Keep proper journalism alive. It's time to Back the Cable
The Bristol Cable

None of the above: what are the alternatives for Bristol voters fed up of the big parties?

If you don’t want to vote for Labour, the Greens, the Lib Dems or the Tories, smaller parties and independents are offering options that don’t involve sitting at home or spoiling your ballot.

Local Elections 2024

If you’re a Bristol voter – and especially if you’re within a mile or two of the city centre – you could be forgiven for thinking you only have two choices in Thursday’s local elections.

Labour has been dominant here for eight years under mayor Marvin Rees, and is riding high in the national polls, looking likely to form the next government under Keir Starmer.

Meanwhile the Greens have in fact had the most councillors in the city for more than a year now. They would already have been wielding some power in Bristol were it not for the ‘one person calling the shots’ mayoral model, which will come to an end this week. The party has the wind in its sails at a local level and is attracting attention because one of its councillors, Carla Denyer, is national co-leader and could become an MP when the general election rolls around.

Of course, Tories and Lib Dems could be justified in criticising the idea that Bristol is a two-horse race as a load of bollocks spouted by newcomers living in the inner city. Between them the two parties have only a couple fewer councillors than Labour, concentrated in south Bristol (the last Lib Dem stronghold) and the suburbs that jut out northwest between the Avon and Severn. Still, both parties feel a long way from local power just now.

But what if you don’t fancy any of the above? Have Rees or Starmer ruined red roses for you? Do you fear the Greens are bringing a cucumber to a knife fight? Are the Lib Dems forever tarnished by the coalition government, or Conservatives just beyond the pale? The good news is that in more than half of Bristol’s 34 wards, there are alternative options for your ballot.

‘We’re actually prepared to fight cuts’

Across much of Bristol though, whether that alternative is appealing depends on which side your political bread is buttered. While plenty of national media hot air has been expelled over the scale of damage the right-wing Reform Party can do to the Tories, here they are not fielding a single candidate.

In positions of power, the Greens have been virtually indistinguishable from the main establishment party

Amy Sage, TUSC

Instead, the main choice outside the four mainstream parties is being offered by the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). The left-wing electoral alliance is fielding 18 candidates in 17 wards, mostly inner suburbs or outlying areas with high concentrations of council housing. 

It’s part of a national push that’s seeing TUSC, which suspended electoral activities while Jeremy Corbyn was leading Labour, contesting 280 English seats on a platform opposing further cuts to councils. In Bristol, candidates hope to peel off left-wing voters disaffected with Labour, who the Greens are seeking to hoover up despite not always offering convincing policy differences.

Amy Sage, who is standing for TUSC in Southmead

“People see the Greens as a more radical alternative but actually, if you look at their track record when they’ve been in positions of power, they have been virtually indistinguishable from the main establishment party,” argues Amy Sage, a university researcher with a background in the probation service who is standing for TUSC in Southmead.

She cites the example of Brighton, where the Greens came to power in 2010 and moved forward with budget and service cuts during the peak austerity years of the 2010s.

“Again, here in Bristol, they did vote against the budget that was put forward this year,” she says, referring to this year’s financial plan. This saw the Greens first shoot down Labour’s budget without offering alternative policies, before abstaining on the final vote that saw it passed. “They didn’t actually put forward any alternative that would meet the needs of people in Bristol – TUSC candidates are prepared to fight the cuts,” Sage says.

Putting pressure on Labour

Actually setting a no-cuts budget that does not balance the books is a rebellious path councils have not dared take since Liverpool did so in the 1980s. Standing up to the Tory government, which has been responsible for carving away local authority cash, in this way would be likely to result in the council being taken over.

But with a number of areas recently being forced to declare effective bankruptcy anyway, TUSC says councils should make full use of their reserves and borrowing capabilities to stave off cuts this year. They should then come together to demand an incoming Labour government steps in with extra funding next year – something Starmer has claimed he cannot do – the alliance argues.

Elsewhere TUSC is pledging to fight for more new council housing, to support local climate emergency plans that create new jobs as well as improving the environment, and to back all struggles to protect workers’ rights.

“People’s understanding of what trade unions are and how they operate is different to how it used to be and therefore there is a bit more explaining to do,” says Sage. But, she adds, referring to recent waves of industrial action across a range of sectors: “There are quite a few examples recently we can point to and say, well, actually, this shows the power you have at work; you could have this power at a societal level if all workers came together.”

She adds that a good result for TUSC would be to “increase our number of votes across the board” to provide an “indication there is growing support for the alternative we are putting forward”. TUSC got between a few dozen and a couple of hundred votes in the eight wards it contested in 2021. Despite not being a fan of the Greens, Sage says that party’s success story in Bristol over the past decade shows that other smaller groups, like TUSC, could build from a small base to become players in the city.

‘We’ve been able to concentrate on the job’

While TUSC is pushing for radical change on a national platform, in south Bristol a very different small party is campaigning on its virtues as the local political establishment.

The Knowle Community Party is the incumbent in both seats in its home ward. But it has never actually been tested in an election, because the two councillors holding those seats – Gary Hopkins and Chris Davies – were longtime Lib Dems who left the party in late 2021 to set up their own outfit.

Go anywhere in the ward and people will have a story to tell of what we’ve done

Gary Hopkins, Knowle Community Party

At the time Hopkins – who this time is standing alongside newcomer Ghislaine Swinburn – claimed that doing so would enable his party to leave behind the distractions of Westminster politics to focus on neighbourhood achievements. Two years on, with the ward now a five-way battleground in which the Greens and Lib Dems are claiming advantage, does he have any regrets?

Gary Hopkins (C) and Ghislaine Swinburn (R) with Jules Laming, the chair of Jubilee Pool

“No – we’ve been able to concentrate on the job,” says Hopkins. “I was looking at a leaflet we put out before the last election and we never mentioned the Lib Dems in there anyway.”

The Knowle Community Party’s website claims councillors from other parties are “envious” of local successes it has helped achieve. These include the high-profile campaign to save the Jubilee swimming pool, which was handed over to the local community in 2022 and has since attracted additional grant funding from Swim England.

Yet the party has also faced criticism over the past couple of years, in particular over the biggest issue in Knowle – the redevelopment of the 1970s Broadwalk shopping centre for housing.

Notoriously, outline plans were refused by councillors in summer 2023 – over concerns including density and poor quality of homes – before being passed in a controversial U-turn. A group of residents is seeking a judicial review that could put the brakes on the scheme – but Hopkins is an enthusiastic supporter of the redevelopment.

He describes those campaigners as a “vociferous minority” who are not representative of Knowle voters – despite the large number of public objections to the scheme.

“We’re actually getting more support in some areas we didn’t have before,” Hopkins claims. “Because overall, people are very keen for the regeneration of the Broadwalk Centre to get moving – and we’re the only party who are saying that we need to negotiate with developers and get things moving.”

Hopkins has also had to deal with a row over the future of tennis courts at Redcatch Park, which saw a community group accuse him of bullying and misogyny last year – something he dismissed as a politically motivated “smear” at the time.

“People like what we do, that’s why they keep voting for us,” he says, insisting he and his party remain in tune with most residents. “Go anywhere in the ward and people will have a story to tell of what we’ve done.”

Other options

Outside of Knowle and aside from TUSC, some Bristol voters have an extra alternative option in the Social Democratic Party. The successor organisation to the party that split from Labour in the 1980s, it is putting up a candidate apiece in Frome Vale and in Hengrove and Whitchurch Park.

Neil Norton, who is contesting a seat in the latter ward, has pledged to fight for access to bus and dental services, and against flytipping and anti-social behaviour. Overturning the big parties in these Lib Dem-held suburbs would though be a huge upset.

Meanwhile independents are standing in a couple of other wards. Robbie Bentley, who has fought against bus cuts in St Paul’s, is contesting Ashley, while Tony Potter is campaigning in St George West, the seat being vacated by deputy mayor Asher Craig.

Within the national picture, the Greens seizing power in Bristol – and maybe even a majority of seats – will be a big political moment. But with the party seemingly waiting in the wings for ages, it hardly feels like a shocking event that would polish Bristol’s media stereotype as ‘city of protest’.

Can any of the city’s wards spring a surprise that would truly give that narrative a boost? The odds seem long – but we should know by Friday evening when the counts come in.

Check out our interactive ward map showing results from the last election in 2021 and all the candidates standing on 2 May 2024.

Independent. Investigative. Indispensable.

Investigative journalism strengthens democracy – it’s a necessity, not a luxury.

The Cable is Bristol’s independent, investigative newsroom. Owned and steered by more than 2,500 members, we produce award-winning journalism that digs deep into what’s happening in Bristol.

We are on a mission to become sustainable, and our first target is to raise our membership income by 50% within 12 months. Will you help us get there?

Join the Cable today

Join 2,500 Cable members redefining local media

Your support will help the Cable grow, deepening our connections in the city and investigating the issues that matter most in our communities.

Join now

What makes us different?

Comments

Post a comment

Mark if this comment is from the author of the article

By posting a comment you agree to our Comment Policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related content

Watch: Why you should back the Cable – in 60 seconds

A breakdown of all the things we've managed to achieve for Bristol in almost a decade of reporting.

We’re working to diversify the Cable team. Let’s start with our freelancer base

The Cable exists to challenge the structure of the media, but we are not representative enough of our city. Here’s what we’re doing to change things.

Revealed: Building owner ‘abandons’ leaseholders trapped in unsafe Brislington flats

Orchard House residents took matters into their own hands to force the building owner to carry out remediation works, under powers brought in after the Grenfell tragedy. But as the legal deadline nears, little progress has been made.

Listen: Area in Focus – the fight for the St Paul’s dentist’s

In February, hundreds of people queued up on Ashley Road for several days to register for NHS dentistry, as the local practice reopened. In this episode, we tell the story of the campaigners who fought to ensure their neighbourhood did not lose a vital health service.

Campaigners say St Paul’s dentist could have reopened sooner, after enquiry went unanswered

NHS denies busy surgery where thousands queued could have stayed open, but residents' group leaders call for more transparency.

Listen: The Debrief – what does Bristol’s Green surge mean for the city, and what next for the council under a new committee system?

The Green Party became Bristol's largest party at local elections on 2 May, falling just short of an overall majority. As Bristol kisses goodbye to its mayoral system, what will happen next?

Rack ’em up: Bristol’s bustling pub pool culture in pictures

In this photo essay, the Cable captures the unique spirit of amateur pool at a series of boozers in pockets of the city where the pub sport culture has been alive and well for decades.

Green surge secures historic victory at Bristol council elections

The Green Party gained 10 seats, mostly from Labour, but fell just short of a majority. Now, they will go into Bristol's new committee system as the largest party, but restated their commitment to work with others in leading the council.

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday

Join our newsletter

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter

Get our latest stories & essential Bristol news
sent to your inbox every Saturday morning