On the wall of the Liberal Democrat headquarters in Vauxhall, there’s a picture of the Labour incumbent, Kate Hoey. She is perched on the prow of a boat, with the Houses of Parliament behind her. She is laughing. Next to her, in a navy double-breasted suit, is Ukip’s Nigel Farage.
The photograph was taken on the “Brexit flotilla” during the run-up to the EU referendum last summer, but it has acquired a new resonance now. As the Lib Dem caption puts it: “Is this what you voted for?”
As far as Brexit is concerned, the answer is clear – it is not. Vauxhall is part of the south London borough of Lambeth, which had the highest Remain vote in Britain. When I talk to local Labour activists, the photograph comes up again and again. “It is not so much her views on Europe – she has always been clear about that,” one tells me. “It is the fact she got on that boat with Farage.” Ukip is not running a candidate against her.
Hoey has been the MP for Vauxhall since 1989. For decades, her left-leaning constituents indulged her Euroscepticism, alongside her views on fox hunting (pro), grammar schools (pro), and abortion (suspected anti). In 2015, she won a majority of 12,708.
But now, in the Lib Dem office, the party’s sandy-haired candidate, George Turner, hopes to win the seat by running a Remain war room. It would be a huge upset: the Lib Dems were fourth here in 2015, behind the Greens and Conservatives.
Pro-Europeans swing by to lend a hand. One of them is Aminata Kanu, a 43-year-old biochemist from a family that traditionally voted Labour. “It’s not because she voted Leave, it is because of the way she campaigned for Leave – with known xenophobes,” she says between stuffing envelopes. She cried when the Brexit result was announced. “I swore last June that whoever was going to give it a go to get rid of her [Hoey], I would wholeheartedly support,” she says. “And here I am.”
Turner, a lanky investigative journalist with black-rimmed glasses, says that Brexit comes up “all the time” on the doorstep. “It is really important to have opposition MPs that will hold Theresa May and the government to account,” he argues. “We are not going to get that if we have Kate Hoey as our representative.” This campaign is personal.
I head south to meet Hoey at her campaign office. She appears in a long coat in striking Labour red, pats her maroon 1999 Mini and tells me to get in. “The exhaust’s almost gone,” she declares, as I move stacks of Labour leaflets off the back seat.
Our first stop is the communal room in a sheltered housing block. The residents put down their bingo cards to talk to Hoey about Jeremy Corbyn. “He looks scruffy,” one man complains.
“Beards have got very popular, apparently,” Hoey says dryly. “My Lib Dem opponent has a moustache and a beard.” She moves on. “What is the most important thing in the election for you?” The residents chorus: “The National Health Service.”
We go door-knocking on the neighbouring estate. At first, no one answers. “There used to be lots of people there during the day,” says Hoey. “But it’s quiet now because they’re working.” Finally, the third door we try opens, and a woman beams at us. “Robert, Robert,” she shouts to her husband, who is sleeping after his night shift. “Your favourite person is here.”
Deslyn and Robert Chart, who are in their fifties, remember how Hoey helped with the visa process when they brought Deslyn’s mother over from Jamaica. They assure her they wouldn’t vote for anybody else. “Every day we talk about Kate,” Deslyn says.
Hoey brings up Brexit. “I am not worried about people coming into the country,” says Robert. “What I am worried about is the English people keeping their jobs.”
Hoey needs to drop off her car at the garage before the exhaust fails. As we drive down the wide south London roads, I finally ask her about the photograph. She grips the steering wheel. “It was half an hour on a boat,” she snaps. “Everybody wants pictures of you with Nigel Farage. I was there supporting the fishing communities and the voters for Leave.”
As for the idea of a secret pact with the Eurosceptics: “Ukip aren’t standing in Streatham and Chuka [Umunna] is one of the most pro-EU candidates around.”
After she drops off the car, we walk towards the Tube. It is then that we hear someone calling, “Kate! Do you remember me?” It is Simona Florio, originally from Italy, who runs a community project for people with dementia. Hoey helped her keep it open. Later, Florio tells me that Hoey is “a very principled person” and adds: “Her views on Brexit are not xenophobic. I’m an EU citizen and she’s helped my project.” Hoey may have made enemies in her constituency, but she has plenty of loyal supporters as well.
You can find the rest of our consituency profiles from the 2017 general election here.
This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning