Can the Greens reach out beyond their liberal middle-class heartland to secure a victory? Joe Smith spoke with Darren Hall, the Green Party candidate for Bristol West 2015.
Colourful murals stare down from crumbling buildings and music splashes out of trendy cafes as I pedal my way down Stokes Croft. This steadily gentrifying bohemian district belongs to the Parliamentary constituency of Bristol West. The most populous of the city’s four constituencies, Bristol West stretches from the affluent suburbs of Clifton to the deprivation and tower blocks of Lawrence Hill, via the student bars and pop-up bakeries of Stokes Croft. I am on my way to meet the man who hopes to persuade this diverse group to vote Green in 2015.
Green candidate Darren Hall greets me amid towering stacks of party newspapers at the Green’s Bristol office. Strategic sticky notes reading ‘TTIP’ and ‘NHS’ adorn the walls of the small room as volunteers shuffle bundles of leaflets. Hall is sharp-featured, well dressed and keyed-up. “I have to dash off in half an hour for a TV spot on the Daily Politics” he apologises while digging out a chair for me.
He sounds like he can’t quite believe he’s saying things like that.
From civil servant to MP candidate
Hall moved to Bristol over a decade ago to work for the Home Office before leading Bristol’s successful bid to be European Green Capital. He left after responsibility for the event was handed over to private company Bristol 2015 Ltd. So how did he go from being a civil servant to the Green’s best hope for a second MP?
“When I left I met up with [Green councillor] Gus Hoyt and said, ‘Hey I’ve got some time on my hands. How can I help?'” explains Hall. “And Gus said, ‘Ever thought about running for MP?’ A month later we won three more seats in local elections, one of which had more Green votes—in that one ward—than we’d polled in the whole constituency in 2010. All of a sudden Bristol West got catapulted up to the top of the league tables for the national Green Party and we found ourselves as the number two target seat.”
Where did this surge in support come from? Hall puts it down to “the Lib Dems selling their souls to the Conservatives—a five year gagging order in effect” combined with the fact that “people have realised that the current system is pretty broken… Labour isn’t much different to the others.”
That may be so but Labour claim voting Green will split the left-wing vote and help the Conservatives. Hall is quick to answer on this point.
“Tactical voting got us where we are now and look, that’s not great is it?
We’re saying to people: vote for what you believe in. And look what happens when you do—Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion has had a massive impact on the Green agenda in parliament.”
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing in Brighton. The Lib Dem party literature arriving on doormats across Bristol West trumpets the failure of Brighton’s Green-led council to tackle recycling among other issues. At one point a dispute over wages between Brighton Council and refuse collectors resulted in a strike. Green MP Caroline Lucas supported the bin men, joining them in opposing the Greens sitting on the council. Clearly, the tensions between the appealing party policies put forward by the Greens—namely being anti-austerity—and the realities of being a party in local government following the directives of Whitehall has its problems. What did Hall make of that: could a Green win in Bristol lead to similarly chaotic scenes?
Hall claims that the strife in Brighton is down to the fact that Green politicians are allowed to disagree and follow their consciences.
“There are nearly always two sides to a discussion and it’s right and proper that on occasion we disagree. However, by the time you get to the point at which you’re making decisions to deliver public services of course we need to be able to have a mature decision-making process. We are already discussing between local councillors and the constituency level how this might work in Bristol. Brighton’s been a learning experience but we’re not going to make the same mistakes here.”
Sure enough, the Green Party got more votes in the one ward of Bishopston in last year’s council elections, than for Bristol West as a whole in the 2010 general elections.
And what of recent criticisms of the Greens, most notably in a scathing Telegraph article, that Green Party policies are wishy-washy and aren’t properly costed?
Hall responds by describing the democratic way in which the Green party creates policies—using the example of a piece of policy drafted by the Bristol Greens and then voted into the national party’s manifesto at the spring conference. “That’s how democracy—genuine bottom-up democracy—works. And that sort of visionary process is what’s captured in our PSS (Policies for a Sustainable Society—The Green Manifesto). Some of it is quite old and needs refreshing and we absolutely acknowledge that—but it’s a visionary document. It’s a long-term direction of travel.”
“We have over the last few years worked towards having a fully-costed manifesto in acknowledgement of the fact that we’re now moving towards being a mainstream party. But it’s lazy journalism that doesn’t bother to understand that process and then throw out some stereotypical, generalised arguments. On one level we’re kind of glad we’ve prompted their attention…
What’s the phrase? First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then you win.”
I don’t mention the “then they fight you” bit . Have the Greens have reached the laughing-at stage and is Hall hoping that winning comes next?
“Absolutely” laughs Hall, “this May.”
Darren has to rush off to appear on The Daily Politics. Is he getting used to the publicity yet? “I wake up every morning and pinch myself” he grins “and I think shit, is this real?”
However, for the Green Party to be “real” in Bristol West, Darren will have to do more than just capture the votes of disenfranchised Liberal Democrats and Stokes Crofters. With the Green Party nationally having fewer ethnic minority candidates than any other major party, including UKIP, it has its work cut out in the diverse constituency of Bristol West.
From St. Pauls and Lawrence Hill to Redcliffe, traditional Labour voters and first timers will be asking whether the Greens, whilst undoubtedly coming up with progressive policies, are more than a party of the liberal middle-classes. We’ll see if the Greens can make the case that they are worth voting for, not just because they are different to the others, but positively different.