18/05/2017 07:00 BST | Updated 25/05/2017 16:09 BST

Both Anti-Brexit, Both Anti-Jeremy Corbyn: The Lib Dem/Labour Battle That’s Too Close To Call

It's one of the most fascinating battles of the election

Simon Hughes, left, and Neil Coyle

“Two years ago we were on the backfoot, we were under attack,” says Lib Dem Simon Hughes, before adding: “Most people have moved on from the coalition and most people realise this is an election about the next five years.”

The former Justice Minister, who spent 32 years in Parliament, will be praying that is the case.

In 2015, Hughes was one of 49 Lib Dem MPs to lose their seats as voters gave the party a kicking for propping up the Tories in government for five years.

But with the constituency of Bermondsey and Old Southwark overwhelmingly backing Remain in last year’s referendum, the pro-EU Hughes is hoping Brexit concerns wash away any lingering coalition rage.

If the Lib Dem fightback really exists, this patch of South London should be turning yellow on the electoral map come June 8.

One person determined to stop that happening is Labour’s Neil Coyle, the man who benefitted from Hughes’ sacking by the electorate in 2015.

Whereas Hughes believes voters have “moved on” from the coalition, Coyle – who served as former deputy mayor of Southwark – is certain the electorate has a long memory.

“They know they and their family were made worse off when the Lib Dems were in Government,” Coyle tells HuffPost UK in his Bermondsey office.

“You cannot go to people now and say I’m not going to support the Tories when you’ve propped them up in Government for five years and you’ve cut legal aid, you’ve introduced the bedroom tax, you’ve helped the most right-wing Secretary of State for Work and Pensions this country’s ever had; voted for every single policy. Universal credit – Southwark was one of the pilot areas, it’s causing huge problems for tenants and landlords across the borough. He backed all of that, he backed police cuts, he backed the budget which led to the fire station closing, we’ve now got longer response times. You can’t escape the damage you’ve done.”

When HuffPost UK puts this message to Hughes over a tea in a café near Borough Market, the Lib Dem candidate shakes his head.

“His campaign, the Labour campaign, is only about five things and they are all related to the past, they are all related to the coalition and things we didn’t succeed on.

“He doesn’t talk about pupil premium, he doesn’t talk about raising the tax threshold, he doesn’t talk about 0.7% aid and all that kind of stuff.

“That’s the only Labour line.”

HuffPost UK
Simon Hughes' Big Yellow Taxi

Hughes electoral record is impressive. Since winning the seat of Bermondsey in a 1983 by-election, Hughes has been returned to Parliament a further seven times.

But as the ardent Millwall supporter knows only too well, you are only as good as your last game – and Hughes is working hard to get back to winning ways in what is his tenth election campaign.

Prior to the interview with HuffPost UK, Hughes and his team position themselves outside a primary school to canvass the parents picking up their children.

The former MP gets a positive reaction in the school-yard and numerous parents vow to support his bid to win back the seat, and some are happy to be photographed along with their children for Lib Dem campaign literature.

One parent, Tony Sommerville, the 40-year-old landlord of The Market Porter pub, will be putting a cross in the box for Hughes on June 8 – mainly based on his longevity in the area.

Sommerville says: “All my neighbours vote for him and I trust them.

“It’s through repetition really - I know him.”

Sommerville voted to Remain in the referendum, but stopping Brexit is not his motivation.

“I voted to stay in but I think they have to do what the public decided, so I’ll go with it,” he said.

One parent who won’t be voting is Anna Aksberg. The 51-year-old Swede has lived in the UK for 21 years, but does not have the right to vote in the general election.

She is very worried about Brexit, particularly the rights of EU citizens like her living in the UK.

The former City worker who is now a nutritional therapist said: “I’m really annoyed about this kind of uncertainty.

“I haven’t been any parasite on this society, I’ve paid my fair taxes, I haven’t had any benefits, we don’t even qualify for the child benefit even though my husband is English.

“It’s just ridiculous. Whose job am I taking? I would like to know that.”

Hughes is not the only anti-Brexit candidate on offer.

Coyle defied Labour party orders and voted against triggering Article 50 in Parliament earlier this year – something he points to as evidence of sticking up for his constituents’ interests.

He says: “One of the fundamental messages from the campaign was ‘I’ve kept my promise’. My promise was I’ll never vote for anything that will harm this community, and I include Brexit in that.

“Brexit will harm this community and I will not support it.

“Why anyone would support a deal that leaves us worse off than the deal we have now is for MPs to explain when we get to a final vote.”

Coyle is confident his strong position on the EU will help stop any Remainers who backed him last time switching to Hughes. Indeed, he believes it will help him pick up some Lib Dem voters.

“There are Lib Dem members now who won’t vote against me, won’t campaign against me because of the position I have taken on Europe,” he claims.

HuffPost UK
Neil Coyle outside his HQ

Stepping off the tube in Bermondsey, placards and posters in windows and balconies supporting Hughes noticeably outnumber those backing Labour.

Coyle is not too worried about this, and talks up his success as a local councillor as evidence of solid and growing Labour support in the seat.

He is certain his strengths as a local champion will pay dividends on election day.

“The fight here is Labour or Lib Dem, and with all due respect to voters intelligence, they know that neither party leader is going to be prime minister. It’s not going to be Tim Farron kissing the Queen’s hand, and it very much doesn’t look like it’s going to be Jeremy Corbyn. Voters are intelligent, they are choosing an MP for this area for them – who best represents them in Parliament.” 

Jeremy Corbyn is a fart of a man.A voter in Southwark

Usually, a Labour candidate talking down his leader’s chances of winning the election would be headline any interview, but with Coyle, the predication is no surprise.

After Ed Miliband quit as Labour leader in 2015, Coyle initially backed Mary Creagh to take over. When she dropped out of the race, the new MP decided to nominate Corbyn in order to speak a “genuine debate within the Labour Party” about its future.

Within a year, Coyle penned an article with fellow Corbyn-backer Jo Cox stating they had “come to regret the decision.”

Coyle’s criticism of the leadership did not end there, and in September last year he even threatened to sue Corbyn after his name was included on a list of Labour MPs deemed to be “abusive”.

HuffPost UK asks Coyle that having nominated Corbyn, does he ever wakes up in the night feeling responsible for the current state of the party.

I massively regret it.Neil Coyle on nominating Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader

“I massively regret it,” he says. “No one would have predicted what happened next, but I won’t deny, as it’s happened, it has been a source of huge regret and frustration that I’ve ended up nominating someone who has so little regard for the people who need us in government.”

Coyle’s frustration with Corbyn seemed to spill over into the Commons on January 25, when he walked out of Prime Minister’s Questions as Corbyn quizzed Theresa May.

HuffPost UK: You even stormed out of one PMQS.

Neil Coyle: [Laughs] I didn’t storm out! That’s how it was reported.

HP: I watched it! I saw you get up and walk out!

NC: But you also know that John Bercow, who I think is a brilliant Speaker and actually does give more time for those questions, I had something booked and I was just running to meet someone in Central Lobby.

HP: But it wasn’t like it was twenty-five to one, you left about ten past twelve, quarter past twelve [It was 12.16].

NC: That’s because the questions from some get very, very long and rambly and I expected to leave at quarter past, twenty past, and we were still in – unfortunately, because that’s how it looked – we were still in Jeremy’s questions.

HP: So you didn’t walk out because Jeremy was doing such a bad job?

NC: I’m not saying I thought it was a brilliant spectacle, but I was meeting someone in Central Lobby.

Coyle says Corbyn’s leadership repeatedly comes up on the doorstep, and not in a positive way.

One former Labour voter HuffPost UK spoke to in the constituency, 73-year-old Delores Poveda who lives in retirement housing in Southwark, had a blunt description of the man hoping to be Prime Minister.

“Jeremy Corbyn is a fart of a man,” she said.

When asked her opinion of the Tory leader, Poveda replied: “Theresa May has got balls.”

With it becoming increasingly likely that Corbyn will stay on as leader even after an election defeat, questions over whether Labour will split are likely to dominate the summer months.

Coyle is clear: he is going nowhere.

“I’m tribal on this I’m afraid. My membership’s only lapsed once since my dad signed me up when I was 16. I’m not about to hand the Labour Party over to anyone else. If people want to join the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] they can go and join that.”

He adds: “People need to be ready for that moment and ready to say: rejoin, rebuild, reclaim, get your Labour Party back. That should be what we are outlining.”

Coyle’s message to voters is clear: He is an independent-minded MP willing to defy his party leadership over Europe and prepared to fight to claim Labour back from a group who do not represent the best traditions of the movement.

“Doesn’t that make you the new Jeremy Corbyn?” asks HuffPost UK.

“That’s outrageous,” replies Coyle, with a smile.