Words: Isaac Lomax
Henry Michallat, Conservative, is responsible for the ward of Stoke Bishop. Working in Clevedon and following in his grandfather’s footsteps in the antiques trade, local politics, he tells me, is a convenient way to make a positive impact on his community – without having to give up fully what he enjoys most, and does best. In fitting, Bristol-esque coincidence, he decided to take a stand in the polls after bumping into his former MP at a Gloucester Road curry house, who suggested the step. Marley Bennett, Labour councillor for Eastville, doesn’t believe in being a career politician because of the potential for appearing out of touch with public life. It’s surprising, then, that his income comprises working for Shadow Transport minister Kerry McCarthy and serving as a Bristol councillor. His Twitter page, though, does reflect a fairly ‘in touch’ lifestyle – he has recently fooled the Daily Mail, a feat to which everyone should aspire at least once during their career.
The Liberal Democrat councillor for Hotwells and Harbourside, Alex Hartley has been admirably principled throughout his political life so far, once burning his party membership card over university fees during the coalition. He later rejoined the Lib Dems over strong anti-Brexit policy, and is now stewarding one of Bristol’s more difficult wards: nestled entirely within the city’s proposed clean air zone (due 2022, pending yet more setback news), and with an emerging housing development threatening the number of readily available resources like ambulances in the area, work is really cut out for the 26-year-old.
Hotwells and Harbourside: Alex Hartley’s ward as councillor.
Image: Delroy Hibbert
It’s hot. July’s heatwave has made a sauna out of the room I’m sitting in, only worsened by the fact that all windows have been locked in vain attempt to mute some nearby scaffolders’ vociferous effing and blinding. I’m in the midst of being booted off of my WiFi for the second time in five minutes, and only some councillors are able to actually see me because my camera isn’t working. The distorted ping that accompanies a Zoom meeting makes me flinch.
After pixelated meet and greets, we get talking. Across the UK, and more noticeably on a local level, political apathy among youth is rife. But where does this chronic issue need rooting out most? “If you want to do something, get up and do it”, Henry says confidently. He agrees with the view that there is a discord between young people and politics, but implies that, to a degree reminiscent of Tory individualism, it’s predominantly down to youth alone to, well, get up and do it. Not always, though. I question whether his view may be slanted: after all, the Conservatives have been in power for a disproportionately long time, and being one himself could cushion his perspective of society slightly. In response, Henry is keen to adduce the “militant left” as part of the problem (causing apathy, I think), without exactly responding to my suggestion. The militant left, I surmise, are simply Corbynites…
M32 skatepark, Eastville
Credit: Omar Powell
Far be Bristol from socialist revolution, though – the city is under a fairly centre-left Labour administration, and Marley is the only councillor not to acknowledge, or define, the national lack of young political engagement as apathy. “I just think people are frustrated”, he argues, instead citing pandemic-induced problems like lockdowns, boredom, and the closure of venues such as nightclubs. He realises that Covid-19 has perhaps contributed to a “national disconnect”, although does not specify whether young people have become more disaffected than other groups. Refreshingly, Marley is in favour of the voting age becoming 16 – which may have some mileage in combating what, despite conflicting views, is pretty clearly apathy among young people and politics.
Alex, 26, the oldest of the ‘younger’ political figures in Bristol, cites socioeconomic structures as the major cause of frustration instead. “I would use the word apathy, to be honest…people just feel like there’s nothing they can do to change anything.”. There is a notable lack of finger-pointing from the Lib Dem, who alludes to societal facets like the property ladder, and how they are intrinsically against those with little to no steady income – all too often, suitably, said people are young people. Indeed, January 2020 saw a stupefying – 120% – rise in youth unemployment, and Marley, too, acknowledges the unattainable nature of house-buying.
Marley thinks “property is unrealistic” for the younger generation
All those concerned, I think, would concede that young people have been omitted in some way from ‘the system’. How one is to go about changing that is another, vastly more contentious, minefield.
In the spirit of contention, however, Bristol’s history of civil unrest has elicited many an objectionable stance lately, during which, perhaps, the more humane ones have been sidestepped by Internet trolls. “Violence isn’t the answer”, Henry tells me, his emphatic hand gestures reinforcing a point I can’t quite yet grasp: how can demonstrative politics be classed as violence, seemingly much akin to those ‘extremist’ XR protesters? He refines his argument slightly, referencing the damage caused to Bridewell Police Station as evidence of violence. But, as I and the other two councillors are keen to reiterate, and Henry later does, too, it was an incredibly small, short-sighted minority of opportunists that weren’t affiliated with most of the politically-engaged, and peaceful, attendees. I get the impression that any ‘protest’ beyond waving placards on a convenient patch of grass somewhere, about a topic perhaps less widespread as racism or misogyny, doesn’t suit Councillor Michallat.
Henry welcomes protest, as long as it doesn’t cause a nuisance
Conservative PCC Mark Shelford, for whom only 17%* of Bristol’s electorate voted, takes a reprehensible stance on BLM protests, having strongly condemned demonstrators of racial justice for removing a statue of a slave trader – before he was even elected. Marley concedes that this didn’t, and doesn’t, stand Shelford in good stead, but accepts the result, warning that the new PCC would do well to be “mindful” of the vote – he may well front Avon and Somerset Police as a whole, but 83% of Bristol’s voters don’t want him there.
Alex was more strong-minded on the topic of protesting during the pandemic, namely from Black Lives Matter and Kill the Bill. He is unequivocally opposed to said bill, being a keen demonstrator himself, but is more open to debate in regards to BLM. I should note, here, that both Marley and Alex protested for the cause of racial justice last year, which, as Alex pointed out, is also an excellent way to engage the younger generation. It’s pretty hard for Twitter-bound racists to say something openly condemning the movement. It fosters a young – local and national – political perspective, too. There is much debate, notably differing between generations, about how best to consolidate the horrific foundations on which much of Britain, and nearly all of Bristol, have been built on. Given that years of peaceful petition to remove the Colston statue were ignored for such a long time, it’s small wonder that the sculpture’s time was up. I’m reminded by the Lib Dem, too, that suggestions like “reparations are an empty gesture…if it’s (racism) still a prevalence”.
The local elections saw some snap changes in Bristol and, for me, the most appealing were to do with age and the Green Party’s growing success. It’s a positive step, and all the councillors I spoke to are engaged with local issues. I do feel, though, that really serious issues needing really serious policy, such as racial inequity and climate breakdown, are simply unattainable without cross-party cooperation – on local, regional and national levels. The impression is that, while each individual supports racial justice and combating climate change, they and their parties just cannot pull themselves together, quite literally, to work out an action plan.
Spineless rhetoric is driving the younger generation away, which is problematic; we are the future, but the system doesn’t seem to know it yet.
Freestyle Bristol reached out to Lily Fitzgibbon, 18-year-old Green councillor for Bishopston and Ashley Down, but she was unavailable for comment. We hope to publish a climate-focused piece, featuring Lily, in coming months.
* The Bristol Cable