11 May, 2015Issue 28.2Politics & SocietySocial Science

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On the Campaign Trail

Amy Clarke

This piece was written ahead of last Thursday’s General Election.

A Shared Goal

Early evening in a South Bermondsey cul-de-sac, two small brothers—identical in all but height and shoulder breadth—yell back through the dark corridor to their mother. Sidling heavily out of the back room, their mother approaches, prompting me to conclude, in the dimness, that she is disabled or partially immobilised by illness. It seems clear that the bigger of the brothers is old enough to answer the door, but too young to ask a strange adult calling at an inconvenient moment to come back another time, or to explain that mum is unwell and indisposed. It is not until she reaches the doorstep and the half-light of the Spring evening in which I’m standing that her vast and protruding belly, housing what I deduce will be the next pea from this pod, reveals itself.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, pre-empting me as exactly that phrase forms on my lips, “I’m about three hours into my contractions.” Glancing at my sticker and finding the joke from the depths of her discomfort, she continues, “a different kind of Labour, I guess…”

Later, between canvassing sessions, we sit in Dun’s greasy spoon in Bermondsey, selecting our preferred variations on a bacon-sandwich theme and swapping stories from the morning or a weekday evening on the stump. Tomato ketchup is passed between tables, chairs with metal legs scrape against the floor, and Mr Dun—head chef and, as far as we can tell, politically impartial owner—watches us tuck into his grub, our leaflets and badges to one side. His silence on political alignment indicates business expediency, I think: he has ten to fifteen Labour punters all but guaranteed every Saturday lunchtime, and I’m sure the Liberal Democrats appreciate a bacon-sarnie on occasion, too. Mr Dun, local institution that he is, occasionally harangues one of the Labour councillors during a Saturday visit to come and have a look at a problem drain in the yard out back, or to see the workshop he has built for some of Bermondsey’s 16-year-old catering apprentices. Other than that, we’re left to our own devices.

The doorstep and the café have become microcosms of my campaigning. Despite the sense of intrusion, every encounter offers you a glimpse into the lives of your community. The whole world is brought to you on the campaign trail, no matter which party you’re stumping for, no matter which constituency. And every encounter is a reminder of the matters that any election is fought over. In this election, more than ever, the Health Service is an issue that could win or lose the vote. As I offered my help to the expectant mother, she calmly reassured me that, third time round, she knew that there was no rush to get to St Guy’s Hospital where her sons had been born and where the midwives knew her by name. Here, the Health Service—and every other key issue—becomes more than policy or manifesto promise. Through the outdoor balconies of grey apartment blocks, the red-bricked cul-de-sacs, the gated communities, the sheltered housing, the Victorian terraced houses, lives lived no distance from your own, although metaphorically a million miles away, greet the campaigner. You meet people who love what you stand for, and those who hate it.


The Stickiness of an Incumbent

I have been part of the community of Labour Party campaigners in Bermondsey since August last year, when I moved back to London after five years in Washington D.C. Any such community, comprised of volunteers, must gather around some shared goal: a nebulous future (church groups envisioning heaven), the continuation of an institution (royalists awaiting a new baby), or a social change for the better (campaigners hoping for an election win). Bermondsey’s Labour Party campaigners are no different. Whether right or not to be expending energy on the election, and on behalf of Labour, a win for Neil Coyle on 7 May is a shared goal among us: an imagined future.

“Find me one English owner of a cafe on the Old Kent Road and I’ll vote for you,” challenges Mr Gallagher, a resident on another new-build cul-de-sac in the northern part of the constituency, standing erect beside the open door of his Ford Focus and directing his tirade at the group of Labour Party councillors and volunteers gathered around their clipboards, marking off Labour incliners among his neighbours. “You can’t though, can you? They’re all immigrants, setting up shop and taking over our businesses.” Campaigning, especially in a swing ward in a swing constituency, makes meeting hostility inevitable—and, to some degree, welcome. In other countries political dispute is suppressed, or settled with the gun. “Of course I don’t vote!” Mr Gallagher declares, “all politicians are self-serving wankers!” He is unaware of, or unabashed by, the tautology, as a couple of recently elected councillors—hoping his generalisation is confined to the national rather than local stage—brace themselves to engage.

Mr Gallagher lives in this, one of the country’s most marginal Liberal Democrat seats: Bermondsey and Old Southwark, in south London. Fed up with the canvassers, and the politicians they represent, a strong protest vote is expected on 7 May. However, not all residents in the constituency are quite this disillusioned. Most of Bermondsey’s voters are deciding whether to return to their core Labour tendencies, after thirty-plus years of supporting the incumbent Liberal Democrat MP, or to stick to the incumbent for no other reason than that they know and like him. Since 1983, the incumbent has been a spectacularly successful local MP–with almost every resident one meets on the doorstep reporting that he has at some point done a “personal favour” for the family. His longstanding and close adherence to local issues—tracking down missing children, celebrating retiring vicars, saving post offices, championing Millwall Football Club’s progress—has been highly effective, a Labour volunteer would say, in disguising his Westminster voting record.

So the Labour team is knocking on doors, day in, day out, at weekends, in evenings, on bank holidays. With money piling into the constituency from Labour Party central, with celebrities (Eddie Izzard, Steve Cogan, Jo Brand) campaigning hand-in-hand with the Labour candidate, and with senior Labour politicians (Harriet Harman, Rachel Reeves, Chukka Umuna, Sadiq Khan) out on the stump, this is a marginal seat in the purest sense of the term. It will be a margin of, perhaps, 100-500 votes that the winning candidate wins by on Thursday.

In such a close-fought race, candidates, in search of advantage, focus their energies. Because of an inherent inability as Third Party to influence outcomes in Parliament, Liberal Democrat MPs have frequently prioritised the local-MP role: emphasising case work like a glorified local-councillor, and minimising publicity around the role of national legislator. Now more than ever—given the unpopularity of the Liberal Democrat party after its foray into government as coalition partner—the local record really matters to all incumbent Lib Dems. Our country’s first past the post system (FPTP), and its characteristic local-national tension, invariably constrains our MPs into contradictions. And this contradiction is felt on the doorsteps. With the growing dominance of a politics obsessed with leaders, every vote cast is for a national party and a prospective Prime Minister. But, with our constituency-based voting system, every vote is also for an individual who lives and works in and for your community. Every voter must decide whether they wish to prioritise the election of a parliamentarian or local figure.

This decision is not easy when your incumbent Member of Parliament has voted repeatedly in favour of welfare cuts, the bedroom tax, benefits sanctions, but also attends your church; when they have moulded policy and legislated for the austerity-paradigm, so damaging to so many, but can be found chanting the same chants as you in the local football stands; when they have overseen an economic situation which has seen 8000 people (of a national total of 900,000) feeding their families in food banks, but has also helped to return a missing child; when they have been unable to help the children and old people who live in conditions that are heartbreakingly pitiable, but whose office sorted out some anti-social behaviour; when they have not challenged an austerity which has victimised local businesses, but who is known universally as a great figure who drives constituents around in a visible yellow taxi with his name emblazoned on the side of it. For every politician who represents this tension between the local and the national—one neglected in favour of the other—any vote must be a compromise.

A red Vote Labour sign shines brightly in the springtime sun from a stake in the front garden along one of the main thoroughfares through the northern part of the constituency. In the house garden next to it, a yellow Liberal Democrat diamond, and the house next to that, another Labour sign, and so on, for a surprising distance. This line of alternating colours makes for a fascinating view, and perhaps represents democratic pluralism at its best. It is, at least, an image that captures the constituency’s—if not the country’s—experience of this hard-fought election.

Neil Coyle, the Labour candidate, won in Bermondsey & Old Southwark with 22,146 votes. This represented a swing of 13.8%.

Amy Clarke has a B.A. in PPE from Exeter College, Oxford, and an M.Sc. in Political Science from the London School of Economics. She worked for the World Bank in the US for five years, before returning to London last year, where she works as an Underwriter of Political Risks for an insurance firm in the City.