Rupert Myers is a barrister, council candidate in Surrey Docks Ward, and Deputy Chairman of the Bermondsey & Old Southwark Conservative Association.
Politics can feel like a form of masochism. Either that’s the permanent cold from door knocking in the rain talking, or it’s the way that our local campaign is like a bumblebee flying behind enemy lines.Physics tells us we should not exist, and if anyone spots us then the game is up. This is a black-ops election campaign on behalf of the Conservative Party in inner South London. Bermondsey & Old Southwark Conservative Association: the Special Operations Executive for smaller local government in urban, left-wing London.
Here in Southwark the Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes appears to have spent the years since his controversial ‘straight choice’ by-election win over Peter Tatchell in 1983 becoming the godfather to every first-born child, such is the devotion in which he is locally held.
“I’m voting for Simon Hughes,” every third person on the doorstep proclaims, despite the fact that he will not appear on the ballot paper for this local election. Hughes is the Lib Dem’s poster boy, an MP who attends every event, and is adored by many local residents. The cherry on top is that the Lib Dems are going into these elections with the promise of free, borough-wide wifi, a policy which I expect will drive down business for local cafes which rely upon tourists in need of the internet & have been prepared to buy a cup of coffee for the privilege.
Hughes himself is a geographical oddity, because Southwark Council is held by the Labour party who look set to retain overall control after May’s election. Labour preside over an administration which has already doled out free school meals, and is set to give residents free pool membership, free gym membership, and £10 to every 11-year-old in the borough. No, that last one isn’t a joke: Labour are playing the long game and getting them early here in Southwark. How many voters will ever forget the day they went down to the sweet shop and got physically sick from tangy Haribo on the Council’s dime? It is a policy designed to breed cheerful, chubby young Labour supporters.
Whilst Labour & the Liberal Democrats slog it out for overall control in a vicious local scrap which has seen the reheating of old arguments over Labour’s proposed construction of an “exclusive wine terrace” on top of the council offices and leaflets from Labour stating that you “can’t trust” the Lib Dems, we’ve been fighting an optimistic campaign to hand back people their money. “You look very young” say patient local residents as I attempt to debunk the notion of “free” extra services, in a campaign which often feels like an unexciting political remake of the film “300” – at some point I hope to kick a Liberal Democrat into the Thames whilst screaming “This Is Southwark” before my colleagues and I are decimated by Xerxes (Labour Council Leader Peter John).
We are crafting a hopeful, optimistic campaign out of the simple argument that local residents are better placed to spend their own money than the council, who seem intent on providing as many services as they can, despite the cost of those services, and with seemingly no interest in reducing council tax for local residents.
The curve ball in this campaign is UKIP. “I’m not racist,” a UKIP supporter tells me, before reassuring me that she can’t be because she spent 20 years working for the Met and has a Jamaican friend. These are the most heartbreaking voters, the ones you’d rather voted for the free wifi, or the free money for tweens, or anything except the “I’m not racist, but” party.
It isn’t just the audacity of hope which keeps us going in this election. Despite the fervent support for the local Lib Dem MP, and the entrenched Labour Council, the ward in which I’m standing voted overwhelmingly for Boris Johnson as Mayor. Southwark is a political trifle of yellow custard, red sponge and blue jelly.
Anything is possible, we tell ourselves as we traipse through the rain with our blue rosettes and our cheerful ‘cut the council tax’ fliers. No matter how many doors close politely but firmly, there is a peculiar thrill to announcing that you are the candidate, and that you aspire to the lofty heights of a position in local government.
It is exhausting, sometimes stressful, challenging work to campaign in a local election. Sayre’s law of politics holds that “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” That law is broken here in Southwark, because the value of the issues is – as I have highlighted – enormous, and yet the intensity of feeling is still high. As you may have suspected, I struggle to retain perspective as a participant in an epic battle for control of local government.
Join the phone canvassing tomorrow evening from CCHQ – details here.