here 5 years ago. The local parties now need to put in the hard work, get out there and get on the doorsteps.”
“Of course, it’s harder to differentiate in Green/Labour areas because our positions are so similar around the NHS, around rail networks, around those sorts of things. But we are picking up support there, because we’re being so much clearer about it.”
Hall is sanguine about what this might mean in the longer term. “If we’re really starting to take from their vote, Labour might realise what’s happening and then start to swerve back. I think that’s why people are saying we’re the UKIP of the Left.”
Rather than interpreting this as cautionary against encroaching too much on Labour’s territory, Hall is encouraged by the fact that the Green’s might impact on the strategies and positions of more mainstream parties. “I think if we can influence that debate on the Left, that’s great — even though it might then make it harder for the Greens to make progress. Having said that, things like fracking do help. When people start drilling under people’s houses there will be issues. And that will play into our hands.”
While taking on fracking might allow the Greens a rare opportunity to combine environmentalism with populism, opposing other forms of energy intensive industry might not. In many of the areas in which Green social and economic policy might go down well, Leftism is historically rooted in heavy industries which have provided jobs and formed the basis for many communities.
Given the Greens’ opposition to fossil fuels and nuclear power, as well as industries powered by non-green energy sources, will they struggle to gain real support from people who depend or have depended on those jobs?
This gives Hall pause for thought; but resource scarcity will, he says, bring about inevitable shifts in employment. “If you’re currently working with copper, there is going to be very little copper left in a few years’ time. Our economy is changing forever. Approaching those resource scarcity issues, industry is just going to be different.”
“One person’s waste is another person’s input, and that brilliant engineering expertise — that ability to take stuff fix it, and put it back out — is important. We can either sit back and gripe about the fact that there’s no longer any heavy industry, or we can start retraining people.”
Hall voices bewilderment at the current level of state investment in research and development: “I do not understand why Osborne hasn’t piled more money into low carbon technology. He could have achieved two really important things. He could have created millions of Green jobs, in a way that would meet the demands of the Green agenda and the Labour agenda.”
The Greens frequently set themselves apart from the political establishment through direct critiques, proposing radical policies, and sometimes as as a matter of cultural identity. There are some trappings, though, that no politician can escape. Hall reflected on this, as we sat looking out on Stokes Croft.
“I used to hate politicians, for exactly the same reasons that everybody else did. My one fear is that once you’ve said that you’re going to be a politician, it seems to give people the sense that they have the right to be incredibly abusive and rude. The trolling on Twitter and stuff is just unacceptable.”
“Some people have said to me, you need to make sure that you still come across as human. But of course there’s that reticence about coming and saying I’m me, I have flaws, if someone is going to immediately attack you in a personal way. So everybody talks about how thick skinned you need to be, too.”
The road to power, it seems, is paved with paradox for Hall. Amidst the chaos that the advent of fringe parties and the collapse of the Liberal vote is bringing to the 2015 general election, the Greens in Bristol West are pursuing a careful campaign which is quite traditional in its methods, if not in its message — except, of course, for recycled paper leaflets, eco-friendly ink and bicycle delivery.