What Bristol’s Green surge means for progressive politics in the city | Matty Edwards

Labour and the Greens have joint control of the council – now they need to work together

Just hours after Labour’s Marvin Rees won the Bristol mayoralty for a second term, his party lost its council majority, with the Greens gaining an unexpected 13 council seats.

After the Greens came second in the mayoral race, swings from Labour to Green, including in seemingly safe Labour areas, unseated long-serving councillors and cabinet members. Labour had hoped to keep overall control of the council, but the Greens caught them up as the joint-largest party with 24 councillors apiece.

Bristol has voted again for a Labour mayor and helped elect Dan Norris as the new Labour metro mayor for the West of England. The city returned four Labour MPs in 2019, who are yet to be seriously challenged by the Greens at a general election. It’s wrong to say Labour has lost its grip on Bristol, but this is still a major political shift for the city.

It’s hard to draw definite conclusions about what caused this shift: the increasing importance of the climate crisis in voters’ minds, a strong Green campaign and factional infighting disrupting Labour’s one, demographic shifts over the last five years, including rapid gentrification of inner-city areas; some Labour voters being dissatisfied with Keir Starmer’s leadership, or the Labour mayor being a divisive figure? It’s too soon to say which of these had the most impact.

While Bristol is often considered a hotbed of Momentum Corbynites, it’s important to remember that not so long ago the city had both a Tory and a Lib Dem MP, a Lib Dem-controlled council and elected a former Lib Dem independent mayor in 2012. It appears the Greens have attracted voters from Labour’s left, but also people who once voted Lib Dem.

Since Marvin Rees was elected, Bristol has taken action on green issues. A clean air zone will be coming into force in October, charging polluting vehicles to enter the city centre. (The mayor wanted to ban diesel cars from entering, but the government overruled him). The council has consulted on low traffic neighbourhood pilots and closed major city centre roads to through traffic.

In opposition, Green councillors have also made an impact. In 2018, Bristol became the first city to declare a climate emergency, and many other cities have followed suit. As a result, Bristol’s target is to be a carbon neutral city by 2030 – something Marvin Rees recently described as a “massively challenging” but necessary aim.

The Greens have campaigned hard on the protection of green spaces in the building of new housing developments, as the Labour council has been criticised by some for not doing enough to safeguard nature and biodiversity during attempts to tackle the housing crisis.

One theory for the Green surge is an increasing awareness of the need for action on the climate crisis. It seems some voters didn’t see Labour as the green option despite the steps they have taken over the last five years.

Like many local parties nationally, Bristol’s Labour party has also had a chaotic few months, with last-minute replacements of council candidates who were suspended from the party. Labour sources told the Bristol Cable that disillusionment with Labour’s perceived direction, suspensions and candidate selections, which triggered a “campaign strike” by Momentum, had an impact on campaigning in some inner-city wards.

Turnout was just above 40% for both the mayoral and council elections, and as low as 20% in some deprived areas that voted Labour. When engagement with local politics is so low, voters are just as likely to cast their ballot along party lines as along feelings about national politics. Central Bristol is hardly Hartlepool, but it’s possible that leftwing Labour voters felt uninspired by Starmer or the national party’s vision.

This political shift means that there will be more opposition councillors to hold the mayor to account, which could make an already hostile relationship with councillors worse. In recent months, both the mayoral system and Marvin Rees’ management style came under fire, with current and retiring councillors saying he had dodged scrutiny and sidelined the role of elected councillors.

Just a few months before the election, a Labour councillor launched a scathing attack on the mayor and the Labour group, alleging a culture of “fear and bullying”, which was dismissed as a “personal vendetta” by the mayor’s office. That same Labour councillor defected to the Greens, but she missed out on retaining the seat by 16 votes, as the anti-Tory vote was split between Labour and the Greens, allowing the Tories to gain a seat.

Rees has denied the accusations and dismissed criticisms of the mayoral system, saying that before it was introduced the council was a “democratically broken organisation in the city for a long time” which made it hard to get anything done.

The mayor has said a glaring omission has been the lack of discussion around race and class from candidates and the media in this election. When paying tribute to his Labour cabinet members who had lost their seats to Green candidates, including the city’s sole Pakistani councillor, Rees said he was concerned about the election results undermining attempts to make the city’s politicians “genuinely reflect diversity in the city”.

With lots of councillors standing down, more than half of the winning candidates are newly elected, including an 18-year-old Green councillor. Key members of Labour’s cabinet have lost their seats, and now the Greens are calling on Rees to invite at least two of their councillors to form part of a rainbow cabinet.

Bristol is certainly a self-styled progressive, environmentally minded city. This is the opportunity for Labour and the Greens to cooperate on environmental and social justice. But that requires them to work together; the Labour mayor being less confrontational and listening to opposition councillors, and the new group of Green councillors committing to helping him find solutions, rather than scoring political points from the sidelines.


Matty Edwards

The GuardianTramp

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