The Battle for Bermondsey

Bermondsey made a name for itself in the notorious 1983 by-election. Lincoln Hill looks at Labour’s battle to keep the Lib Dems from coming back.

By the numbers, Bermondsey and Old Southwark is barely marginal, with a Labour majority of 4,489 votes over the Liberal Democrats. Below the surface, though, it’s in play. A year ago, more than 70% of the constituency voted to remain in the EU. Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat, held the seat for 32 years, from the notorious by-election of 1983 until he lost it to Neil Coyle, the Labour candidate, in 2015. Many voters remember him, and had personal contact with his office over the decades. The Lib Dems hope pro-European sentiment and Hughes’ name recognition will carry them over the line.

Labour, however, has cause for optimism. Coyle voted against triggering Article 50, which has kept many Remainers on side, and has established a local reputation independent of Jeremy Corbyn’s national leadership. Labour’s canvassing operation is also much more extensive than the Liberal Democrats’ campaign, which is essential in mobilising low-propensity voters, particularly the young and social tenants, who dominate much of Southwark.

As in Bedford, there isn’t overwhelming enthusiasm for another vote. Again as in Bedford, this is the fourth year running that Southwark has been asked to go to the polls (council and European election, General Election, Mayoral Election, and another General Election), with the EU referendum thrown in to weary the punters. In part, that has diminished the appeal of the Liberal Democrats’ call for another EU vote – but the Conservative Government is both deeply unpopular in the seat, and widely expected to win the election, so Hughes and Coyle are both trying to present themselves as the one to hold Theresa May to account. That is the lens through which voters are seeing this contest.

Doubts linger about Jeremy Corbyn’s suitability for national leadership, and the Lib Dems’ clear national stance against leaving the Single Market has helped them. For voters whose primary motivation is Brexit, the Lib Dems have an edge. On the other hand, housing concerns and disability benefits crop up all the time on the doors as well. Southwark, as a central London borough, suffers from an acute shortage of available and affordable housing, and many residents were affected by the so-called “bedroom tax” introduced in the last Parliament. Labour hopes to pin both of these on the Lib Dems from their time in the Coalition Government, while the Lib Dems have tried to shift the blame to the Labour Council and its building and regeneration programme.

The last wildcard, as always, is how students and young people will vote. Labour’s manifesto promise on tuition fees has cut through, and could be winning votes that have traditionally gone to the Liberal Democrats. It may be the policy issue that gives Labour the crucial edge, but the issues of national leadership and Brexit may reassert themselves before the campaign is through. We’ll find out wee hours of 9 June.

You can also read my colleague Matt McCarthy’s twin piece, The Battle for Bedford, here.