Universities and #GE2017 – Bristol West

Even in an election as strange as this one, Bristol West stands out as a unique constituency battle. With over one quarter of working age adults studying at one of the city’s three universities (the University of Law has a small campus, as did – until 2015 – the Open University) the student vote is hugely important.

But this is only one component of a varied electorate that ranges from the posh burghers of Clifton (recall that William Waldegrave held this seat for the Conservatives for 18 years) to the bohemians of Stokes Croft, and from the comfortably-off to real inner-city poverty.

Green candidate Molly Scott Cato – herself a part-time academic at the University of Roehampton – sees the unique Bristolian culture as being at least partially being due to current and former students. The “bubble of compassion and humanity” she describes makes for the UK’s only real Labour/Green marginal, and a fascinating campaign that most national election predictions miss entirely.

For Ben Duncan-Duggal of Bristol Labour Students – out campaigning for incumbent MP Thangam Debbonaire – this is a three-way battle. “A lot of students should be considering that the Lib Dems could get into Bristol West”, he told me. The Lib Dem candidate Stephen Williams, it should be noted, was MP here in 2005 and 2010. This perspective feels far-fetched – the party was a distant third in 2015, Williams himself finished third in the recent Metro Mayor elections for the West of England (despite coming second in the Bristol West area itself) and there have been few signs of the promised Lib Dem Brexit surge.

Duncan-Duggal does claim that “students are behind Jeremy Corbyn, and I’ve really noticed a shift since 2015”. It seems that Debbonaire’s ambivalent relationship with her leader – she resigned as Shadow Culture Minister a little under a year ago – may be at odds with the views of her natural supporters in the city.

Both parties have made manifesto promises around scrapping tuition fees, and latterly, Labour have hinted at matching the Green promise to forgive existing debt. These are expensive policies, and at such a cost it would be hoped that they are cutting through. Although Duncan-Duggal reports full-throated support for this policy on the doorstep, Scott Cato says that wider interests are being talked about.

“Student issues haven’t come up much – students have the same concerns as everyone else. Brexit [Bristol voted strongly to Remain] and the NHS have dominated”. For the Green Party, the £8bn cost (she used the IFS figures) is not a vast amount of money in terms of public spending, and the value is in free education as a societal good.

In contrast, Labour students report their peers are “very much behind the tuition fee drop”, and that Brexit is “not yet making a connection”, and although students tend to be anti-Brexit they “respect the democratic result of the referendum”. When pressed on the patchy Labour history of support for fee rises, Duncan-Duggal reports “no mention on the doorstep of the imposition of fees in the 00s”, and no discussion of the Miliband £6,000 fees pledge two years ago.

For the Greens, the message is clear. “All of the other main parties are implicated in supporting fee rises, and the gradual rise from the original Labour policies have seen students dealing with debt burden and mental health concerns leading from the highest tuition fees in the world”. Scott Cato claims that people are unimpressed with Labour’s recent conversion to the policy. Green attacks on Labour need to be read with the caveat that in neighbouring (and renowned election bell-weather) Bristol North West, their candidate has stood aside in support of Labour’s Darren Jones having a clear run at unseating incumbent Conservative Charlotte Leslie.

Despite the national launch of the Green Party manifesto using the backdrop of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, and the national flavour of the issues discussed in Bristol, both parties in serious contention see the campaign as a very local endeavour. Bristol West may be atypical in outlook and in makeup, but those looking for the first flowerings of new type of politics may need to stay up or rise early for the expected 5am declaration on Friday morning.

Additional reporting by David Kernohan.

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