Labour candidate Neil Coyle explains why he's back campaigning—and why terrorists won't change an area the Nazis couldn'tby Stephanie Boland / June 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
“There’s a real community pride,” Neil Coyle tells me, sounding both optimistic and far less exhausted than I’d expected him to be. Until recently, he was the MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark—the constituency where Saturday night’s terror attack took place. Now, he’s campaigning for re-election.
When we speak on Monday, his team have started returning to the doorstep following a suspension of campaigning on Sunday, and Coyle is clear about why.
“Postponing the election date would be caving in,” he says. “It would be ideal for the people who are attacking us: if people thought that they could attack, commit atrocities, murder people, and that that would change how we run elections, that would give them an impetus to do it.”
In the wake of the attack on London Bridge and Borough Market, in which seven people were killed and many more injured, most local parties suspended door knocking and phone banking, although some local campaigns continued elsewhere. “Local people needed the time to collect their thoughts, and to recognise that people had had a horrible atrocity happen, right here on our doorstep,” he explains.
There is, of course, a difficult balance to be struck between defiantly continuing as normal and admitting that, after Saturday night, things aren’t normal—for every person who went straight back out to London’s bars the next evening, there will be another who feels scared, having seen the attack on those who had done nothing more than go out to enjoy dinner or a drink with friends.
But if the brutal attack on Saturday was in any way intended to derail the democratic process, it is unlikely to succeed.
Far from turning away from the election, Coyle says that local people have come out to campaign in greater numbers since. “We’ve had more volunteers through than we really expect on a normal Monday. People are still turning up, completely out of the blue, to pick up posters and boards to go in their windows and things. It’s really positive.”
When I ask him about the mood in the constituency, too, he responds with optimism—and more than a touch of local pride.
“I think people are proud of how the emergency services responded. There’s been a real respect for the professionalism of the armed officers’ response, and of the treatment of injured people,” he explains.
And there is pride, too, in the residents of Bermondsey and Old Southwark who responded on Saturday night not by turning inwards in fear, but with generosity. On social media, locals advertised sofas and spare bedrooms, offering phone chargers and glasses of wine ten minutes from the site of the attack.
“There’s a community pride,” Coyle says. “For the businesses that opened their doors, and allowed people to sleep in their premises; for the hotels that not only gave out rooms, but provided lobby space for people on sofas; the individual members of the community who allowed people to sleep in their flats, or charge their phones, or have a cup of tea; the local cabbies giving free rides, so that people who perhaps didn’t really know the area or where they were could be re-united with their friends after a really traumatic incident.”
If this response is inspiring, though, to him, it’s not surprising. Despite the fact that I suspect he has little sleep—and has been campaigning hard for weeks—Coyle needs no prompting to praise the enduring resilience of his patch.
“There’s a historic echo here. The docks in Rotherhithe, and in fact the factories all along the riverside in this bit of London, were absolutely devastated by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. The number of bombs dropped here was absolutely astonishing.”
“That didn’t stop people then, that night after night, week after week devastation of local communities. But people carried on.”
Then, for the first time in our interview, anger enters his voice.
“These guys, in their ten minute hellish rampage, will not change an area that the Nazis couldn’t change.”
Across social media, there have already been calls for revellers to return to Borough Market as soon as possible. Lists of businesses to visit have been compiled by people eager to replace the sad images of that night with happier pictures of people back out on the curbside (possibly, with a gin and tonic or two).
For Coyle’s part, he hopes to plan a night out as soon as possible. “Hopefully, after the election, I want to take a team around, to make a point—well, it sounds like an excuse for a pub crawl, really.”
“We’ll take people out to all the bars and restaurants. We won’t be intimidated. We’re quite happy to spend our time there, and make sure people’s businesses won’t be affected by these disgusting, depraved individuals.”
What is clear is that, whatever happens on polling day, he and his team won’t let Southwark be cowed.
“Life goes on. And the bit of the South Bank, from Tower Bridge right through to the Tate Modern, the Globe, HMS Belfast: seven million tourists a year come through. That won’t change. We’ll still have one of the best, most vibrant, active communities; one of the best places to live, visit, and work, anywhere in the world.”
“They have changed nothing.”