Four days on from one of the most eye-catching results in England’s local council elections, Yassin Mohamud, the new Green member for the Bristol inner city ward of Lawrence Hill, still has to stop every few minutes to accept the congratulations of residents, neighbours, shopkeepers and taxi drivers when he walks down to the shops.
“It’s very exciting,” said Mohamud. “I can’t wait to get on with the job. This area has been neglected for too long. There is so much litter, drugs, air pollution, antisocial behaviour. Things must change.”
Mohamud, a 49-year-old administrator who came to the UK from Somalia 16 years ago, used to vote Labour but began knocking on doors for the Green party in November 2018. “Labour wasn’t doing anything for this area,” he said. “People wanted a change and they could see we wanted to listen to them.”
The Greens went into the elections holding 11 of the seats on Bristol city council and ended with 24, making them the joint biggest party with Labour, who slipped from 37.
Green candidates won not just in Bristol’s leafy areas but also took seats in what were thought of as Labour strongholds, such as Eastville and Lockleaze in the north, Bedminster in the south and Lawrence Hill, one of the most deprived wards in south-west England, in the east.
Jon Eccles, who just failed to win a second seat for the Greens in Lawrence Hill, said a lot of the party’s success in Bristol was down to sheer hard work. He said when he joined the Greens he was struck by their “method”. Candidates were not required to sign up to a certain ideology, he said, but were expected to commit to a certain amount of work.
“Work means knocking on doors of residents, finding out what they think, putting things they talk to you about in leaflets. They see you are paying attention. Then when you talk to them about the climate they are more likely to listen.”
At 18, Lily Fitzgibbon becomes the youngest Bristol city councillor. She was a founding member of Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate, which played a key role in the campaign against the expansion of Bristol airport and helped organise a climate emergency protest in Bristol attended by Greta Thunberg.
Fitzgibbon, who works in a fruit and veg shop on Bristol’s fiercely independent Gloucester Road, said she believed the party’s success was down to its approach not only to global and national issues but to local ones.
So, people in her ward, Bishopston and Ashley Down, talked on the doorstep about the climate emergency, the Bristol Black Lives Matter protest last summer that ended with the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston being dumped in the harbour and this year’s string of “kill the bill” demonstrations in the city.
But they also talked about local traffic, air quality and the plight of a 120-year-old holm oak in the neighbourhood that had been in danger of being felled.
“Bristol is such an environmentally and socially conscious place,” Fitzgibbon said. “It’s a place of protest culture and I think people have realised there are options outside the two main parties.”
Carla Denyer, one of the Green group’s most prominent councillors, insisted this was no flash in the pan. “This has been building, building, building,” she said.
“People have flocked to the Greens in droves because there is frustration in how the Labour administration has run the city, not moving quickly enough on the climate emergency,” she said.
But, she says, she has also worked hard on local issues in her Clifton Down ward: bin collections, recycling, the shortage of affordable housing in the city.
“When people get Green elected representatives, they like it, we work really hard. Lots of people told us they hadn’t voted Green before but they’ve seen that we’re genuine, the real deal.”
Denyer believes the council elections bode well for the Greens’ aspiration of winning a UK parliamentary seat: Bristol West.
In the 2019 election for that seat, Denyer came in second, trailing well behind Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire. But the Greens now have councillors in nine of the 10 wards in the Bristol West constituency. “We are the second party in Bristol now but arguably, the first in Bristol West,” she said.
Labour takes some comfort from the victory in the Bristol mayoral election of Marvin Rees. He remains by far the most powerful political figure in the city. The election of the former UK Labour minister Dan Norris as West of England mayor also steadied the ship.
But results in wards such as Easton – where Rees lives – were a bitter blow. The Greens took both seats including that of the respected Labour cabinet member Afzal Shah, who was the only councillor of Pakistani heritage.
Areas such as Easton have become magnets for people from London and the south-east looking for an alternative lifestyle and for the very many university students who stay after their courses end.
Shah, who was cabinet member for climate, ecology and sustainable growth reeled off the city’s environmental achievements – from its climate emergency action plan to its tree-planting efforts. He said demographics in his neighbourhood had changed and there had been a problem this time mobilising the black, Asian and minority ethnic vote – and it did not help that the election fell in Ramadan.
Mayor Rees expressed concern at the lack of diversity in the new council and said he was disappointed at “white middle-class councillors jumping for joy” about defeating Shah.
He added: “We have to ask questions about race and class. You’ve got an area like Easton that has traditionally been very mixed, very working-class, where house prices are now going over £400,000. Is it gentrification that supports the progress of the Green party in racially diverse areas?”
Rees, who in 2016 became the first mayor of black African heritage in a major European city, pointed out that he was the only mayoral candidate this time from the four major parties who did not go to private school. “But race and class was never talked about.”
On working with the Greens, Rees said: “If you want to work with me, tell me what you are going to do for the city and then tell me what you need from me to get it done. I’m interested in talking to people who want to get things done. That’s how it will work.”
George Ferguson, who was Bristol’s first directly elected mayor (as an independent) said he thought the Greens’ success was a “big moment” for politics in Bristol – and more widely.
“Bristol is a major city. These results needs to be taken really seriously as a potential springboard for the Greens,” he said. “I love the way Bristol does things differently.”
But Bristol may be a one-off. It is, after all, the home of the street artist Banksy, of protest and rebellion, of underground music scenes and campaigning organisations such as the Soil Association and the walking and cycling charity Sustrans.
Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, said the Greens were “potentially in a very interesting space in British politics”. “They could quite easily pull away liberal graduates, young Zoomers and middle-class professionals from Labour, as we are seeing in other European democracies, notably Germany and the Netherlands. If they play their cards right sky’s the limit.”
Bristol University English literature professor Tom Sperlinger said he thought it was well worth watching to see whether Labour and the Greens could work together.
“I think Bristol is going to be an interesting experiment in the next few years,” he said. “There’s clearly a big progressive majority in the city now and people are very motivated on the ecological crisis and inequality.
“Can a pluralistic left show what it can achieve in partnership or will it descend into a party political squabble? I think the national parties would do well to see the city as an experiment in how to build a larger coalition of the left.”