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In the ‘divided’ new constituency of Bristol North East, opposing voters feel a common lack of options

It’s easy to find traditional Tory supporters in the suburbs of this new seat. Can Labour overcome voter disillusionment and build on the momentum of its recent Kingswood by-election win?

General Election 2024

Mike is nursing a pint in a sunlit beer garden in Staple Hill, just up from Fishponds and over the South Gloucestershire border in Bristol’s outer northeast suburbs. The 72-year-old is typically a Conservative voter, and was a big fan of Boris Johnson, but he’s not sure who he’s going to vote for this time out.

Asked why, Mike says national politics, specifically the two main parties, has become a battle of “one set of liars against another”. He doesn’t trust the Tories to deliver the changes he wants: an even tougher stance on immigration and investment in our National Health Service.

In Fishponds, Nasra says she wants to vote for the candidate most compassionate towards refugees and asylum seekers (credit: Sean Morrison)

Just down the road I meet Nasra, a 28-year-old from Somalia who moved to the UK as a refugee in 2009. She’s not voted before, but feels more engaged now, and wants to vote for the candidate who is most compassionate towards migrants and supports Bristol’s diverse communities.

Later, closer to town in Eastville Park, I sit down with Petra, who voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party but has abandoned it since it lurched to the right under Keir Starmer. She’s considering voting Green but fears doing so could play into the hands of the Conservatives who are popular on the outskirts of this constituency.

Labour are tipped to win here in the brand-new Bristol North East constituency, but it’s by no means a safe seat. We spoke to the two leading candidates about their campaigns, how they’ve been received on the doorstep, and what they reckon matters most to the people they hope to represent.

Taxation and investing in schools

Bristol North East was carved out during boundary changes for the upcoming general election on 4 July. It’s made up of bits cut off the Bristol East seat – a safe Labour constituency – and parts of Bristol North West, Filton and Bradley Stoke and Kingswood, where the Tories have tended to do well.

Labour’s candidate, Damien Egan, overturned a huge Conservative majority to win the Kingswood by-election in February. His seat was abolished under the boundary changes, however, and in this new one Egan isn’t so confident, particularly in the traditionally-Tory voting South Gloucestershire area.

“They’ve got historical feelings and want reassurance Labour isn’t going to put taxes up, particularly pensioners’,” he tells the Cable, adding that he’s working hard to sell his party’s relatively modest plans for taxation. Labour’s offer, the party says, doesn’t seek to compete with the Tories’ planned tax cuts.

Labour plans to raise £8bn with pledges to overhaul the non-dom tax status for wealthy people, applying VAT to private schools, and bringing in a windfall tax on big energy companies. It says the money will be spent on the NHS, mental health staff, and teachers, which was a big focus point for Egan.

“It’s incredible what [teachers] are having to deal with, with the big rise in children’s special educational needs, with the [Conservative government’s] cuts to teaching assistants and a lack of investment,” he says. But what does his party actually offer to remedy this?

Labour plans to use the 20% VAT on private schools to pay for 6,500 extra teachers in state schools. But its pledges haven’t impressed the general secretary of the National Education Union, Daniel Kebede, who warned the party would face strikes by autumn if it failed to invest properly in education.

Immigration, housing and stoking fear

Rose Hulse is the Conservative candidate for Bristol North East, and a wealthy entrepreneur who married into aristocracy, whose Grade-II listed Georgian home features in property magazines. On paper she’s the typical Tory, and her approach to raising taxes to fund public services is similar.

The Californian says she took lessons from former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, who she worked for in the 90s. “He is all about economic development, bringing in big business to create jobs and opportunities, to bring money to the city and help fund state schools. You can’t always tax everybody to get the money.”

Rose Hulse, the Tory candidate in Bristol North East, on campaign trail in Eastville (credit: Rose Hulse)

She says job creation and attracting industry was key, pointing to the recent investment by Tata to build the UK’s biggest electric vehicle battery manufacturing site in Somerset: “[It will]  bring in thousands of jobs… so people don’t have to get on a train to London every day, and can actually build a great life here,” she says.

People like Mike, the traditional Tory voter, blame immigration for the lack of opportunity, jobs and housing in the city and across the country. He reckons the Conservative’s Rwanda Bill, widely known as a cruel and racist policy, was a great idea. Does Hulse feel similarly?

“I find it offensive that people continue to tear down my ancestral continent by saying it is unworthy of being a home to others,” she says, missing the point when asked if she believed the Rwanda Bill was a racist policy. Isn’t it about the UK shirking its responsibility under the Refugee Convention? 

“People here are being evicted and can’t get housing, can’t get medical appointments, have to choose between paying their energy bills or feeding their children. There’s only a certain amount of money we have to operate the country and our infrastructure,” she says, asked if we should be more welcoming to migrants.

This kind of rhetoric might inspire a cross on the ballot paper from Mike. But to others it’s tapping into an age-old tactic by rightwing politicians and the press, of blaming migrants, or their intention to move to the UK, for the country’s problems, stoking fear and hatred to win votes.

Hulse says she understands this perspective “all too well” as a woman of colour who grew up in the US. “Immigrants are not to blame. Our current budget and lack of housing is to blame. If we can’t provide housing for those currently living here, how can we provide housing for those wishing to come here?” 

The Tories, of course, have overseen an intensifying housing crisis since 2010, with experts questioning their most recent manifesto pledge to build 1.6m homes. “We must find a solution that does not delay housing for our current citizens and visa holders who are still on the waitlist for housing and ensure those that do come here have a safe place to stay,” says Hulse.

Gaza’s in the mind of voters

The Bristol North East constituency is “divided in two”, says Lorraine Francis, Eastville Green councillor and now MP nominee, specifically, she reckons, on the issue of immigration. Evidence of it is the negative comments she received on the campaign trail when she stood in the Kingswood by-election.

“I had lots of trolling that the [campaign] team protected me from, very much on the side of ‘immigrants are gonna come and take your homes,’” she tells the Cable. “And I didn’t get that from the other half of the constituents… but there’s a lot of fear that comes up every time an election comes around.”

Francis says it’s clear people buy into it that “fear” here, too. She points to how Reform UK, the rightwing party now led by Nigel Farage, outperformed her in the Kingswood poll. Reform’s Rupert Lowe, who was a Brexit Party MEP, came third with 2,578 votes. Francis was fourth for the Greens with 1,459.

Reform are standing a candidate here at the general election, too: Anthony New. 

There are eight candidates altogether, the others being Asif Ali as an independent, Louise Harris for the Lib Dems, Dan Smart for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and the Social Democratic Party’s Tommy Trueman.

Francis, who as Green candidate reckons she’s offering an option for people who usually vote Labour but feel the party has moved away from the left, says how our politicians have reacted to Israel’s war on Gaza will be in the minds of voters on 4 July – but again, less so in some parts of the constituency.

The Greens have called for a “full bilateral ceasefire” and the suspension of arms exports to Israel. In Bristol Central, where the party hopes to get its second ever MP at the election, residents have received campaign material on the issue, which includes a petition for these two calls to action from the government.

Labour has backed a ceasefire, but not the end of arms exports.

Friends of Israel

Asked about his and the Labour Party’s position on the war on Gaza, Egan says simply that there has been a call for a ceasefire and release of hostages by Israel and Hamas, and that, at some point, he expects there to be recognition of a Palestinian state. 

He makes a comparison, also, to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Egan was born in Cork but grew up in Kingswood. He says: “The biggest game changer [in Northern Ireland] was when the UK and America led proper dialogue between people to get to peace.”

But Egan himself has come into criticism for flying to Israel in March on a ‘fact finding visit’ paid for by Labour Friends of Israel, a lobby group that has described itself as working within the Labour party to promote the Israeli state. According to an entry on the Parliamentary register of financial interests, the lobby group financed the four-day visit by the Kingwood MP, costing £2,400. 

Egan was also a target of pro-Palestine activists at the count of the Kingswood by-election, after claims emerged that his Israeli-born husband was a spy for the Israeli military. He tells the Cable this was a conspiracy theory, adding: “What can you say? My husband is not a spy. But that’s like the most spy thing to say. You can’t win.”

Meanwhile, the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement has called for Egan’s rival candidate Hulse to be investigated after she liked a tweet that referred to Egan, who is Jewish, as “your fiend of Israel”. The Conservative party has said it has “spoke to” Hulse regarding the tweet, and another that she liked which said Keir Starmer was “tap dancing to “AntiSemitismIsAllThatMatters”. 

Hulse has apologised for liking the tweets, and says it was a result of clicking the ‘like’ button in error.

Disillusionment at the ballot box

Back in Eastville Park, Petra is discussing whether she should vote Green, or spoil her ballot. She wants to see a more progressive, leftwing government, with the kind of manifesto Jeremy Corybn tabled at the general election in 2019, when Labour suffered its worst election defeat since 1935.

Petra, pictured with her friend in Eastville Park, says the Tories ‘have fucked everything’

“It just doesn’t feel like what I want to happen, that there’s any hope of that happening. Labour used to be leftwing, it used to represent me, but now I think they’re pretty much rightwing,” says the 29-year-old, a care-leaver coach at a youth homelessness charity.

She believes voting Green here won’t count for much – the same as Mike, up the road, feels about casting a ballot for Reform. 

The two have completely different views, but they share a disillusionment with British politics – a two-party system where the dominant forces don’t represent the change they want to see.

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