General Election 2024: Why Bristol Central is Britain's most interesting battleground

The two frontrunners to be the new Bristol Central MP at the 2024 General Election - left, Carla Denyer from the Green Party, and right, Thangam Debbonaire, from Labour
-Credit: (Image: Bristol Post)

The General Election campaigns have been launched and the nation is being told it faces a choice between the Conservatives under Rishi Sunak and Labour under Sir Keir Starmer. But in the Bristol Central constituency, voters are being told something a little different - that they have a different choice.

Bristol Central - the new name for the slightly smaller and more concentrated former Bristol West constituency - has two front-runners - Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire and the Green Party candidate Carla Denyer. And both launched their own campaigns on Thursday (May 23) with videos explaining to voters why they should get the job.

On the face of it, Bristol Central should be a safe Labour seat. Back in 2019, Thangam Debbonaire won it for Labour with a whopping 62 per cent of the vote, and had a majority of 28,219. But for many reasons, the Green Party have Bristol Central as their number one target seat at the July 4 General Election, and the party locally is increasingly confident they might be able to pull off a remarkable result and have their second MP.

Read next: Seven big decisions that will shape the way Bristol looks

Read more: Norris v Rees Mogg - the 'two-job General Election rerun' 14 years in the making

After the General Election was announced by the Prime Minister, Carla Denyer said she welcomed the chance for voters in Bristol to ‘choose hope and change’. "I am ready to represent the people of Bristol Central as their MP,” she said. “If elected, I will continue listening to local people and work tirelessly to tackle the issues that matter most to them.

"We are all sick of politicians who don’t say what they mean and who make decisions for their own careers, donors, or party leaders. We need politicians who listen, and act for us, our futures, our children and our grand-children.

“On July 4, the people of Bristol have the opportunity to send Westminster a message and lead the country towards something better,” she added.

The Greens pressed ‘publish’ overnight on their slick and obviously long-prepared election video promoting Carla Denyer in Bristol Central. It showed Carla in a number of recognisable Bristol Central locations - St Nick’s Market and the BRI, for instance - with an explainer to voters about why Bristol Central isn’t the usual Labour v Conservative battle.

The Green Party point to ‘expert polls’ that have been predicting that the Greens are ‘in with a serious shot at making history’ in Bristol, by electing the city’s first Green MP. And while that is true - with a series of pollsters predicting either a narrow Labour victory, a narrow Green victory or it being too close to call - Labour are confident too.

Thangam Debbonaire’s team are confident that Labour voters who stayed at home or switched to the Greens in the May 2 local elections - which saw the Green Party win every single council seat in the Bristol Central constituency - will come out to vote Labour again at a General Election.

Thangam’s video appeared to be more impromptu, reacting to the Prime Minister’s rain-sodden announcement, at a spot on the Harbourside. “The general election has just been called and it’s time for change,” she said. “This is our chance to build a better Britain and a better Bristol. I’m Thangam Debbonaire, your Labour candidate for Bristol Central, and shadow secretary of state for culture media and sport.

“After 14 years of Conservative Governments, families are worse off and with fewer opportunities. But we know it doesn’t have to be this way. As your MP, I will work to tackle the climate emergency and to give children the best start in life with free breakfast clubs and mental health support.

“Labour will get the NHS back on its feet, switch on Great British Energy, and get Britain building again. And I will be your voice at the heart of a Labour Government. It’s time to build back our future. It’s time to vote Labour,” she added.

But can or will the voters of Bristol Central really return the city’s first-ever Green MP? What are the reasons that will happen - and then, what are the reasons why it won’t?

1 It’s not a normal seat

The Greens’ confidence comes mainly from the fact that they have a track record in elections in Bristol Central, and Bristol Central - or at least Bristol West as it was - is not an easily pigeonholed constituency that can be categorised by the Westminster media.

As ‘Bristol West’, the constituency has long been an outlier, and when Bristol Central magically exists on July 4, there’s no reason to suggest it’ll be any different. It has consistently been listed at the top (or bottom, depending on your point of view) of many of the major issues that have gripped the country for the past decade.

Labour's Thangam Debbonaire retains her seat in the 2019 General Election -Credit:Artur Lesniak/Bristol Live
Labour's Thangam Debbonaire retains her seat in the 2019 General Election -Credit:Artur Lesniak/Bristol Live

It was one of the constituencies that voted most overwhelmingly to remain in the UK in 2016, and all the polls ever conducted since show people there still feel that way. It’s also listed as being one of the very few places in the country to express that the UK needs more immigration, too.

Bristol Central also contains one of the youngest populations in the country - the average age in Bristol West is lower than in almost every other UK constituency. That’s mainly down to the University of Bristol, but it’s not just the student population we’re talking about here. As a university town, Bristol has one of the highest retention rates in the country too - students who leave university but stay in the place where they studied - and that means It also has one of the highest proportion of graduates concentrated in one constituency.

As Bristol West it has, pretty much since the start of this century, been the most electorally volatile. Just once in all the General Elections since 1997 has the result produced the same first, second and third place parties as the election before. All the other elections other than the one which saw Stephen Williams retain the seat for the Lib Dems in 2010, the order of the parties has changed - and in the first-past-the-post system, that is very unusual indeed.

It was also the only seat in the entire country where the Conservative Party’s share of the vote went down in every election for the last 11 votes. In 1979, Tory MP William Waldegrave won with 52.6 per cent of the vote - and, incredibly, that vote share has declined in every single election since, down to the 11.7 per cent of the vote gained by Tory candidate Suria Aujla in 2019.

So strange and unpredictable is the seat that this Conservative vote share decline even saw the Tories go from fourth to second between 2015 to 2017, with a reduced share of the vote.

There are consistently around 8-10,000 people who vote Conservative there, but the common consensus is the Tories have zero chance of winning. That means the normal narrative for people who don’t vote Conservative - that you vote for whichever party is most likely to beat the Tories - does not apply. The Green Party have capitalised on that, and targeted the seat relentlessly ever since they came a surprise second in 2015. The message from the Green Party is that Bristol West - or Bristol Central as it will be - is a ‘free hit’.

2 The Local Elections

And vote Green they have. In the European elections of the 2010s and in local council elections since 2016, the Green Party have been increasing their vote share. On May 2, every single councillor elected to City Hall in an area that forms part of Bristol Central was a Green Party councillor.

At the May 2 vote, the total number of people who voted Green was 14,857, while the total number of people who voted Labour was 7,785, and the Greens have used that ‘clean sweep’ to show that they are in the ascendancy, and Carla Denyer has a real chance. Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire will be going into the General Election trying to retain her seat with a huge majority, but with no local Labour councillors - Bristol Central truly is a quirk of British politics.

There are plenty of caveats to be tagged with that local election result - which we’ll come back to shortly.

3 Without Power Comes No Responsibility

The ‘Green Surge’ has seen the Greens go from having 11 councillors in 2019 to 25 across Bristol at the start of this year, and 34 right now, but being the largest party at City Hall hasn’t really meant anything until three weeks ago, because it was a Labour-controlled authority, thanks to the mayoral system.

-Credit:PAUL GILLIS / Reach PLC
-Credit:PAUL GILLIS / Reach PLC

That meant the Green Party was still in opposition, so hasn’t had - in Bristol at least - the burden of people seeing what electing Green politicians into power actually means. The July 4 election date means two months probably isn’t long enough for voters in Bristol Central for the new Green administration at City Hall to make changes and for people to not like those changes.

4 No Jeremy Corbyn

When Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire was first elected in 2015, Bristol West was still considered a fairly interesting three-way marginal between Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. The Greens broke through to finish a fairly close second, and Bristol West was still quite tight - Ms Debbonaire’s majority was just 5,673.

In 2017 - in the General Election that was defined by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn enthralling the left of politics, and the Brexit referendum - Thangam Debbonaire’s majority increased by more than seven times. The turnout increased, and two in every three voters voted Labour. Her majority of 37,336 was one of the biggest in the country. Suddenly, Bristol West was a rock solid safe Labour seat.

Jeremy Corbyn addressing a crowd of hundreds at College Green in Bristol on Monday (December 9) -Credit:Michael Lloyd/Bristol Live
Jeremy Corbyn addressing a crowd of hundreds at College Green in Bristol on Monday (December 9) -Credit:Michael Lloyd/Bristol Live

In the 2019 election - again with Corbyn and Brexit in the national picture - a huge push by the Greens didn’t dent much at all, even with the Lib Dems unusually standing aside to give the Greens a clear run. More than 47,000 people still voted Labour.

This time, there is no Jeremy Corbyn, and Labour are a very different prospect under Sir Keir Starmer. The purge of the Labour left since 2019 was savage in Bristol West - members have been expelled and even more have left in disgust as the party moved to more central ground. And that, according to those on the ground, could also have a big impact. Elections are often won not by persuading people to vote for you, but by making sure the people who were always going to vote for you actually do. That involves teams of people knocking on doors for weeks before the election, and on the day itself. In 2017 and 2019, Labour’s Bristol West team was a huge energised army of young Corbyn fans, and that doesn’t really exist anymore. And what’s more, many have gone to the Greens.

5 The candidates

Like many MPs with top jobs in Westminster, Thangam Debbonaire is at something of a disadvantage. She’s had a series of Shadow Cabinet jobs since Sir Keir Starmer took over, and currently holds the Culture Media and Sport brief. That means you’re more likely to see her in Westminster or on national TV talking about national politics, than pointing at potholes on Whiteladies Road. It also means she’s agreed to toe the party line when it comes to contentious issues - Labour’s internal machinations over Israel and Palestine is perhaps the most recent and obvious example - so is less free to speak her mind to her constituents about that.

In 2019, when Green Party candidate Carla Denyer came second, she was just a local Green Party city councillor. Now she’s the co-leader of the entire national party and, while perhaps still not exactly a household name, her profile in Bristol itself has certainly risen in the past four years.

One of the key lines from Labour has been promoting the prospect of Bristol Central voters electing and being represented by someone who will be a key figure in the 2024 Labour Government. Thangam would be a member of the cabinet, and not a potentially solitary figure on the opposition benches.

The Greens hit back, pointing out that, as co-leader of the Green Party nationally, if elected as an MP, Carla would also have a national profile.

6 From West to Central

Bristol West was the biggest constituency in the country in terms of the number of people who are eligible to vote in it. In 2019 it was just under 100,000, and that’s the main reason why the boundaries have changed and Bristol now has a fifth constituency - Bristol North East.

So Bristol Central is smaller than Bristol West. The changes aren’t huge, just a slight contraction. People living in Bishopston and Ashley Down will now vote for their MP in Bristol North West, while everything that was in Thangam’s constituency on the east side of the city centre - in Easton, St Jude’s, St Philips, Barton Hill and Lawrence Hill - is now in Bristol East.

That leaves Ashley, the city centre, Clifton, Clifton Down, Cotham, Hotwells and Harbourside and Redland as the new Bristol Central - and the Green Party say they think this automatically cuts that huge Labour majority in half. That’s a bold claim and no one will ever really know for sure, but the thinking is that there are more Labour voters in Easton and Barton Hill, so Bristol Central will be more ‘green’ as a result.

Why the Greens won’t win

That’s all the reasons why there could, or even will, be Bristol’s first-ever Green MP elected in 2024, but is it really going to happen? What are some of the reasons why it won’t?

1 It’s a General Election

The first is the most obvious - when Bristol Central goes to the polls on July 4, its people will be voting in a national election. General Elections are increasingly presidential - do you want Starmer or Sunak? Labour or Conservative? - and people who don’t usually get involved in politics tune in, choose their party or leader and vote accordingly, remaining largely oblivious to the local candidates and local picture.

Turnout is always higher in a General Election than a local election, and even more than that, there is a considerable number of people who might be happy to vote for a Green councillor, but would still want a Labour MP. We know this phenomenon is possible because of what happened at the 2021 local elections, where the total number of votes for Green councillors was noticeably higher than for the Green’s mayoral candidate. Thousands voted Green on one ballot paper for their local councillor and for Labour’s Marvin Rees on the other.

The results from May 2 bear that out, potentially.

Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire on the newly-tarmacked and spruced up Turbo Island
Carla Denyer, the co-leader of the Green Party in England and Wales

The turnout in Bristol West back in 2019 was 76.1 per cent, but in the Bristol Central wards on May 2 this year, it was 39.4 per cent. So if you take five random people in Bristol Central, roughly four of them voted in a General Election, but only two of them voted in the council elections.

After that May 2 council election vote, Thangam Debbonaire picked up on that, and the more sophisticated voter who could vote for two different parties depending on the context. “I’ve spoken to hundreds of voters in the last few weeks,” she said, earlier this month.

“While some have split their votes this time, they know only by returning the Labour MPs we’ve got and adding more can we secure a Labour majority and stop the Tories getting five more years in power.

“I’ll work hard for every vote as I always have done since I won Bristol West from a minister in the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government which inflicted misery on the people of our city and decimated the public services we rely on,” she added.

2 They’ve said this all before

After finishing second in 2015, consigning the Tories to fourth and first promoting the narrative that non-Tory voters could freely vote Green in the next election, the next election came and they….didn’t. This is the fourth General Election in a row in which Bristol West - now Bristol Central - has been the number one target seat for the Green Party (after winning in Brighton) and they have failed to deliver it.

In 2017, the number of people voting for them almost halved. In 2019, it doubled, but was that largely down to the fact that the Lib Dems graciously stood aside to give the Green Party a better chance? Even then, fewer than one in four voters voted Green.

3 The timing

Predicting how, where, or even if, students are going to vote is often a fool's errand, but pollsters and politicians know it's important because constituencies with a high proportion of student voters can make a difference - just as Nick Clegg in Sheffield.

Thousands of University of Bristol students do live in the Bristol Central ward, and their presence was one of the reasons why the Green Party felt extra confident about overturning such a big Labour majority.

Green Party candidate Carla Denyer launches campaign for the new Bristol Central parliamentary constituency
Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire -Credit:Thangam Debbonaire

But by July 4, many students in Bristol Central will have finished their studies for that academic year and be away for the summer. The student vote is often over-played by commentators - statistics show that a fraction of people under 25 vote at all, compared with the large proportion of pensioners who do their democratic duty at every General Election. But, at the same time, of all the under 25s, students are the most likely to vote.

But will they be organised and motivated enough to sort out a postal vote to vote in Bristol Central, if this is where they are registered? Will they stick around long enough to still be here on July 4? Who will they vote for if they did? These questions will never be answered fully, of course, but it's likely that Thangam's Labour team are quietly more pleased at the date Rishi Sunak announced than Carla's Green team.

What do the experts say?

Bristol West has always been hard to predict, so even the super-computers of the big polling companies should be taken with a pinch of salt. Electoral Calculus have crunched the numbers and are currently predicting that the Green Party has a 52 per cent chance of winning, compared to a 48 per cent chance for Labour. According to that pollster organisation, that translates to a 40%-39% win for Carla Denyer whenever the General Election is called.

From looking at their data, it seems they are setting a lot of stall by the boundary changes that reduce the size of the constituency from 100,000 voters down to 70,000, and clearly believe those 30,000 were more likel to stick with Labour.

This calculation also leans heavily into the local council election results, with Electoral Calculus predicting that the Greens will have more voters in four of the seven council wards. The pinch of salt is becoming a lump when looking at the polling firm’s minute predictions - their computers appear to believe there are 2,818 Reform UK party voters in Bristol Central, and the party will run the Lib Dems a close fourth.

The Telegraph recently employed expert pollsters and concluded that - as it stands - their prediction is that Labour will narrowly win Bristol Central with 45 per cent of the vote, and the Greens very close behind with 42 per cent. And a YouGov poll prediction for Bristol Central this week put Labour on 42 per cent of the vote with the Green Party on 38 per cent.

Those feel slightly more realistic, and Bristol’s Labour Party figures do remain ‘quietly confident’ of holding off the Green ‘surge’, but even a narrow poll like this is still enough for the Green Party to use on its election leaflets, because they still need to get the message across that it’s ‘safe’ to vote Green in Bristol Central. It will certainly, according to the experts, be very close indeed.