Neil Coyle is clearly enjoying his first General Election campaign.
His Tower Bridge Road office is plastered with home-made banners, letters of support and a forest of red rosettes.
He points out a ‘Vote Neil Coyle’ poster painted by local nursery children – “They may have had some help…” – with obvious pleasure. Politics is serious stuff but he seems to be revelling in it.
When it’s time for business, however, the Labour candidate for Bermondsey and Old Southwark does not mess about. When asked to outline his three priority issues for the borough – “homes, jobs, the NHS” – he launches into a polished housing strategy with scant hesitation.
“Council homes for those who need it, genuinely affordable homes to buy for those who can. If people want more council homes and more mixed accommodation across the borough, the only way that that is going to happen is with a Labour government.”
He has similar chiselled routines prepared for employment, education and health issues and, while at times it can feel as if he is verbally copy-and-pasting passages from the Labour manifesto, his passion clearly shows.
He makes job guarantees for young people and promises especially to help black, minority and ethnic people in the borough, who face disproportionately high unemployment. He slams the introduction of student fees and is scornful of A&E waiting times and the maternity ward struggles at King’s College hospital.
“King’s has had to shut its maternity ward because babies are being born! It shouldn’t be such a surprise – we do usually have nine months to plan for that.”
He becomes particularly animated when it comes to local spending cuts. When pushed on how Labour would reduce the deficit without introducing similar austerity measures, he becomes almost exasperated.
“It’s not just about cuts though, is it? This government has framed it all about ‘we must take away’, instead of saying that there are people out there who could be contributing more. That is a false narrative that has been delivered by Lib Dems like Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and Simon Hughes, and the Tories.”
He suggests using the bankers’ bonus tax to pay for employment opportunities for young people, and the mansion tax to pay for doctors and nurses.
When confronted with off-manifesto topics, however, he seems a little less talkative. He refuses to accept responsibility for the fate of Heygate Estate residents struggling to find affordable homes in their neighbourhood – “that’s a council issue – we’re going into a general election” – and is equally reluctant to acknowledge Labour’s role in the recent ‘shared’ garden saga at One Tower Bridge, pointing out that many Lib-Dem councillors also voted in favour at the planning committee meeting.
Mr Coyle finds his voice again, however, when the conversation inevitably turns to his Liberal-Democrat opponent Simon Hughes. When asked to contrast himself with the Westminster veteran, he almost struggles to find a place to begin, before settling on integrity and work-rate.
“I can stand as someone who has not broken promises to local people. I think people see a different MP here now than they did fifteen, twenty years ago – look at the work rate, look at the caseload! I have had people come to my office in Tower Bridge Road and get in touch with me personally because they cannot get an appointment to see that MP.”
He also claims that he genuinely cares about local issues, while Mr Hughes only becomes involved when press photographers arrive.
“On the Bakerloo Line extension, which Southwark Labour has been fighting on for donkeys’ years, when that Freedom of Information request went into City Hall there was nothing! Not a phone call, not a letter, not an email from Simon Hughes [to Boris Johnson] and there he is pretending it was him that got the Bakerloo Line agreed to.”
The message, it seems, is that he is on the rise while his opponent is on the way down. After a brief chat with his campaign organiser regarding rumours that Mr Hughes has already bought a retirement home in the Isle of White, [vehemently denied by the Lib-Dem] he returns to the original question.
“People are going to be questioning who will fight for this bit of London best over the next five years – is it this young bloke who’s got the track record of doing it, or is it the guy who’s been backing Cameron and Clegg without standing up for us?”
He claims that Mr Hughes has voted for everything the Tories have asked him to – “except gay marriage” – and that the constituency deserves an MP with a stronger backbone.
With Harriet Harman and Helen Hayes expected handily to win the other two seats in the borough, Southwark may be faced with a situation in which its national and local representatives are overwhelmingly Labour. Would Mr Coyle be able to hold a council – dominated by members of his own party and headed by his current boss Council Leader Peter John – to account?
“You can do both! You can be a councillor and challenge your council. You can be an MP and challenge your council. If I’m an MP and I think the council has done something wrong I will certainly be acting on it.”
He stresses that he should not simply be seen as a councillor but as a representative of a party he believes will give Britain a brighter future.
“Much as I’d love it if 90,000 people went out and said that Neil Coyle is a nice chap, I don’t think that’s how people are voting. In general they are voting based on how people perceive the values of those political parties. The Lib-Dems are even taking their own name off the posters and leaflets. They’re ashamed of their own brand – imagine how the rest of us feel!”
This neatly encapsulates the decision voters across the country will face on Election Day: will they vote along party lines or for the candidates’ profiles and personalities?