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In Filton and Bradley Stoke, home to Bristol’s defence industry, it’s the Tories on the back foot

The patchwork of suburbs and outlying villages north and east of Bristol has been held by the Conservatives since 2010. But now, a resurgent Labour and rising Reform mean MP Jack Lopresti looks likely to be toppled.

A view onto a cream-painted art-deco building in Filton and Bradley Stoke

Filton’s art-deco Pegasus House sits adjacent to the modern Airbus factory (credit: @alexcarlturner)

General Election 2024

Cans of Natch and pints of lager are flowing at the Plough in Filton, and a group of mostly older white men chat boisterously as the clock approaches 6pm.

Many at the pub, on Gloucester Road North in the shadow of the Airbus factory, have no interest in talking to journalists about the general election. Those who do are not shy about their views.

“I’m fucked off – the Tories are crap, they don’t do anything,” says 65-year-old John. He’s a former docker who’s recently retired after 30 years in the local aerospace industry, and backed Boris Johnson in 2019.

“I’m going with Reform,” John adds, echoing the feelings of several fellow drinkers, all of them recent Conservative voters.

A 10-minute bike ride away, the University of the West of England’s pristine Frenchay campus feels like a different world – especially with many students having left for summer. But 22-year-old Adaobi, from Portsmouth, is sticking around and casting a ballot in her adopted home.

“Change has been needed a long time,” explains the first-time voter, who says she would love to work for Airbus after she graduates – if she can afford to stay in Bristol. “I’d like to vote Green, but I’m going with Labour – I don’t love Keir Starmer, but it’s the least bad of two evils.”

June’s mini-heatwave has just broken as we visit the pub and UWE site, and the weather flits from hazy sunshine to a sudden shower. But the political headwinds facing Jack Lopresti, Conservative MP for Filton and Bradley Stoke since the seat was formed in 2010, seem clear.

The Plough in Filton, with the Airbus factory visible in the background (credit: @alexcarlturner)

Filton and Bradley Stoke was a target for Labour in 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn – but despite hordes of members hitting the streets to canvas, its vote share fell back. Now, though, the party is strongly favoured to win – as they are in other long-held Conservative seats around Bristol’s edges. 

Does the party’s more centrist 2024 flavour hold more appeal to people in the South Gloucestershire suburbs and villages northeast of Bristol? Or can voters just not bear another five years of the Tories? We set off to find out.

Lopresti ‘unimpressive’ in Filton and Bradley Stoke

As with many seats around Bristol, Filton and Bradley Stoke’s boundaries have changed. It has shed some more rural, solidly Conservative areas along the Severn Estuary, lost Labour-leaning Staple Hill and Mangotsfield to the new Bristol North East seat, and gained areas of more recent housing around Emerson’s Green.

The new, more compact constituency is dominated by residential suburbs – from council estates to upmarket developments – and remains dotted with major employers, many of them in the aerospace and defence sectors. Besides Airbus, they include BAE Systems, GKN, Rolls-Royce, the Ministry of Defence, and Elbit Systems, an Israeli arms manufacturer that attracted notoriety after Palestine Action activists broke in – and were later found guilty of criminal damage.

People like Terry, who are willing to give the Tories another chance, seem thin on the ground in Filton and Bradley Stoke (credit: Alex Turner)

Lopresti, an ex-army reservist who has served on various defence-related parliamentary committees, has been an enthusiastic public backer of this local industry, including visiting Elbit this spring to discuss the “intimidating protests” there. He has also attracted controversy by hosting a Westminster reception celebrating relations with Bahrain, a country with a dubious human rights record, been accused of bullying by a former staff member, and faced deselection threats over an alleged affair.

But the MP, who does not respond to the Cable’s interview requests, is described by many we speak to for this story as having a much lower profile when it comes to handling bread-and-butter matters around Filton and Bradley Stoke.

During a half-day interviewing members of the public around the area, only one person is willing to endorse Lopresti. This is Terry, 83, who we meet at Bradley Stoke’s Willowbrook shopping centre and who is concerned about the NHS, and pressure on local services.

He’s giving the Tories another chance since “Labour is not Labour anymore, they’ve all got money”, while “Farage isn’t big enough yet to make change”. He says he likes Lopresti, who is in the same branch of the Royal British Legion as him.

Round the corner, 33-year-old Lauren is keeping her voting choice private, but says she definitely wants a change. “Lopresti’s not done anything particularly impressive – we’ve got serious problems with anti-social behaviour round here that haven’t been dealt with, and have got worse over the last four years,” she says.

‘I won’t know until I’m in the booth’

Labour’s candidate, Claire Hazelgrove, is looking to capitalise on this disillusionment. Her background as a campaigns manager working from London and Washington DC, including a stint as director of engagement for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, makes her sound like a slick head-office plant.

Labour’s candidate Claire Hazelgrove

But Hazelgrove, who lives at Stoke Gifford, says she’s been continually knocking on doors since being selected to stand more than two years ago. She grew up in Northampton but has family roots in these parts – which she draws for quickly when we chat, along with her relatives’ RAF service history – and says she wants to be a “visible, impactful and approachable MP”. She reels off issues – the NHS dentistry crisis, excessive houses of multiple occupation in Filton, sewage pollution at Winterbourne – she’s keen to get stuck into.

Hazelgrove, whose route into Labour began with activism for the Make Poverty History campaign in the mid-2000s, is unashamedly proud of her party’s record under Blair and Brown. “Introducing the minimum wage, cutting crime by a third, I could list the achievements and be here a long time – because we did really transform Britain,” she says.

She adds that she believes Labour governments of that era had overly high expectations placed on them, and makes no apologies for Keir Starmer’s dampening of anticipation ahead of this election.

“We were served, understandably so, our largest defeat since the 1930s at the last general election,” she says, asked whether Starmer’s cautious approach is a vote-winner. “I’m genuinely excited about what we will be able to do over time if elected – we will be focusing on breaking down barriers to opportunity, bringing back things like stability, security and fairness into the heart of politics.”

In Winterbourne, Mary says she’s still making her mind up but will go with one of the main parties (credit: Alex Turner)

It’s unclear how many of Filton and Bradley Stoke’s Labour-inclined residents will be carried into the voting booth on a similar rush of enthusiasm. Over the road from Willowbrook, we meet John, 51, who’s just dropped his kids off for swimming lessons and says education and the NHS are key issues for him.

“The election is overdue – we’ve had a succession of largely terrible Tory prime ministers we haven’t voted for,” says John, adding that he’s a habitual Labour backer but has sometimes gone Green at local elections. “I don’t rate Starmer particularly highly – I’m more left-wing – but when it comes to the general election, a vote for a third party would possibly be wasted,” he says.

Still, it’s obvious there are opportunities for Hazelgrove among undecided voters we speak to. On the high street in Winterbourne we stop 61-year-old Mary for a very quick chat, as she’s rushing home with a bag of ice in danger of melting.

“The environment is a biggie for me, and the NHS, same as most people,” says Mary, who explains that her loss of confidence in politicians is making her choice harder. “I won’t know until I’ve listened to all I need to listen to, until I’m [in the polling booth] on that day – but it will be one of the main parties.”

Green and Lib Dem eyes on the future

When we sit down with candidates from the Green Party and Liberal Democrats, both are honest about their slim chances in this constituency.

Green candidate James Nelson, 20, is looking to the future (credit: James Nelson)

The Greens’ James Nelson is standing aged just 20, still a law student, having already been elected as a town councillor for Bradley Stoke where he has lived most of his life. He recalls becoming “annoyed with the government” around the end of primary school and “starting to realise, actually, maybe I want to make more of a difference”.

In common with Green activists elsewhere in the city, Nelson admits to being “originally a Corbynite” – before becoming disillusioned with Labour and eventually finding his current home. He gives Claire Hazelgrove credit for her “laudable” campaign work and doorstep graft, contrasting her with Lopresti being “AWOL, absent, rarely seen in this patch”.

To be a decent MP “Hazelgrove needs to be present, stand up for the area and keep that up for her term”, he adds. But he warns that warmth for the candidate should not be confused with strong support for Starmer, arguing that Labour’s current position owes much to “hatred of the Tories”.

Both Nelson and his Lib Dem counterpart Benet Allen, who lives out-of-area down the Somerset coast, say they are more focused on laying groundwork for future elections, should Starmer falter, than seriously competing for Filton and Bradley Stoke in 2024.

“I am building my networks,” says Allen, who admits to doing most of his campaigning to help colleagues in more winnable seats. “Next time around, the Lib Dems might be a force.”

Is Filton and Bradley Stoke leaning Reform?

For now though, Nigel Farage’s Reform is the smaller party poised to capitalise on voter disenchantment. It looks like coming no higher than third, but it’s easy to find voters around Filton and Bradley Stoke who are at least thinking of picking them.

Reform candidate Steve Burge says he’s finding plenty of doorstep support (credit: Steve Burge)

Matt, 21, who has worked in the local defence industry since leaving school, stops for a quick word in the leisure centre car park at Bradley Stoke. While explaining that he finds the election “boring”, he says he doesn’t believe either Labour or the Greens have got a good handle on national security.

“I would put myself more on the conservative side of the political spectrum – who that means I don’t know,” he says coyly, adding that he feels the Tories have run out of “encouragement for the future”. Pushed a little more, he shrugs and says: “Yeah, I’m leaning towards Reform.”

The party’s affable candidate, business development manager Steve Burge, claims to have picked up plenty of this attitude. “I was on holiday when the election was announced,” says Burge, who has lived around the constituency but is now based in Knowle. “Campaigning has been an eye-opener, but lots of people are being nice and saying they will support me.”

Like Claire Hazelgrove, Burge prefers to talk about what he’d do for local people – around issues ranging from bus services to nuisance youths. “Lots of people are riding illegal scooters, wearing balaclavas – why are police not stopping them? This is a priority for us,” he says.

Burge admits he has also encountered opposition from locals about attitudes within his party, with several Reform candidates recently dropped over racist and anti-immigrant slurs made on social media, and others defecting as a result. But, echoing comments by Farage, he describes them as “bad eggs” that any party could be afflicted by, and blames the media for stitching Reform up.

Lost to Labour?

Back in the Plough, Reform’s hardline stance on immigration is one reason the party has strong backing among drinkers we speak to. But chat to some of them a bit longer and more nuanced views emerge, rooted in a perspective that the UK has broken the social contract with its citizens – most recently via Boris Johnson’s “lies” and “bullshit” – and that leaders must listen more.

“I want to know what [politicians] are doing for young people coming up in the world at a difficult time,” says Terence, 72. “I’ve got no disrespect for other nationalities – I worked in 27 countries over 17 years, and I love meeting new people, but this is a small island and we’ve got to control things to a degree.”

The men’s outlook is very different from likely Labour backers we speak to elsewhere in Filton and Bradley Stoke, especially younger ones like Adaobi. But not long ago the party could have relied on their votes, before they drifted away over the past two decades as its identity grew vaguer. “I voted Labour all my life – I was a working man, a union man,” says John, adding that he finally threw in the towel when Ed Miliband took over as leader.

As the party now seeks to attract a broad coalition of voters to sweep it back to power, could anything tempt John back? Not under Starmer, who has none of the blokish schtick that Farage has founded his career on. But the door is not quite closed.

“Starmer is no big deal – I know he’s a clever bloke, he was a lawyer, fair play mate,” John says. “But someone like [Greater Manchester mayor] Andy Burnham – if he stepped in to be leader I reckon you’d get a lot more Labour. Would I vote for him? Cor, yeah.”

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