Fighting talk from politicians is never in short supply when election campaigns start, and when Tim Farron told BBC London yesterday that the Lib Dems fancy their chances of turfing Labour Brexiter Kate Hoey out of Vauxhall, it was easy to dismiss it as bravado: Hoey’s majority in 2015 was a huge 12,708, representing 54% of the vote; the Lib Dems finished a gloomy fourth, way behind the Tories and just behind the Greens. That is a giant mountain to climb.
- Before their hammering two years ago, the Lib Dems had finished second in Vauxhall in every general election since 1997. In 2010 they took 25% of the vote. If that level of support is lying dormant, it is a solid base to build from.
- Vauxhall is in Lambeth, which returned the highest Remain majority of any local authority area in the UK in last year’s referendum – a stonking 78.6%.
- Hoey is a long-standing Eurosceptic, so her Leave stance was no surprise. But a photograph of her looking comfortable in the company of a blue-blazered Nigel Farage on the famous Thames flotilla has done brisk social media trade and is reportedly already being used in campaign posters locally.
- Some local Labour activists might not be all that keen on seeing Hoey re-elected. In February, constituency members publicly accused her of failing to effectively represent their views on Europe or those of the constituency’s “wider communities”. Last autumn they censured her for seeming too friendly with Farage and not condemning the notorious Ukip “breaking point” poster.
- The Lib Dem candidate for Vauxhall is George Turner, a campaigning journalist. He doesn’t mind taking on enemies who are bigger than he is.
- The Lib Dems say that membership of their branch covering Vauxhall and Wandsworth has more than doubled since the referendum, with 538 new members joining since 23 June last year.
- Opposition to a hard Brexit looks like being a strong mobilising issue in London, and a national drive to encourage tactical voting against an “extreme Brexit” has been launched by Gina Miller. Vauxhall could be fertile ground for it.
- The Green Party, which is active in Lambeth and took 8% of the Vauxhall vote in 2015, stood aside to help Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney to her sensational by-election win in Richmond Park in December. The Lib Dems have rebuffed Green overtures to make a national electoral pact against the Tories, but maybe a local decision not to field a candidate is possible.
None of this guarantees that the Labour vote will shift to a Euro-friendly Lib Dem in the very big way required for a win. Nor does it alter the fact that the Tory vote might rise in Vauxhall, just like pretty much everywhere else. A substantial Lib Dem surge at Labour’s expense in Vauxhall could theoretically even turn the seat into a three-way marginal by splitting the non-Tory vote down the middle. Predictions of a win in Vauxhall for George Turner and his party still look like hubris. But these are unpredictable times.