Can Kate Hoey, a prominent Brexiteer, hold on to her seat when her constituents overwhelmingly voted “Remain”?by Katharine Quarmby / May 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Kate Hoey is playing bingo with elderly locals at St John’s church hall, just up the road from Stockwell Tube. It’s all in a day’s work for the Labour parliamentarian, with some of her (former) constituents raising issues relating to the church minibus. Another pensioner complains about “the Portuguese” below sub-letting their flat to multiple occupants, before dotting her bingo card hastily with a marker. Hoey doesn’t win but is philosophical. “I’d have donated the money back after all,” she says.
Afterwards, people come up, asking for posters for the general election and pose for a group picture, smiling. One local, Barbara, says “Vauxhall is Labour, and so is London” and adds that she tore a strip off the Liberal Democrats when they came knocking at her door a few nights previously. “I told my carer, if she picks up any leaflets from them, they go straight in the green bin.”
The Liberal Democrats are challenging hard for the south London seat that Hoey has held for 28 years. They have chosen journalist George Turner for the fight, and the battle has turned what Hoey calls “nasty…negative,” shaking her head in what appears to be genuine disappointment. On the face of it, Hoey should win comfortably: she coasted to victory in 2015 with a 12,708 majority, over 53 per cent of the vote. The Liberal Democrats came in fourth, with 6.9 per cent.
This time around, Turner has made the Vauxhall contest about Hoey’s prominent role in the unofficial EU Leave campaign, Grassroots Out. Some 80 per cent of her constituents voted Remain, against the national trend. Hoey appeared, famously, smiling next to Nigel Farage on a boat on the Thames, during one of the more bizarre moments of the campaign when rival fleets skirmished on the river. The Liberal Democrats have made hay with this and have photoshopped Hoey’s face together with that of Farage on one set of local election leaflets.
Paul Nuttall, the new leader of UKIP, has not helped matters. He “endorsed” her during a recent BBC interview, saying that the party would not stand against her and that their voters should switch to Hoey. To make matters worse, he appeared at a local St George’s Day event last month on what used to be Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, irking locals. Writer Harry Iggulden runs the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall Walk, adjoining the Pleasure Gardens, and is former chair of the Vauxhall Gardens Trust. He said “I have no idea why Paul Nuttall came. It was probably to do the St George’s thing but we are non-political.”
All of this is fuel to the Liberal Democrat fire. Their mantra is: vote Labour, get UKIP. Of the Nuttall appearance, Turner says: “I was outraged that he did that…there is not a cigarette paper between Hoey and UKIP.” He continues: “We are telling the electorate what is being done in their name. To characterise her as being a representative of UKIP views is fair. It was her choice to get on the boat with Farage, rather than campaign with the mainstream Vote Leave campaign.” However, he refutes the idea that he is running a negative campaign, although he does refer to Hoey’s “outlandish ideas,” citing her support for fox hunting and grammar schools. He is enthused by the fight, though realistic. “I am clear that we have the only campaign that can win the election. We have the resources, volunteers and enthusiasm… this is a time when politics is hugely volatile and many stranger things have happened.” Hoey’s cause has not been helped by “Trousergate,” when her team photoshopped Turner out of a photo they tweeted of the candidates standing with local children campaigning on air pollution, but leaving his legs in the picture.
However, the Liberal Democrats trailed both the Conservatives and the Greens in 2015. Gulnar Hasnain, standing for the latter party, a self-declared “citizen of nowhere,” also stood in 2015 and is passionate about air quality, Europe and housing. However, she pays tribute to Hoey’s work on library closures and the local council’s troubled housing policy. “She’s been feisty on issues at odds with Lambeth on regeneration. They have not managed the process well.” Hasnain feels that Hoey made an “error of judgement” on Farage and the flotilla. However, she is honest about how Brexit is playing out on the doorstep. “It’s a mixed picture and depends on who you talk to—for some people who are politically active, they are concerned about her views on Brexit. Knife crime, school funding and air quality are more important to others.”
Some local people dismiss talk of Brexit revenge in the constituency. One former housing activist in Vauxhall, who has been an active Liberal Democrat in the past, says that he judges Hoey on her record as an MP. “I’ve seen what MPs can and can’t do from various points of view. As a former constituent of Kate’s, her level of service is unparalleled. I voted Remain and I get that people are worried and angry but I don’t agree with the vilification of her for sticking to her convictions, something that has served many of her constituents over a range of issues. I was considering voting Lib Dem in the neighbouring constituency where I now live because the profile of their candidate is similar to Kate’s, but the party’s pillorying antics are making me think twice—it’s a long way from Tim Farron hugging a Leave voter and agreeing to differ. Kate’s a maverick, I don’t agree with her on every issue, but when she takes things up, she is rigorous about it… local people respect her.” The progressive vote is clearly split—on the popular urban75 South London forum, opinions on Hoey range from the hostile to those who raise other concerns about LGBT rights and the Liberal Democrats under Tim Farron.
Iggulden, for his part, also refutes the idea that this is a Brexit election for locals. “Goodness, no, we are concerned about knives, clubbing, litter and corner shops selling alcohol. Kate is solid. She helps out. She’s been here forever. The Brexit angle underestimates the electorate. People were up in arms against her about Brexit, but of course they are going to vote for her. The negative campaigning hasn’t worked. The Liberal Democrats are barking up the wrong tree, they are not connected here.” And, he adds, for good measure: “People are bred Labour round here.”
As for Hoey herself, she characterises the main issue in the area as being housing, rather than Brexit. “It doesn’t come up on the housing estates. Some of my members have raised it—those working in academia, the media and charities who feel very strongly about Remain. Because the referendum was lost they are looking for someone to blame and I’m a good target.” She clearly feels that the Farage photo opportunity has left her vulnerable, but says “I can’t apologise for being on the flotilla and supporting the fishing communities.” She says, somewhat hopefully, that the local party “has rallied round.”