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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.

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