J♣ Bermondsey/Southwark The Herbert Commission proposed to combine the former boroughs of Bermondsey and Southwark to create a new borough, which would probably have been called Southwark. In the end they also added Camberwell, and called it Southwark, and the proposed pairing faded from view. But intriguingly the boundary still almost exists as a Parliamentary constituency, namely Bermondsey and Old Southwark - a Labour/Lib Dem marginal lost in the 2015 election by Simon Hughes. He's currently looking to grab it back from Neil Coyle on June 8th, so I've taken a bus ride around the constituency/double-borough to look for clues. What precisely can the view from the top deck of the 381 tell us?
Bermondsey and Old Southwark
I'm starting my electoral bus ride at the first bus stop in Southwark, namely Kings Reach Building, close to the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. Midweek this was also the first stop for a small green minibus on a pioneering 2-day trial (which I might have blogged about, except that one of the company's employees invited me by email, and my long-standing rule is "commercial email = no post"). Instead you'll have to bear with a ride on a standard non-interactive double decker, which meanders around Southwark along a ridiculously contorted route no sane passenger would ever ride to completion. On the plus side, this does mean that the 381 wiggles through all-but-one of the electoral wards in the Bermondsey and Old Southwark constituency and, as I discovered, passes both Labour and Lib Dem campaign HQs.
Cathedral ward: The area just beyond the South Bank is a developer's playground, perhaps best symbolised by the ugly crystalline intrusion currently rising at One Blackfriars. Stamford Street and Southwark Street are lined by shiny modern office blocks and neo-hotels with chain-food bastions underneath, though not yet enough flats to swing an election. But there are several residential street further back, behind the railway viaduct, which the bus shouldn't be venturing into but the 381 is on long-term diversion. Major roadworks outside London Bridge station are seriously messing up eastbound traffic until June 2018, so we have to veer off towards Borough station instead. The pubs and Peabody flats feel more real along here, but nobody has any election posters up, it won't surprise you to hear. Neil Coyle 0, Simon Hughes 0
Chaucer ward: Great Dover Street has a solidly postwar vibe, from the Telephone Exchange to the string of what-flats-used-to-look-like further down. At Peveril House, a standard tower block, residents have been gifted the questionable luxury of a walled garden on a raised plinth overlooking the Bricklayers Arms roundabout. The upper deck's latest occupant sports a bobble hat and is outpouring some East European language into his phone, while the parents on the front seats are chatting in similar tongue while their daughter turns round and waves at herself on CCTV. I still haven't seen an election poster - are they even still a thing? Neil Coyle 0, Simon Hughes 0
East Walworth ward: Only westbound buses skim this council ward, because they go round the far side of the roundabout, but Peckham-bound services don't. This ward contains the former Heygate estate, and nudges up against the Aylesbury, so would once have been the strongest of strong Labour strongholds. As its population churns over, however, I suspect it isn't now, or imminently won't be. Neil Coyle 0, Simon Hughes 0
Grange ward: The bus turns left at the roundabout towards Bermondsey proper, along another road it shouldn't really be following (but for two years is). The George public house resembles UKIP nirvana with its red-cross bunting, nextdoor is an enterprise-friendly start-up called Cool Mountain Kit ("the Vertical Experts"), and then comes... aha, one of Neil Coyle's campaign offices, bedecked in bright Labour colours❁. No visual evidence in poster form is apparent in any other window nearby. Up at Bermondsey Square the weekly antiques market is winding down, while nearby M.Manze's pie and mash shop looks like it'll resist the cappuccinoisation of London to its dying breath. Neil Coyle 1, Simon Hughes 0
Riverside ward: Ducking back beneath the railway Tower Bridge comes into view, side-on. Our driver performs a textbook refusal manoeuvre at the Druid Street bus stop as an elderly passenger arrives fractionally too late, before halting a couple of metres up the road waiting for the lights to change while she seethes silently on the pavement. Tooley Street and Jamaica Road run down the spine of this council ward, where classic council estates rub up against occasional bursts of fresh brick infill. And aha! One balcony is adorned with a Liberal Democrat lozenge❁, the first I've seen, while another has been bashed into a communal garden a couple of blocks down❁... although "Winning here" probably isn't the best subtitle given that last time they didn't. Neil Coyle 1, Simon Hughes 2
Opposite Bermondsey station, in a small precinct overlooking a tiny garden, I spot Neil Coyle's actual campaign HQ❁. Activists are looking somewhat active through the window, but a sign by the door suggests that operations won't be opening up to the public today until 4pm. The adjacent unit is also the base for the local European Member of Parliament, not that he'll be being elected again, nor indeed anybody in his place. High on one flat's balcony I spot a Labour poster dangling in front of a bicycle❁, but that's balanced out by the Lib Dem diamond above Riverside Recruitment nextdoor❁. Scores are currently even. Neil Coyle 3, Simon Hughes 3
Rotherhithe ward: A bus lane aids our journey past Southwark Park to the lip of the Rotherhithe Tunnel, where the 381 starts its wild meanderings. It may only be a quarter of a mile from Rotherhithe station to Canada Water station direct, but our bus will be spending 15 minutes rounding the peninsula instead to act as an essential feeder service for local residents. Shortly past the station one of the older houses has a Labour poster in its upstairs and downstairs windows❁, but most homes hereabouts are rather more modern, and distinctly election-free. Neil Coyle 4, Simon Hughes 3
Surrey Docks ward: to experience true late Eighties architectural zeitgeist, come take a spin round Salter Road. The former Surrey Docks were redeveloped with terraced townhouses and car-friendly cul-de-sacs in mind, and what looks most surprising to the modern eye is how unprofitably lowrise they are. But all the more pleasant for it, with green fringe threaded through, and a regular bus to take you to the shops. Only one resident is revealing their electoral intentions in their front window, and that's another Labour poster plumping for Neil❁. Meanwhile plans are already afoot to replace the printing works at Harmsworth Quays with new development, and the car park enveloping Pizza Hut and the Hollywood Bowl also looks like an anachronistic waste of space. Neil Coyle 5, Simon Hughes 3
Rotherhithe ward: At Canada Water the 381 swings back into a ward previously visited, past a dense core of newer flats by the station, only the most recent of which are in Ubiquitous Late 2010s Brick. We stop at the bus stop outside the front of Tesco 10 minutes after we stopped round the back, before somehow ending up at the other gates to Southwark Park a full 25 minutes after we stopped by the first. A full and varied sample of a diverse electorate have boarded and alighted in the meantime, but nobody else is pledging paper-based allegiance. Neil Coyle 5, Simon Hughes 3
South Bermondsey ward: Crossing beneath the railway one last time, the 381 straggles off into yet another postwar residential hinterland, a reminder of quite how many people are crammed into outer Inner London. Our target is the parade of shops on Southwark Park Road, where I spot Simon Hughes' campaign HQ in a shop unit opposite Poundland❁. A pallet of flyers is stacked up outside, ready for distribution, while party workers are clearly visible inside performing some crucial collective action around a table. Simon's gaff is definitely busier than Neil's, I note. Neil Coyle 5, Simon Hughes 4
The 381 turns left down St James Road, which is a shame because had it turned right it would have passed seven Lib Dem placards in seven different gardens - political campaigning how it used to be. Instead I spot a single rather large orange and black poster across a balcony by the City of London Academy❁, where bad timing means the bus floods with purple blazers worn by excitable pupils too young to vote. Only two more stops and we reach the edge of the constituency, and the edge of the former borough of Bermondsey, at the junction with the Old Kent Road. Neil Coyle 5, Simon Hughes 5
And so it's a tie, according to my extremely unscientific survey from the top deck of the number 381 bus. Maybe it's too early in the election process for residents to have committed to posts or posters advertising their voting intentions, or maybe almost nobody does that any more because of cost, or shame. But my observations match expectations that Bermondsey and Old Southwark will be a knife-edge Labour/Lib Dem marginal, with the Conservatives and other parties as yet nowhere to be seen. In four weeks we'll know who's won... and precisely how irrelevant their opposition victory has turned out to be.