The issues that have been raised on the doorstep during the campaign have tended to be local ones – from concerns over new housing developments to the state of the pavements and plans to increase fees paid by people who live on boats in the harbour.
But a council byelection taking place at Bristol city council on Thursday may have national implications should the Green party manage to pinch the ward from the Lib Dems.
If the Greens do win – and they lost last time to the Lib Dems by only 26 votes – they would become the biggest party on Bristol city council, which they say would be a significant shift and one they believe would put them in pole position to eventually win power at city hall and a parliamentary seat at the next general election.
“It does feel like an important moment,” said Carla Denyer, the co-leader of the Green party in England and Wales and herself a Bristol city councillor, speaking while out on the campaign trail in the ward, Hotwells and Harbourside.
“For a start, it would be part of the trend of the Greens making gains here. The Greens are already the joint biggest group on Bristol city council with 24 councillors, the same as Labour. We know there’s a massive appetite for Green politics in Bristol.”
Bristol is traditionally thought of as a Labour city but the Greens drew level, at least as far as the number of councillors was concerned, in May 2021. It means they already have more councillors in Bristol than in any other local authority.
However, it did not lead to access to the levers of power as Bristol has a Labour directly elected mayor, Marvin Rees, and he resisted calls for Greens to be given cabinet posts. “He could have chosen to have a cross-party cabinet – he opted to have a 100% Labour cabinet,” said Denyer. She does not expect much to change immediately if the Greens win on Thursday. “I’m not holding my breath that he will hand over the keys of the city.”
But major changes are afoot with the city voting last year to scrap the mayoral role, returning to a committee system from 2024. How this will work is being hammered out but a win at this byelection, followed by strong showings at the next council elections in May 2024, will help the Green cause.
“I do think the direction of travel demonstrated by Green results in the last few elections shows Bristol is ready to give Greens power,” said Denyer. “There’s a change of the guard in the air.”
Denyer is also the Green’s MP candidate for Bristol West. In the 2019 general election she came second, nearly doubling the Greens’ previous vote share.
Of the 20 councillors in Bristol West, 16 are Greens and winning in Hotwells and Harbourside would make it 17. “It would a boost to our chances of winning the Bristol West seat,” said Denyer.
She was out with the candidate for Hotwells and Harbourside, Patrick McAllister, who works locally in legal services, trying to persuade a few last “undecideds” that Green was the way to go.
McAllister said he was determined to secure a fairer, greener future for his ward and the city. “People talk about those local issues – the housing developments, the boat charges and so on, but also about things like council tax going up and how they afford it at a time of a cost of living crisis.”
The campaign has not been without controversies. The scandal of flammable cladding affects many residents in the ward, including the Labour candidate, Eileen Means, who has said resolving the issue will be her top priority.
The Lib Dem’s Hotwells candidate, Stephen Williams, a former UK government junior minister in the Cameron-Clegg coalition, has accused the Greens of trying to “smear” him during the campaign by suggesting he could have done more to address fire safety issues when he was in power. “It shows how desperate they are.”
Williams, who was Bristol West MP from 2005 to 2015 and has previously served as a city councillor, claimed the Greens had not really focused on important local issues during the campaign, such as plans to build hundreds of new harbourside homes and a controversial road scheme.
“Almost the entire focus of their campaign has been: ‘Give us another councillor, then we’ll be really big’ and they’ve hardly been talking about local issues. There are 50 things they could have campaigned on. I’m puzzled. Ironically, they’ve been producing an avalanche of leaflets, a forest of them.”
Thecandidates for the byelection are: Stephen Williams (Lib Dem), Patrick McAllister (Green), Eileen Means (Labour), Eliana Barbosa (Conservative), Martin Booth (Independent).