UKYorkshire Letter

Green Party sneaks in under political foggy dew to fire warning shot across Labour’s bows

A rebellious busker in Hebden Bridge epitomises the challenge facing Labour among some of its left-wing base

Hebden Bridge busker James Bragg sang The Foggy Dew and said he'd be voting for the Green Party. Photograph: Mark Paul

The sky above the West Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge on Monday was an azure blue, a rare treat in this part of northern England where the grey gloom of clouds is more typical.

The laze-inducing blast of sunshine suited the chilled-out vibe around the town, which was once famous as a hippy haven. There was an influx during the 1970s of bohemian squatters who filled derelict houses that had been the homes of workers during the town’s industrial past. There had also been a spate of deaths locally from an old asbestos factory. The hippies took their chances anyway.

The squatters have long since gone and Hebden Bridge has been remorselessly yuppified, although it retains a distinctly arty air. The pie shops beloved of Yorkshire natives have been replaced by organic food outlets and the attractive pedestrianised centre of the town is a haven of trendy cafes.

Several of them surround St George’s Square, where on Monday people lounged at outside tables listening to a busker playing guitar and singing in the middle of the plaza. Sporting a trilby hat and a week of stubble, he suited the Hebden Bridge laid-back vibe as much as the balmy weather.


As I queued at the counter of one of the cafes with a Labour Party member who hails from the local area, I heard a familiar tune drifting in from the busker. In his gravelly voice he sang The Foggy Dew, an Irish rebel song written by a republican priest from Antrim that glorifies the Easter Rising of 1916.

This guy has a bit of front, I thought. We were in Yorkshire, where a particularly no-nonsense brand of Englishness abounds. Not the sort of place where you’d expect to hear Irish rebel songs sung on the street. I left the cafe queue and stepped outside to listen further just as he reached the line about “Britannia’s Huns with their long-range guns” attacking the GPO.

Not an eyelid was batted as, rousingly, the busker belted out the rebel tune. My Labour companion chuckled when I told him what the song was about. “Everyone’s a rebel of sorts around these parts,” he said.

I approached the singer, expecting him to be an import from Cork or Kerry. His name was James Bragg. Where are you from, I asked. “‘Ere,” he replied in a broad Yorkshire accent. Bragg was born and bred in Hebden Bridge.

Where did he learn such a tub-thumping Irish rebel song? He couldn’t recall exactly but he mentioned that his family tree could be traced back to Skibbereen. It made sense. There was more than a touch of the atmosphere of west Cork in this attractive corner of West Yorkshire. Only the sea was missing.

My Labour companion, who had minutes before explained jauntily that the local area was a party stronghold, joined in the conversation. I asked Bragg what way he would vote in the election on July 4th. “Green Party,” he declared without hesitating. My Labour companion chuckled no more.

Why the Greens? Bragg replied that Labour under Keir Starmer was “too neoliberal” for him and not focused enough on left-wing issues. He epitomised a significant minority view of the party that now stands on the verge of government.

The Greens won’t win a seat anywhere in Yorkshire, but the party is still expected to rack up 7 per cent of the vote nationally. That could be close to three million votes on a high turnout, although under Britain’s first-past-the-post system, the Greens are only in with a realistic shout of two seats.

The party is almost guaranteed to hold Brighton Pavilion, where former party co-leader Siân Berry is running in place of the retiring Caroline Lucas. More interesting, however, is the knife-edge battle in Bristol Central, where the Greens’ Carla Denyer threatens to topple Labour frontbencher Thangam Debbonaire.

Denyer’s politically brutal campaign, which has belied the genial reputation of the Greens, has focused on lambasting Labour over its perceived weakness when it comes to criticising Israel. She has won endorsements from celebrities such as actor Hugh Grant, who is said to be annoyed at Labour over its apparent reluctance to launch a fresh inquiry into allegations of press phone hacking. Dance music group Massive Attack has also backed the Green candidate.

Labour has in recent weeks poured campaigning resources into Bristol Central, where the party holds every council seat in the local ward. Debbonaire, the shadow minister for culture, would be a big loss for Labour. The battle to save her seat may also be a warning to Starmer’s party of the dangers of straying far from its left-wing base. Rebellions come in many guises.