We arrived at 10 on the hour to meet Thangam Debbonaire, Labour candidate for Bristol West, at her house in St Werburgh’s. Adam’s phone was ringing as he reached for the doorbell: a campaign team member checking our precise location and expected timings. Once our location — the other side of the door — was ascertained, we were ushered into a packed living room.
After some intense political debate, in which we were quickly embroiled, the teams were ushered out, departing in streams to canvass on the doors. Calm descended as we sat on her sofas: a rare moment for a candidate on the short campaign not spent on the doors, phones or podium.
Looking at the 2010 results for the seat, Bristol West is by no means an obvious marginal. The Liberal Democrat MP won in 2010 with a 11,366 vote majority. Labour, though, do not see it as a safe seat. And with some good reason. “You could think of it as a safe Lib Dem seat,” mused Debbonaire. “But it ain’t. He knows it.”
The seat has received a great deal of media coverage (on which incumbent Stephen Williams shared some strong views with us). Evidently, others share the view that there’s more to the race here than a substantial Lib Dem majority. But much of that coverage has not been directed at the possible rise of Labour. Rather, it’s the fact that the seat is second only to Brighton Pavilion on the Green Party’s target list.
When asked, Debbonaire is reflective on the topic of the Greens — though it wouldn’t be surprising if she were rather tired of hearing about them. Most national coverage of the seat focuses extensively on their activity here, although it’s Labour who lead in the polls.
“People are thinking about voting Green for all sorts of reasons. There are a few who say I’m absolutely voting Green, you won’t shift me. That’s fine. I completely respect that. But the majority I speak to, they’re thinking about it, toying with it.”
It seems that talking these voters round is a fairly enjoyable task for someone evidently to the left on the political spectrum (though she’s not too keen on the left/right dichotomy; more on which later).
“So those voters, I try and find out what their thinking is. One thing I’ve said to a lot of women, if they’re like me and interested in issues of gender equality, is that the Labour party passed domestic violence legislation, passed the Equal Pay Act. We have a track record of bringing more women into parliament. So a lot of my friends have been saying that Caroline Lucas is a great feminist. But so is the Labour party.”
Voters’ reasons for going Green are many and varied — and bringing them back to the Labour fold, or into the fold for the first time, requires a flexible approach. “Some of it, then, has been about finding if people want a more radical politics. And that doesn’t have to be about traditional left and right. It can be a focus on equalities. The Labour party’s founding values are about equalities. That’s just one example. I will listen to what they’re saying.”
In positioning herself against the Greens, Debbonaire talks not just about policy issues, but a fundamentally different way of doing politics. Chris Williamson, Labour candidate and 2010 MP for Derby North, tellingly brought up quite similar themes when we spoke to him about Labour/Green dynamics.
“The Greens have a policy of no party whip. Now, some people think that’s great. Fine. What it means is when you vote Green party, you don’t know if your Green MP will vote with their manifesto, or what you see on their website, or not.”
This is in contrast to the Labour approach. “We believe in collective decision-making. When we’re making a decision, we yell at each other, we challenge each other, we might argue with each other, but once we’ve made a policy decision, we back each other up. I think that’s how you get big change done.”
There’s been an Ashcroft poll of Bristol West since we met Debbonaire on 19th April, which confirms that the Greens are an important part of the story. In this poll at least, they beat incumbent Lib Dem Stephen Williams by 5 points. Debbonaire came in first, though, and quite comfortably so.
Bristol West went red in the New Labour heyday of 1997, breaking the Conservatives’ 112 year grip on the seat. Debbonaire draws on her Labour predecessor’s track record, when boosting the progressive creds of her party. “Valerie [Davey] used her time in Parliament to do some really radical things: the most single redistributive piece of legislation I think anybody did in the last Labour government, which was the Educational Maintenance Allowance. She was one of the key backbench MPs behind that, but I don’t think anyone knows that. It was a massive redistribution of wealth from rich to poor that we didn’t take anywhere near enough credit for.”
Not taking enough credit for policies under New Labour becomes a bit of a theme. “We didn’t do a good enough job in the last parliament of saying, ‘We were massively redistributive, and about social justice.’ We didn’t boast about SureStart, we didn’t boast about EMA. We should have done. Because I think certainly, in this constituency, these are things that most voters across the political divide valued. For all their flaws in administration, [those programs] and the system of tax credits were amazing. They transformed the lives of so many millions of people in this country and we never took enough credit for it.”
Another theme to our conversation was the idea that Bristol West is unusual politically because of something distinctive about its residents’ values. “This is a very broadly, social justice and environmental justice focused population. And that transcends the richest to the poorest. I meet people who vote Tory up in Clifton who nevertheless have very similar values to me.”
While Bristol West might be painted as a sort of universalist haven, the same kind of dynamic is very rare in a Conservative-Lab marginal. Without the two main contenders for Number 10 at each other’s throats, the message is — at least it seems — a bit different. And in a perhaps inevitable turn, it comes back to the environment.
“I no longer feel that notions that left and right are always accurate, but I feel that one of the reasons this constituency is so interesting is that our values are very much about human rights, social justice. This has been an environmentally focused city for as long as I remember.”
When we spoke to the Green candidate Darren Hall, he shared the view that the seat was small-g green before it had any chance of being big-G. Debbonaire doesn’t seem overly threatened by the underlying currents. In fact, she seems quite at home in them.
“This has been the sort of city where you can develop what used to be called an alternative lifestyle, what I would prefer to call trying to build a better way of life. It’s the sort of city where it’s no surprise that allotments have always been used, that lots of green industries have been developed.”
What, then, is driving the radical change in the seat indicated by polls since 2010, if it’s always been that way? “I don’t notice a discernible shift in values”, Debbonaire says. “What I’ve noticed is that voters have a changed interpretation of where to put their cross.” Diplomatically put.
From all this, you’d be forgiven for seeing the seat as a Left stronghold: a Lib/Lab/ Green marginal certainly suggests that. But this leftism is quite a modern phenomenon. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, the seat was Conservative for 112 years. But Debbonaire tells us that even in those latter years of Conservatism, Bristol West was a quite distinctive shade of blue.
“When I first moved here we had a Tory MP who was very much opposed to Section 28. That was remarkable. One of the reasons I had quite a lot of time for William Waldegrave is that he went out against his party’s line on Section 28. He knew it was wrong. He was also very well aware that this constituency has a high LGBT population. So he was aware that he needed to represent the views of his constituency in a way that was obviously going to be challenging for him politically.”
What all this chopping and changing between parties certainly brings is a sense that complacency is extremely dangerous here. And the notorious voter apathy of 2015 is, Debbonaire believes, less prevalent in Bristol West than in many other seats.
“I hear from candidates in other [presumably safe] seats that it’s either us [Labour] or apathy,” she tells us. “That’s less the case here. Candidates in other seats are still starting conversations with ‘did you know there’s a general election coming up?’ I never have to say that in Bristol West. Someone yesterday was quite sarcastic to me when I asked them whether they’d though about the election.”
Another interesting feature of the seat is its hugely varying demographics. “You do have one of the poorest wards in the country and one of the wealthiest, all in the same seat,” Debbonaire says. This has implications for the seat’s marginality.
“People in Lawrence Hill are very rarely going to vote Tory. People who vote Tory will typically live in Clifton, though not completely. So that makes it marginal because you’ve got core votes for right and left, and then everybody in the middle — I meet so many voters that have voted every which way.”
Drilling down into the stereotypes of many of these areas, though, produces a more nuanced picture.
“It’s even more mixed here than you realise. And you don’t realise, until you door-knock. People think about St Werburgh’s as being a load of hippies in terraces, but there are two council estates on my doorstep. When I moved here it was a working class area, and I moved here because the houses were cheap. There was then a housing grant, property prices went up, and that changed the demographic to an extent. So there are hidden populations. Clifton has got two housing estates in it. People don’t realise that, the Cliftonites often don’t realise it.”
Canvassing a constituency like this, with such a varied population, and which is subject to such sea changes, seems like an overwhelming task. It’s a challenge, though, that the Labour team are throwing a great deal of resources — the most significant of which being time— into. “I can’t remember life before I was selected,” Debbonaire tells us, with the kind of smile that suggests that she’s only half-joking. “We’ve been canvassing solidly for three years (I was selected in 2012) so there can’t be many people left in this constituency who haven’t seen my face.”
The campaign is overseen with a strong hand, it seems; though the team we met were so fired up that it was hard to tell if much external motivation was needed. Rigid organisation, does, though, abound.
“We have a rule that nobody sits about the office. We don’t do it. I don’t normally sit still for this long, unless I’m on the phones. We go out and talk to people. And if they’re apathetic, we try and find out why. I don’t dismiss someone who says they’re not interested, unless they exercise their democratic right to insist that they do not want to talk.”
Debbonaire is candid about her experience of running — her first attempt at public office, having worked first as a professional cellist and then also in the field of domestic violence.
“No matter how much you think about it, how much preparation you do, you have no idea what it’s going to be like, how much hard work it will be, how much you’re going to be going to bed every night for three years thinking ‘I could have done more today.’ Every day, I wake up thinking, ‘It’s already 6am, I could have been answering emails.’ Nothing could have prepared me — even standing before, because this is so much a different election.”
The undeniably well-oiled machine that is up and running here obviously didn’t come about in an ad-hoc way. Debbonaire tells us that the central Labour office set her performance targets “on everything. They’re negotiated. I signed off on my own campaign plan. And it was a challenging plan. It was about those things like building up my ward campaign teams, what campaigns I wanted to run, building up the level of activism, making sure that ward teams had organisers that could run their own campaigns. Raising my public profile, how many people I’d spoken to.”
For any budding future politicians out there, her words of advice were less about following dreams, and more about the rigorous pragmatics. “A tip that I’d pass on to the next generation of candidates would be: infrastructure. Pay a lot of attention early on.” This comes from experience. “As soon as I had five [out of nine designated ward teams] sorted out, I realised what a huge difference it makes. Because you shift from being the person that’s doing everything, to the person that’s managing and supporting people and getting on with deciding who I want to be as a candidate, an MP, what are my key campaigning issues.”
She continues, “To be really bogged down early on in the infrastructure is very challenging. Because you don’t lift your eyes above the horizon to think about what you’ll be doing as an MP. As soon as I had the infrastructure sorted out it became much more energising, because I could think about what difference an MP makes.”
So what difference does she think an MP can make? The answer was not quite the starry-eyed sell that might be expected.
“On your own? Nothing. What you can do with other people is the real measure. It’s tempting to be really arrogant and think ‘I can fix this, I can fix that.’ No you can’t. But, you bring people together. We have already been meeting with housing associations, builders, property developers, landowners, tenants groups, because we want to fix the housing problem Monday May 11th.
“As an MP, you can be the person who says, ‘We’re going to fix this difficult problem. We’re not just going to sit around talking about it’.”