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Not much ‘Bristol’ in Bristol Central hustings: protests and heckles at ‘ill-tempered’ panel

With protests, party co-leaders and prospective cabinet members, the non-selective hustings for Bristol Central largely sidelined local issues in favour of trans rights, and a prospective Starmer government. 

General Election 2024

If you attended last night’s hustings with hopes of learning about local policies in Bristol ahead of this week’s general election, you’d probably have left disappointed. Thanks to a variety of high-profile hopefuls and controversial commentators, the takeaway for Bristol Central residents wasn’t a discussion of local issues, but an “ill-tempered” debate on single-sex spaces, and a promise of influence on Keir Starmer’s Labour government. 

Hosted by Bristol 24/7 at Bristol Beacon, the hustings heard from every prospective candidate for the new Bristol Central seat. Chaired by Bristol 24/7’s Editor-in-Chief Martin Booth, the panel featured incumbent Labour MP and Shadow Culture Secretary Thangam Debbonaire, Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer, Conservative candidate Samuel Williams, Lib Dem candidate Nicholas Coombes, Reform UK candidate Robert Clarke, and anti-trans activist and leader of the Party of Women Kellie-Jay Keen. 

The frontrunners: Green candidate Carla Denyer (L) and Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire (R). Credit: Alex Seabrook

Bristol Central, a new constituency made up of most of what used to be Bristol West, which has been held by Labour’s Debbonaire since 2015, has become one of the Green Party’s top target seats. Former Bristol councillor and now co-leader of the Green Party Carla Denyer has been campaigning hard to take the seat, which has attracted attention from the national media. 

The hustings was the only time during the campaign that the two frontrunners Debbonaire and Denyer have shared a stage, as they clashed on Gaza and claims about NHS privatisation. But other candidates weren’t without their moments. Keen in particular (also known as “Posie Parker”), attracted protests at the building’s entrance from LGBTQ+ activists. 

Protests, and trans ‘hatred

Protesters outside the event at Bristol Beacon. Credit: Rose Morelli

For her critics, Keen’s inclusion in this hustings felt like an attack on trans safety. As a staunch opponent of self-identified gender, Keen’s singular argument throughout the night was that trans individuals put women at risk. As well as wanting to ban the use of unisex spaces, she levelled criticism against the trans community and its “quasi-religious cult” for “excluding” and “bullying” women from professional and creative spaces. While the only other candidates to reference the trans community were Robert Clarke and Nicholas Coombes, the issue cast a spectre over the event.

However, Keen made it clear from the start that her attendance wasn’t a matter of scoring a Parliamentary seat. “We don’t expect really to get many of your votes,” Keen said in her opening statement. “This really isn’t about convincing you to vote for me. This is about convincing Thangam to actually speak up for women[…] It’s about saying – will you just speak up for women-only spaces?” 

Electoral Commission rules specify that non-selective hustings must be impartial, so Keen was necessarily invited to complete the panel. Bristol Beacon also refuted any claims that they had created an unsafe space by allowing Keen to speak.

“We are taking all necessary security measures to ensure the event is safely run for all involved,” a spokesperson for the Beacon said. “We understand the concerns raised, and continue to stand by our own convictions that the Beacon is a space open and welcoming to all.”

“Neither the organisers or Bristol Beacon endorse or promote any one particular candidate, and this is an opportunity for the public to challenge, question and probe all candidates on their views.”

However, pro-LGBTQ+ voices point to the already hostile environment trans people have to deal with, and questioned whether it was safe or productive to platform what they believe is hate speech.

“We are sad to see her [Keen’s] inclusion,” a representative for Trans Pride Bristol has said. “We understand the rules of both the charity commission and other institutions may place certain restrictions, but it is vital that the safety of audiences are considered properly in the democratic process.”

“Bristol is neither perfect nor free from transphobia, but people are more interested in hearing answers to our city’s housing crisis, the climate and NHS than they are trans people’s genitals and fear mongering.”

The bigger picture: national policies, and influencing Starmer’s government

While most questions springboarded from the perspective of a Bristol-based issue or resident, a lot of the discussion quoted national manifestos and policy. 

Debbonaire’s pitch hinged largely on her proximity to Starmer as a prospective Culture Secretary, and how she could “take Bristol directly to the heart of cabinet”. When asked about improving race equality in the city, she talked about her work with Windrush victims, and how she was able to bring the Bristol bus boycotters to Parliament to meet Starmer.

“I know what they appreciated was hearing from Keir Starmer about the Racial Inequality Act that we will bring in,” she said. “A Labour government, with me in it, can champion the cause of racial equality.”

Denyer, on the other hand, pitched that Bristol was in a unique national position. She argued that, while Labour was almost certainly going to form the next government, Bristol could provide the country with a Green voice in Parliament.

“We deserve better than half-baked, unambitious policies,” she said. “We need Green MPs to hold Labour to account. Do you want to hand Starmer a blank cheque?”

An ‘ill-tempered’ panel and audience

As well as speaking to a vocal, fired-up audience, the panel regularly took aim at each other, with Lib Dem candidate Coombes noting the “ill-tempered” atmosphere in his concluding statement. 

Reform candidate Clarke got the largest share of the audience’s contempt, receiving lots of loud laughs and titters. Amid unpopular statements, like claiming local arts subsidies only going to a “bourgeois, politically correct crew”, Clarke faced laughs when he stated: “There’s only one race, the human race”, and that “there is no climate change”. 

Keen, though most of her critics were outside the building, did also receive titters and heckles from the audience. As well as being booed and heckled, Keen also received a significant blow from Coombes in his concluding statement: “I don’t want rules to say who’s a woman and who’s a man,” he said. “If I want to know someone’s gender I’ll ask them, and I’ll trust them.”

Both Debbonaire and Denyer faced moments of unrest and shouting from the audience. While Debbonaire mostly avoided any criticism from the panel, she was loudly heckled by an audience member for abstaining from a ceasefire vote. But she did say: “I care more about Palestinian life than I do about being criticised for not voting for one motion, but voting for another… “We voted for a ceasefire. I voted for it, and for I’ll vote for it again.” 

Samuel Williams made a surprise departure from the Conservative line on whether the UK should be selling arms to Israel: commenting that he “personally struggled to justify” it, and hinted that he thought Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was not proportionate in its defence policy. 

Denyer, on the other hand, received blows from both the audience and panel: Williams took aim at her first, responding to Denyer’s statement about racial inequality. When Denyer said she would prioritise a rollback in stop and search tactics, and build on Green city councillor Mohamed Makawi’s motion against knife crime, Williams criticised her crime-centric answer: “Knife crime and stop and search are not the only issues minoritized communities care about,” he said. “I mean, come on.”

Debbonaire also landed a blow on Denyer during a question about polarising campaign tactics and misinformation. She referenced Denyer’s claim that Labour would “open the door to privatising the NHS”, and then received loud applause when she noted the importance of journalists having the freedom to scrutinise power. This then spurred more than one audience member to heckle Denyer on the topic, shouting at her to “answer the question”.

You can watch a full recording of the hustings here.

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