On the doorstep with Carla Denyer

On the doorstep with Carla Denyer
With the Green Party co-leader potentially just days away from becoming a Member of Parliament we follow her on the campaign trail to talk about her motivations, her campaign and how she is preparing for what Friday brings.

“I never had a grand plan to become a politician whatsoever,” Carla Denyer tells me as we sit down in a cafe on Bristol’s Gloucester Road. The Green Party co-leader has just finished a Sisyphean canvassing session, walking – as one often does in Bristol – perpetually uphill for hours. She’s chirpy, cheery even, especially when one considers she’s in the middle of a pitched battle to become the Green MP for Bristol Central.

“I was part way through studying my degree in mechanical engineering at University in Durham and I had my epiphany about how bad climate change was,” she tells me when I ask her what her motivation was to get into politics. “That was the moment that I decided to dedicate my life to tackling it some way or another, because I was halfway through an engineering degree. I chose renewable energy, and that's what brought me here to Bristol straight after I graduated in 2009 where I worked in the renewables industry for six years.”

She tells me she gradually realised that “the UK wasn’t going fast enough on cutting carbon emissions,” saying it wasn’t the technology, but instead the “political decisions by those in charge” that was the block. In her spare time, Denyer started getting involved in local campaigns and writing to her MP but quickly realised that it wasn’t enough. A Green voter already, she joined the party and got involved as a volunteer, including as fundraiser for Greens' 2015 general election campaign in Bristol.

It was during this campaign that a colleague first approached her about running as a Green councillor. “One of the best ways of getting [green] MPs elected is to get a load of really good, hard working councillors elected in the area and then people get the experience of voting green locally and see that we're representing their views well at a local level and then more likely to trust us with their vote at the national level.”

Despite this, it would take a half dozen times of being asked before Denyer finally obliged and ran as a councillor – a role she held from May 2015 until May 2024 – becoming party co-leader in 2021 and eventually quitting her councillorship to concentrate on the election campaign.

“At each decision point, there were people in the party who asked me if I would consider standing and then didn’t take no for an answer.” Denyer tells that story, she tells me, because “I think it’s important, especially for women and people of colour, to hear that.” It’s something she tries to “pass on the favour” in doing – encouraging those from underrepresented communities to put themselves forward as future green councillors, MPs and leaders.

“I’m not in this for power,” she tells me, acknowledging that there are certainly easier ways to do that than via the medium of the Green Party. “I am in politics because I want to make the world a better place and even though getting a Green MP elected is not very easy. It might be easier in the long run than writing to MPs from other parties for the rest of my life, asking them to vote the right way on each individual vote.”

Indeed until now, the Greens have only managed to win one parliamentary seat in the shape of Caroline Lucas who served as MP for Brighton Pavillion from 2010-2024. Lucas, a former leader of the party, announced her intention to stand down from her seat last year. It is being contested by another former leader – Siân Berry – and is one of four target seats for the Greens which also include Waveney on the Suffolk/Norfolk border and North Herefordshire, contested by Denyer’s co-leader Adrian Ramsay and former MEP Ellie Chowns respectively.

Inside the Green Party’s general election fight

Read more here...

This has been, in many ways, an extraordinary election. From Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s bungled launch, the betting scandal, the return of Farage and the unrelenting dominance of Labour in the polls but quietly, across the country, Green Party members, voters and fellow travellers are slowly starting to allow themselves to imagine a scenario where they wake to two, three or maybe even four new members of parliament on Friday morning.

A WeThink Poll released just a week after we meet puts Carla nine points clear of her Labour opponent, shadow culture minister Thangam Deboinairre. It is, Carla assures me as we walk around the streets of Bristol, much closer. She points to a Green Party leaflet that uses their own canvassing data to show there are just a few dozen votes within it. One wonders how much of both the conversation I have with Carla and the stats used on the leaflet are tactical. For the Greens, turnout is key, and nothing will mobilise voters like a (metaphorical) knife edge.

As close as it is (and we’ll get the answer to that particular question this week) Carla has definitely given more than a little thought to the idea that she’ll be waking up on Friday with a very different job. We talk through logistics and plans, staffing and how the Greens are going to avoid losing the huge institutional knowledge built through Lucas’ 14-year term.

I ask whether she’s prepared for being an MP, particularly one from a small party with radically different politics to either of those likely to be in a position to form a government on Friday morning. I’m sitting down with her just days after I did an emotional interview with Zarah Sultana, Labour candidate for Coventry South, who broke down in tears when she spoke about not feeling like she was doing enough. I ask Denyer if she’s ready for that.

“Being a politician at any level is not an easy job.” the thrice-elected councillor tells me. “There is always so much more that you would like to do than it is physically, humanly possible to fit into the hours in the day that you have. My time as a councillor was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes you just feel like you’re pushing against this bureaucratic model and not getting anywhere for a while then occasionally you get a breakthrough.”

“Whether that is supporting a resident in your area who's been struggling with an awful landlord that's threatening to evict them, or the council being unreasonably computer says no about a certain issue or if it's a big policy thing, like when my climate emergency motion passed on Bristol City Council, which dramatically brought forward Bristol City Council's carbon neutral targets and – although I didn't plan it this way – ended up setting off a tidal wave of declarations like that all over the country. You occasionally have these moments where you realise ‘Oh, I am making change! This is all worth it.’ I'm expecting it to be similar as an MP on a slightly bigger scale and I'm ready for that.”

One would be forgiven for feeling daunted by it all, particularly when looking at the scale of the problems facing Bristol. 49.8% of the city is deprived by at least one metric, with slightly lower than the national average of 51.7%, but men in Bristol’s most deprived parts have a life expectancy of a staggering 10 years less than those from its wealthier parts. The city has been experiencing a spike in knife crime with incidents rising by 33% between 2022 and 2023, and this year Bristol, which is the ninth largest city in England and Wales, was crowned the most expensive place to rent outside the capital. This is on top of the funding issues facing the NHS, the cost of living crisis and the continuing impacts of the climate crisis.

It’s many of these larger issues as well as broader concerns about the stoking of culture wars and other parties tacking to the right on social questions that are attracting voters to the Green Party. Voters like Callum, who lives with his girlfriend in Bristol Central. After being canvassed by Carla I asked him what issues were shaping his voting intentions in this election.

“The NHS, climate, housing and the kind of social attitude,” he told me on his doorstep. “I think the Green Party are much more inclusive and open, whereas you look at Labour and I feel as though they’re pandering to something less than healthy in the British psyche, so I think that's kind of important for me.”

It’s many of these same issues that are motivating his friends to also vote Green – Callum admits that it’s his girlfriend who has been convincing him. When pressed on who he’d vote for if not Greens he pauses – “Maybe Lib Dems but then, I have massive student debt that I get reminded about every month so probably not.”

Elsewhere, I hang back as Carla canvasses one of the grander houses on the route. On the doorstep are a mother and daughter. The mother admits to Carla to be deciding between Labour and Green, leaning towards the former. Many of the policies she’s saying she’d like to see enacted º more taxes to pay for services, for example, are, Carla gently points out to her, Green Party policies. For the woman on the doorstep, the potential for the Tories to get back into government looms large over her. It’s a great opportunity for Carla to bust out one of the Greens favoured lines in the city “A vote for us is a win-win, you get a Labour Government and a set of Green MPs to hold them to account.” It’s compelling, the mother admits before promising to think about it. Carla asks the daughter if she has any questions or issues she’d like to discuss. Her immediate response? Gaza.

As we debrief around the corner I ask if the genocide in Gaza is coming up a lot. “Absolutely,” Carla tells me. As we continue a man walking his dog stops Carla to talk about education policy. He admits that he was a Labour man, having a Labour board in his front Garden as recently as the day before. He tells Carla conversations with his niece, who she canvassed the previous week, and his colleagues had slowly won him round. By the end of the conversation, he’d signed up to have a Vote Green sign placed in his front garden.

Denyer is recognised over and over. People stop to wish her good luck. To say they’ve seen her on the TV. “I really enjoy the extent to which, especially since the TV debates, I’ve had people coming up to me in the street to say ‘thank you for saying what I and all my friends think’,” she tells me over coffee. “When we launched our manifesto in Brighton, I’d stayed over the night before. I was on my way out of the hotel and a woman was on her way in to start her shift. She was a youngish, probably my age, black woman. I don’t know what her role was but I would guess it wasn’t terribly well paid in a hotel. She came up to me to ask if she could have a hug and take a selfie to send to her husband. Occasionally I have people from more right-wing publications criticising me, but I can take a dozen of these if I get hugs from people on minimum wage working in a hotel.”

Those attacks are starting to come and the attention on the streets, though good for now, is slowly starting to change her life. She jokes about stopping going to the corner shop in her pyjamas when first elected as a councillor and now not going out without doing her hair and a little make-up. We talk about the realities of being a young, queer woman in the public eye. About what that looks like in her day-to-day life, particularly in a smaller city like Bristol, where the queer pool is even smaller.

How then, I ask, does she remain sane?

“Spending time and cooking with my friends in particular. It’s what we did yesterday,” she says, referring to the first day off she’d had in six weeks. “I’ve got a close friend whose birthday is actually on election day. She very sweetly messaged me and said, ‘For my birthday I would like you to be a Green MP but for my party, I would like to have you and a handful of other friends round for a quiet evening in, so when are you free?”

An afternoon spent cooking and an evening spent eating and drinking wine in the sun is what “really restores” her. Elsewhere her penchant for wild swimming (of course) has made its way to local Green party groups who have been adding in swims to her schedule as she meets them around the country.

We talk music – “Massive Attack of course, I had a poster of them on my wall when I was younger and now they have endorsed me which is very surreal” and football – “I'm really not a football fan, I'm sorry and I'm not gonna be the kind of politician that pretends I am to get somebody on-side.” until it’s time for Carla to rush off to squeeze in a haircut before going back out on the campaign trail.

It's five weeks, almost to the day since I first sat down with her, in a cafe just a few metres from where we part ways for a second time. As I make my way up the hill to retrieve my bag from campaign HQ, I think about what I expected to find.

Campaigns are hard work. They’re unrelenting, stressful and exhausting – emotionally, physically, spiritually. I thought I’d come back to a slightly frayed version of the jubilant politician I met in May, then still riding high on the results of the locals with the fight of her political life still (we thought) many months ahead. Instead, Denyer is, annoyingly, fresh. She’s calm. Jovial. Friendly but at a distance. It strikes me that she is all these things, because she’s ready.

Her grand plan may not have been to enter the Houses of Parliament but she is a woman who has worked, built and organised towards that very goal, knowingly or otherwise, for close to a decade. Everywhere in Bristol, you see those little green shoots I wrote about back in May. This one is so close to breaking through.

Green party Bristol / Twitter

Read more Huck Election content here.

Enjoyed this article? Follow Huck on Instagram.

Support stories like this by becoming a member of Club Huck.

Latest on Huck

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now