On a humid bank holiday Monday, Simon Hughes is canvassing the same street he lived in when he first moved to London, next to Burgess Park, even having a chat with residents in his old block of flats. It’s a canny move; one that pleasantly surprises a Bolivian woman and may even shift her from red to yellow on 8 June.
But my main question is: why is Hughes doing this at all?
Recap time. Simon Hughes was MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (and its former incarnations) from 1983 until 2015. He’d become such a permanent fixture that his being under threat at all at the last general election was a sign of just how far the Liberal Democrats had screwed themselves by being in the coalition government. When I met him during that campaign he was concerned, but nobody really thought he’d lose.
Yet lose he did. And badly. Labour’s Neil Coyle overturned an 8,530 majority and ended up with a 4,489 majority of his own. It wasn’t just a defeat, it was a proper shoeing. So why come back and do it all again?
“Because I think we can win,” says Hughes. It’s a simple, direct answer. But come on, there must be more to it. “I think the current Labour MP has not done a very good job. It took six months for him to get his office up and running, people could never see him, they could never get any answers. It’s been a second division service when this constituency needs a premiership service. I’m not saying he hasn’t done anything good but I think, locally, everyone’s noticed the difference.”
Let’s remember that these criticisms are coming from Neil Coyle’s opponent. Coyle himself strongly denies that it took him six months to get his office in working order. “My campaign office was turned into my constituency office overnight!” he says. Let’s also remember that we’re only two years on from the previous election, and Labour took over the seat after it had been in another party’s hands for 32 years. It takes time to establish a smooth-running constituency machine, and if we were having this conversation in 2020 then… perhaps we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Then there’s Brexit. “I’m a passionate European,” says Hughes, citing his record of studying and working in Europe. “This is the Europe election.” But Coyle voted against triggering Article 50, so aren’t they both fighting for Remain? “In the referendum campaign, where we campaigned furiously and pulled all the stops out, Labour were feeble around the country.” He pauses, as if to wince, before continuing: “And actually, they were pretty feeble here. The night before the election, the Labour MP was at a meeting about electoral reform with 12 people or something. There just wasn’t that passionate commitment to the cause.”
Hughes lists the Liberal Democrat promises on Brexit – that the people will get a vote on whatever deal is brought back from Europe – and also points out what he thinks are the benefits of having him, personally, back in Parliament. He’s worked with David Davis, these days the Brexit Secretary, in the pre-coalition days in the fight against Labour’s (they would say) overly draconian terrorism legislation; he says he has the experience to negotiate with the Tories over things like the Erasmus programme, the European arrest warrant and the customs union.
There’s also the issue of Jeremy Corbyn, but not the one of voter perception that’s usually cited. Coyle nominated Corbyn to be in the 2015 leadership contest, but since then, in Hughes’s words, “has spent the whole time attacking him”.
It’s certainly true that his relationship with Corbyn has been fragile at best. Last autumn, Coyle’s name appeared on a list, compiled and released by the leader’s team, of Labour MPs judged to have been abusive towards him. Coyle threatened legal action for defamation. Then, in April, Corbyn’s office complained about Coyle to Labour Party officials about the manner in which he had raised issues about its effectiveness. Hughes thinks that isn’t a good look: “People here do not want their MP to spend all their time on party matters,” he says.
Coyle has also called up the law regarding Hughes, asking the police to investigate what he considers to be false claims made in campaign literature – a sign, perhaps, of a closely-fought contest. Hughes believes that Bermondsey “wanted to give us [the Lib Dems] a kicking in 2015, but they kicked us too hard. I didn’t expect to lose by 4,000 votes, and Labour didn’t expect to win by 4,000 either. Last time Labour was saying that if people voted for us they’d get a coalition with the Tories, and I understand people not wanting that here. This seat hasn’t returned a Tory since 1931. We’re clear this time, we won’t have a coalition with anyone”.
Coyle may have benefited from simply being “the guy who wasn’t a Lib Dem” two years ago. In numerical terms, Hughes’s vote was around the same as got him elected in 2005. Turnout in 2015, however, was the highest in decades – all those people keen to deliver that kicking. I doubt the same anger is there this year. There’s clearly still great affection for Hughes among his supporters and that personal vote, as well as his vast experience, could propel him back to Westminster.
(Please note that in an era of terrible Lib Dem graphs, the ones on Hughes’s leaflets actually make sense. Even if they have topped his bar with a little photo to make it look bigger.)
Rachel Holdsworth is a former political correspondent for Londonist and now a freelance writer and editor.