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From activists to councillors: the local election candidates taking the plunge into party politics

With a new committee system about to give councillors more power, the Cable spoke to some of the new faces hoping to take their desire for change to City Hall. 

Head and shoulders shots of three female and one male candidate in Bristol's 2024 local elections
Local Elections 2024

“I thought campaigning can only go so far, I need to actually be in the room when these decisions are made.”

This is what dawned on campaigner Danica Priest, when her concerns about the environmental impact of a housing development in south Bristol were ignored. After making a name for herself over the past few years fighting to protect green space from housing developments, she is now running to be a Green councillor at this week’s local elections in Bristol. 

Priest, who has been undeterred by having her finger bitten off by a dog while out canvassing, is one of a number of people taking the plunge into party politics after being involved in activism and community organising. With Bristol about to bin its mayoral system in favour of a new committee model where councillors have more power, what are the hopes and fears for this crop of fresh faces who may be entering City Hall for the first time?

‘I wouldn’t be a single-issue councillor’

Danica Priest is standing for the Green Party in Filwood, which elected two Labour councillors back in 2021.

Priest, who is running for the Green Party in Filwood, says it’s important she maintains her independence and freedom to say what she wants as a councillor: “With the Greens not being whipped, that helped make that decision,” she says of the relative freedom to speak out the party allows its representatives.

Despite her rise to prominence rallying against plans to build housing on green spaces south of the river, she tells the Cable she is determined to not become a one-hit wonder. “As a campaigner, you only have one issue,” Priest says. “So I wanted to make sure that standing as a councillor, I wouldn’t be a single-issue councillor, that there were other things that I needed to focus on.”

She has been a strong critic of outgoing mayor Marvin Rees. “The way that politics has been done in Bristol is one of the reasons why I decided to run,” Priest adds. “I don’t feel like campaigners or residents are treated fairly – there’s a massive lack of transparency. 

“Also, there’s just a really toxic environment for anyone that does speak out,” she continues, referring to heated exchanges between campaigners and the mayor. “Anyone that does have any kind of valid criticism of the current administration gets bullied and vilified and treated terribly when they go to meetings and that shouldn’t be the case.”

‘Gearing up for cross-party cooperation’

Ellie Freeman is running for the Greens in Bedminster.

Also running for the Greens in south Bristol in the local elections is Ellie Freeman, who says the change in political system is one of the reasons she is running for councillor for the first time. “I totally recognise it’s not going to be a bed of roses,” says the Bedminster candidate. “But there will be a changing of the guard and the people coming through will hopefully be more geared up for that cross-party cooperation. 

“There’s a lot of thinking happening about different scenarios and trying to learn from other councils about what has worked elsewhere,” she adds.

Freeman’s involvement in community work in Bedminster stems from working for Playing Out, a charity aiming restoring children’s freedom to play in the street, and being the chair of Action Greater Bedminster (AGB) for the last five years. During her time at AGB, Freeman has led projects to get residents involved in conversations about the future development of BS3, which is expected to create a population explosion in coming decades. 

“I love bringing people together, being the facilitator and not the leader,” she says. “Being able to enable people to do what they want and see that happen is definitely what motivates me and seeing the impact ripple out.”

One of her priorities is the upcoming liveable neighbourhood for BS3 that will restrict traffic across three wards. “It will be really crucial for councillors to work together,” she says. “I will be a big advocate for making sure that process is really fair and transparent and thorough because there’s worry about it.”

As we speak over Zoom, she is interrupted by her son on his Easter holidays – a reminder of the need to balance political ambitions with family life. Councillors elected on 2 May will be paid an allowance of nearly £17,000, so many will also have to work on top of representing their constituents. 

“I’m going to have to continue to balance it all,” she says. “I have a supportive partner and the kids are getting a bit older and more independent, so hopefully it will be fine! Others are doing it, I know it’s challenging but it can be done.”

‘We need to debate substance not sensationalism’

Henry Palmer is running for Labour in St George Central

Across the city, Henry Palmer is standing for a different party in the local elections, but echoes some of the same sentiments about the state of political debate in Bristol. 

Palmer, who is standing for Labour in St George Central, the part of the city he grew up in, has been involved in activism for years, around housing rights, the gig economy and setting up the People’s Comedy, which he describes as “revolutionary comedy” that platforms non-commercial acts. 

“Party politics can be quite vulnerable to fallacies being made by one party against another – straw man arguments,” Palmer says. “As soon as one party does that it can open the floodgate for others. If I am elected, one of the things I’ll be a steadfast supporter of is to aim to not be fallacious and base arguments on substance. 

“I don’t think X [formerly known as Twitter] is a particularly healthy platform for local democratic political discussion,” he adds. “It feeds off fear, which is counter to democratic discussion… It’s inherently flawed.”

Going from activist to councillor is a huge switch-up, says Palmer, who ran for the Hotwells and Harbourside ward in 2021, coming in third behind the Greens and Lib Dems. 

“One of the things to consider going from an activist background going into party politics is accountability,” he goes on. “I love activism and I love activists – it’s key to democracy – but I think where activists are plagued by the injustices they see in the world, to some degree they benefit from not needing to be as accountable to a body of voters.”

Palmer says it’s local issues around flytipping, illegally parked cars, clean air and transport that are coming up most on the doorstep, rather than national politics – other than a desire to send a message of anger to the Conservative government. 

‘I’m sceptical about how the committee system will work’

Wendy Baverstock is running for Labour in Tory-held Henbury and Brentry

Another Labour candidate wanting to see change in their local community is Wendy Baverstock, who runs Henbury and Brentry Community Centre. She received recognition for her contribution to vital community work during the pandemic, including delivering food to families in need, including winning BBC Radio Bristol’s Making a difference award.

But after years of grinding to make a difference, she hopes this year’s local elections will allow her to take the fight for her local community to City Hall. 

“One of the reasons why I wanted to stand for councillor is to get more investment in the area – there’s definitely the need here,” she tells the Cable. Despite providing a community cafe and operating as a welcoming space for people to come to as part of the council’s city-wide scheme, her centre lacks core funding so is reliant on volunteers. 

For Baverstock, the council’s role in the pandemic response shows the value of the mayoral model that can make decisions quickly when you can’t afford to dilly-dally. “The decisions were instantaneous,” she says. “There is no talking about it on committees, so I’m very sceptical about how this committee system is going to work, which is another reason why I want to get involved in the council.”

After years of Tory councillors being elected in Henbury and Brentry, Baverstock says local community assets like the community centre don’t have enough backing from Tory councillors, Mark Weston and Chris Windows, who have represented the area for nearly 20 years. 

“What I’m noticing is that there’s a lot of people totally disillusioned with politics – or they are so annoyed with the Conservative government for not holding the [general] election, so they’re either going to not vote at all or they’re gonna vote Labour because they’re angry,” she says. “National politics is going to have a massive impact on the local elections this time.” 

Alongside driving much-needed investment for the area, Baverstock is especially passionate about tackling food waste and finding renewable energy alternatives for the area. 

Hopes and fears for after the local elections

But what do the others hope and fear about their potential transition from activists and community workers to councillors, once the results of the local elections are announced on Friday? 

Palmer is determined to contribute to a less sensationalist debate at City Hall, which is  important for “healthy political discourse and democracy”, by avoiding the trap of questioning the intentions of his political opponents, and “making the arguments from a Labour perspective, according to my own principles”.

For Freeman, central to running for councillor this local elections is her desire to use her privileged situation to help others. “I grew up in a single parent family on benefits, a lot of people won’t see that because I’ve come out of that and I’m in a massively different situation now. There’s something about having been there and the luck of how things have panned out that I want to give back and use this position that I’ve found myself in for good.” 

“My biggest fear is disappointing people, you can’t please everyone,” says Priest. “My hope is that I will be able to amplify voices in south Bristol that have been ignored for so long… As a resident of this area, I was not listened to, so I know what it’s like when you’re trying to raise issues, the same issues keep coming up, promises are made and nothing’s done.”

*This article was amended to reflect the fact that Henry Palmer used the word ‘fallacious’ not ‘salacious’.

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