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  1. Politics
5 May 2015

Bermondsey & Old Southwark: The Last Liberal?

He survived mergers, New Labour's high tide - but now, with most of the party's councilors wiped out and Labour on the march, Simon Hughes faces the fight of his life. Barbara Speed goes on the campaign trail.

By Barbara Speed

If this is the inequality election, then one of its biggest battles will be fought in Bermondsey and Old Southwark. On this bright Saturday, with just over two weeks to go, swarms of tourists eat gourmet snacks from Borough Market as they make their way to the Globe’s afternoon performance. The Shard and City Hall glint, ever-present reminders of the power and money lining the riverbank. Mostly invisible among the hordes of visitors are the borough’s 130,000 residents, who, bar a banker or two, aren’t here for the buffet of cultural delights. They’re a diverse bunch; the inheritors of the area’s industrial-era docker community and the legacy of its 1970s council estates. Four out of ten residents are council tenants (despite its recent fervour for estate demolitions, Southwark borough council is still the largest social landlord in London), while two in ten are Afro-Caribbean. Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, told me last year that a large proportion of ethnic minorities living south of Southwark Street couldn’t point him in the direction of the Thames. Many said they never even went there.

What’s in a name?

Every resident who passes by as we sit in St James’s, a quiet Bermondsey pub, knows who Simon Hughes is on sight: winner of eight consecutive elections here since 1983, resident since long before that, and lately a noisy member of the Liberal Democrats’ coalition party. If the memory of his controversial 1983 by-election campaign against Labour candidate and LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell (featuring the line “The election is a straight choice”) crosses their minds, it doesn’t show on their faces. To many here, Hughes is just ‘Simon’.

Less easy to forget is the Liberal Democrats’ recent stint in government, about which Hughes is pragmatic, but which those on the doorsteps may not be. He acknowledges that, as a left-leaning liberal himself, he had hoped for a Lib-Lab coalition back in 2010, but it wasn’t to be. “The options were a Tory minority government, which was formed before the deal was agreed, and then perhaps another election followed by a Tory majority. Or we went in to temper that, control the things that were too extreme and fight for what we wanted.” Through the past five years has vocally argued against Tory policies in the press and in parliament. He tells me of one occasion when “Nick” was away, and Cameron announced he was thinking of ending council tenancies for life. “I immediately said this was unacceptable, and literally spent hours in the Department for Communities and Local Government rewriting the document so that it would preserve the rights of councils to keep tenancies for life.” Yet when it comes to voting, he has toed the Tory party line on every policy except, a little ironically, equal marriage.

But when lambasted by students over tuition fees in a recent segment for ITV, he shrugs, and points out that three out of four Liberal Democrat manifesto promises were kept. Now, he argues that there’s no great pride in being in opposition: “It’s better to be in government than not. I’ve done a long apprenticeship in opposition and the number of victories we’ve achieved – you could count them on two hands. When you’re in government, you can do things that really matter.” And, over the years, it’s hard to argue he hasn’t: on transport alone, Hughes fought for two Jubilee line stations at Southwark and Bermondsey to be added to original plans, and more recently, fought for the Bakerloo line extension at Rotherhithe. As one recent profile noted, he “put Southwark on the (tube) map”.


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Hughes at Bermondsey’s Blue Market in 2007. Image: Liberal Democrats via Flickr.

The real question is whether Hughes’ pragmatism towards the Liberal Democrats’ chequered record in government is shared by Southwark’s student community or its council tenants and benefits claimants. He takes me out doorstepping in a sheltered housing community for older people near the pub, where recognition is through the roof. He deals in first names, handshakes, the kissing of hands and cheeks, the discussion of paintjobs and kitchen refits. He jokes to one 85-year old that she doesn’t look a day under 115, and firmly instructs her carer to help her fill out her postal vote when she arrives. “If I win the election, I’ll be back here for another chat,” is his parting shot. One campaigner out with us is Bill, whose father, Hughes tells me, campaigned for him in his first by-election in 1983, then moved to Arizona and later became a judge. While his contemporaries were moving across the country to work on Obama’s campaign back in 2010, Bill asked to come campaign for Simon as a high school graduation present. He’s now graduated college, and has come to work for Hughes for a full year.

In the forty minutes or so we’re out, every resident we knock up says they’ll vote for Hughes again. It becomes ever clearer why, on Hughes’ campaign material, bar charts showing the options locally are marked “Conservatives”, “Labour”, and “Simon”. An Evening Standard journalist recently alleged that large posters which started the campaign marked “Liberal Democrat” have had the offending party name scrubbed out. While Hughes admits his recognition levels locally are “very high”, he calls this line of attack, particularly beloved of his Labour rivals, disingenuous. “Every poster’s the same colour it’s been since 1981. The logo’s been the same as it’s been since the party was formed”. But he must be aware that this is set to be the closest fight he’s had in years, if not decades. At the last council elections, Labour took ten seats from the Liberal Democrats here, and Southwark borough is now Labour-dominated, with 48 seats to the Liberal Democrats’ 13. Yet the Labour-led council has had its fair share of controversy, too. There has been outcry over the selling off of the Heygate housing estate, and council leader Peter John’s relationship with developers, who bought him expensive Olympics tickets and funded a trip to a property fair in Cannes. Hughes also blames the borough’s “gradual social cleansing from the north” on the actions of this Labour council.

Cracks in the foundation

Down the way on busy Tower Bridge Road is Labour candidate Neil Coyle’s campaign office. An election countdown is displayed on a whiteboard, amid piles of literature (including boxes of leaflets enigmatically labelled “drugs”, “coins”, “animals”) in a long, narrow office that was once a bread shop. I first met Coyle a year ago, when he was already active as both a Labour PPC and a councillor in Newington Ward, which lies to the west of the constituency. He’s gained in confidence since then: his lines on “Homes, Jobs, NHS” are quick, fired machine-gun like as we doorstep residents in in a ward split between Labour and Liberal Democrat in the borough council.

“Time was, the route in along the train line was blazing with Liberal Democrat posters”, Coyle tells me as we stride up and down stairs. His optimism seems infectious: one campaigner tells me in a narrow lift ride up to a council block’s fifth floor that he’s fought five elections, and “this is by far the best chance we’ve had of winning.” They’re trying to mobilise what Coyle calls the “latent Labour vote” here, where Labour campaigns – and Hughes’ own – haven’t always been quite so determined. Coyle proudly tells me that at this moment, Bermondsey and Old Southwark Labour have the best contact rate in London. In a sunny courtyard of one block, boys run past us on scooters and roller skates shouting “Vote Ukip!” Coyle asks them if they know what Labour has done for primary schools in the area, and they snort – “We’re in Year 8, mate!” “What they did in the past, too,” Coyle mutters, annoyed, as they whizz away. In general, though, Ukip are not much of a threat to Coyle and his gang. An Ashcroft poll in September showed a slight drop in the Conservatives’ share since 2014, 9 per cent for Ukip, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats neck-and-neck with 35 per cent and 36 per cent respectively. Ukip supporters are most likely to come from the Conservatives, or the right-leaning within Hughes’ base. Meanwhile, the area’s student population are likely to make up the lion’s share of that swing from Hughes to Labour – Times Higher Education named Bermondsey & Old Southwark as one of ten seats where students could “swing it” for Labour. One sleepy-looking student who answers the door to us takes a window poster as soon as he clocks Coyle’s red rosette, and assures us that his flatmates will all be voting the same way.

Eventually, we make it down a quiet mews road lined with boutique flats and gated courtyards. One tired-looking man in cords opens the door and leans against the wall, unresponsive to Coyle’s greetings, replying only that “mental health” is the policy he’s interested in. Coyle, egged on by the man’s silent attention, launches into his own backstory: he says an interest in mental health is what got him into politics in the first place, both personally and professionally. Coyle’s mother suffers from schizophrenia, which means the whole family suffered in turn from the disappearance of intermediary care for the mentally ill and their loved ones. He explains how she could only receive help once she was arrested. As we leave, he looks a little embarrassed: “I worry I spoke a little too much, there.” Yet the constituency has the highest rates of mental health problems in Western Europe, so it’s a personal story that will resonate with many. Earlier, in the constituency office, more motivations surfaced. Simon Hughes cut legal aid in his role as Justice Minister in the last government, and, Coyle. tells me: “When my family split up – if he’d been responsible for legal aid when my family, split up my dad would never have won custody for us. It had to go to court, dad wouldn’t have had legal aid. Mum had been sectioned. We’d have gone into care, I would have been more likely to go to prison than university.” He shares with his voters a fed-upness with the status quo; a sense that the last government wasn’t really good enough. Coyle also thinks that the area’s high turnover of people could take a hatchet to Hughes’ prized “recognition factor”. Yet even recent arrivals know about his legacy: a 23-year old engineer who has recently moved to the area tells me Hughes’ 30-year tenure is impressive– “he seems to care about the area, and having been MP for 30 years is a pretty solid vote of confidence” – but her priority is keeping the Tories out, so she’ll be voting Labour.

The elephant in the room

Somewhere south of both Bermondsey and Neil Coyle’s office is the busy roundabout at Elephant and Castle . It’s a junction that’s seen much of the area’s controversy over the past few years – first, the closure of the Heygate Estate, then the erection of fancy new tower blocks in the area’s “Regeneration zone”. While it’s hard to travel far in this constituency without hitting on some construction site or other, it’s no coincidence that a housing march a few weeks ago started here, where gap between rich and poor is most dramatic.

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Photos of Coalition leaders marked “Traitor” adorn a wall in Elephant & Castle’s Heygate Estate. Image: Getty.

At the Elephant shopping centre, rugs blazoned with images of motorbikes flap in the breeze as stallholders make the most of the sun and the Saturday shoppers. Many I speak to tell me they’re not eligible to vote, or not interested in politics. The joint owners of a hair salon shake their heads hopelessly at me when I ask whether they know if they live in the constituency; a pair of men at a church stall say they can no longer afford to live here.

For those that can and will vote, it’s clear the national situation is key. Hat-seller Adi tells me he’s voting Labour: “We can’t have the Conservatives anymore – they just keep cutting, and cutting, and cutting. That Miliband, we’ll have him. With pleasure.” Yet he and his friends see Hughes as a “good man” and familiar local figure, who “rides past here, always on his bike”. It’s with regret that they’ll turn their votes to Labour. Tyler, a homeless man in his 60s who whiles away his time in the underpass beneath the bustling junction, tells me he’s never voted, but might this time. He’s furious with Cameron: “he’s all for houses for young couples and people with money, but what about the council estates? What about the people who can’t work? They exist. I know because I’ve met them, hundreds of times”.

Disaffected mess

Across the borough, non-voting is a real issue, despite the fact that Hughes has fought some sticky elections over his eight terms. In 2010, turn-out was 57 per cent, compared to a national average of 65 per cent. Lucy Hall, the only independent candidate on the constituency’s roster of nine (and, incidentally, the only woman), is from Twickenham, yet chose to stand in a constituency she felt was“emblematic” of the issues she is trying to address. She’s running on an idea novel to the UK, but also popping up among independents in Finland and the US: app-based democracy, where the MP votes for bills in parliaments based on residents’ votes on an app.

The idea grew from a disaffection with politics familiar to many, but perhaps inspired by slightly different circumstances: she worked on Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, yet was disillusioned by what happened next. “I was excited by the prospect of change,” she tells me in the sunny garden of a pub on arty Bermondsey street. “I still hope Labour get a majority. But I really liked him during the time that he was campaigning for leadership and then when he got it he just” – she sighs, a little sadly – “he just lost something. He wasn’t talking in the principled way that I’d seen him talk in the past.” She raised money for the campaign on Kickstarter, and got donations from family, friends, but also local residents, some of whom seemed quick to get on board with an unknown candidate from outside the area. “I knew that there was going to be a lot of disillusioned and undecided voters here because the Lib Dems let everyone down so much. Those disillusioned people are the ones I’m trying to reach.” As we finish our drinks, she says she had a “freak-out” on the way here – “what if no one votes for me at all?” She laughs. “I’m hoping I get a few off the back of being the only woman”. Whether Hall makes a dent in the voteshare or not, it seems that voters in these neighbourhoods skirting the river are fidgeting for change. Whether that be a Liberal Democrat pushback against a regeneration-hungry Labour council, or a Labour government that might just deliver the social change many here desperately need, only May 7 will be able to tell us.