By Benjamin Salmon, Deputy News Editor
Thangam Debbonaire, the Labour candidate for Bristol West, has been the MP for the constituency since 2015. Here, she speaks to Epigram on solving Brexit, why student mental health has deteriorated, and why Bristol’s hills are worth it for the calves.
As soon as she enters the room, Thangam is in campaign mode. While settling down for our interview she is still discussing the rest of her busy evening with her campaign manager (it is 5:30 pm and she has three more events before home time).
Right off the bat, her answers are fluid, if rehearsed, though fiercely professional. In response to the point that many call Labour’s Brexit stance a 'fudge' – in which the party would seek to negotiate a new Brexit deal and put it to another referendum with Remain as the other option on the ballot paper – she is unforgiving.
‘What's wrong with trying to get the best of both worlds? What is wrong with trying to please lots of people? We're at an impasse now, we need to settle it and so I think we need to go back to the country with a Labour negotiated deal and Remain on the ballot paper; and I would campaign for Remain.’
This is something of a change of tune. Only last year, Debbonaire stated on BBC Radio 4 that she did not support a second referendum on a final Brexit deal – something which prompted the then-leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, to say she was ‘let[ting] down the people of Bristol West.’ In a seat which voted nearly 80% to Remain in the 2016 referendum, these were forceful accusations.
In response, Debbonaire let rip: ‘When Vince Cable said that, he was treating it as though it was a done deal, as though just having a [second] referendum meant we'd stay in the EU. I think people in the People's Vote campaign (which politicians including Cable and now Debbonaire support) have actually been very misleading because they've given people the impression that just having a referendum was an outcome in itself. And it's not. It's a process.
‘It doesn't do us any good to ignore the fact that we lost. If we want to win the next one, we need to have a better plan than just ‘let’s have one’ (a referendum).’
Debbonaire is also supportive of Labour’s policy to abolish tuition fees in higher education. Despite some research that argues the policy will mostly benefit middle-class students who would already be going to university, Debbonaire stands firm on ideological grounds: ‘Universality is a really good principle to have for education. If we really believe in education, if we really believe in it as something that is good for everybody as a right for life, then yes, universality is a good idea.
‘We don't say that only poor people should have a government-funded school education. We don't say that only poor people should have government-funded preschool when there is free childcare for the three- and four-year-olds, we don't make a distinction.’
However, it is mental health policy in which Debbonaire cuts through. Both the University of Bristol and at the University of the West of England (UWE) have experienced tragedy upon tragedy concerning student wellbeing over the past few years and Debbonaire is rightly incensed at the situation. What is to blame? Cuts to mental health services under the current and previous governments.
‘The Tory government and the previous Liberal Democrat-Tory coalition government have not done enough. They made massive cuts in the name of austerity, which we all seem to have forgotten about now. And for what? They put a whole generation of young people's health and educational outcomes at risk.
‘They made those cuts in 2010. And it's unforgivable in my view because we're paying for it now, the universities are paying for it now, young people's mental health is paying for it now. So, these things have a consequence.’
For Debbonaire, austerity and the mental health crisis are inextricably linked.
On what she’s done to help with the situation, Debbonaire is keen to extol her record: ‘I talk to the universities regularly and I challenge them, I have represented students to them. I have met with some of the parents of students who've sadly taken their own lives. I have talked to friends of students who've taken their own lives. I have liaised with the Students Union.’
These heavy topics have Debbonaire all serious – rightly so. Therefore, it is satisfying to hear a more relaxed Thangam Debbonaire when lighter themes are brought up in conversation. When asked about what makes Bristol a great place, it is curious and pleasing to see Debbonaire become quite starry-eyed at the beauty of this city’s people.
‘Bristol as a whole is an incredible city, which represents the best of diversity, the best of people from all sorts of different backgrounds trying to work out how we should live on this delicate planet. It has environmentalists, people who work in the creative industries, it's got two fantastic universities.
‘But it's also got divisions and deprivation which needs to be sorted out but people who are willing to do the work and I think that's something quite incredible.’
Debbonaire’s affection for Bristol extends beyond the somewhat expected celebration of diversity. As a keen runner, she relishes the hills: ‘One of my favourite things about it is because it's built on hills, you get astonishing views all over the place and great calf muscles without even trying if you're running. I am a runner, not very fast one, but I do run.
‘If you in the UEA, if you're in East Anglia, you wouldn't have the same training ground, so I love the hills.’
In Bristol West, it's between Labour and Green.@carla_denyer is an award-winning councillor who kick-started the climate emergency movement in Europe✊🏼— Bristol Green Party (@bristolgreen) December 6, 2019
Want her to join @CarolineLucas in Westminster as the second Green MP? #VoteGreen2019 #TurnBristolGreen pic.twitter.com/opnJEAJhJ7
With the election only days away, Carla Denyer, the Green Party challenger and councillor for Clifton Down ward, has an outside chance of overturning the huge Labour majority. However, Debbonaire, while clearly in election mode, still finds time to praise her adversary.
‘What she did in local council (proposing a motion declaring a climate emergency) I thought, yeah, that's really good. I took it to Parliament and as a result […] I raised it in a debate in March and we now have climate emergency declared nationally. So, she set a good example locally, that I'd be very happy to take inspiration from.’
On concluding the interview, it is clear Thangam Debbonaire is a professional at the game of politics. Her rebuttals and monologues are quite obviously the prepared lines. But it is easy to see her fundamental belief in her cause. She strives for social justice and a better future for Bristol and the country and she evidently believes she can contribute if re-elected. It seems she will have to wait until the early hours of Friday the 13th to find out.
Featured image credit: Epigram / Benjamin Salmon
Are you voting in Bristol West this election? Let us know!