Unlike many other candidates in the borough, Helen Hayes refuses to be drawn into a slanging match with her election opponents.
“There are different issues in different parts of the constituency and the opposition candidates are all working hard,” the Labour candidate for Dulwich and West Norwood says when asked to assess her opposition.
“They’re all making their case and we’re trying to make a better case. I’m not in the business of being negative to other candidates. It’s not a productive way to campaign and I don’t think it’s conducive to engaging the public in a general election campaign.”
This stance is admirable, but then again there seems less motivation for her to engage in the sort mudslinging seen further north in the borough. After 23 years with Tessa Jowell as MP, this seat looks set to be retained by Labour with little fuss – although try telling Ms Hayes that.
“I’m absolutely not taking the election result for granted at all. The result in 2010 was a very good result but it hasn’t always been a Labour one. The council seats have over the years, until very recently, been held by parties other than Labour. We are not taking it for granted.”
Again, this measured response is perhaps expected of a candidate who should win handily, so long as her run-in remains uncontroversial. Instead of bluster, Ms Hayes seems to want to let her record as councillor do the talking.
When asked to name two achievements from her five years as councillor in College ward, she points to education and road safety.
“I am really proud of the work I have done helping to turn around a primary school in my ward. It had been left to coast along under Tories, it was a satisfactory school and that was it – and we know that ‘satisfactory’ never actually means satisfactory.
“It wasn’t a school that I would have been happy to send my children to, and therefore it wasn’t a school that we should have accepted. We got additional scrutiny and support into the school and we got a change in the leadership and £3m of investment into the site. It’s now well on its way to being a really excellent school.”
She slams the Lib-Dems for the lack of school places in the borough, and describes claims that they have been pushing for the introduction of new schools while Labour piggy-backed on the issue as ‘nonsense’.
“We inherited a situation in 2010 where the Lib-Dems had singularly failed to anticipate a spike in the birth rate and the increase in demand for school places. They hadn’t done anything about it and that had left a huge number of families in the East Dulwich area in particular in a very, very, very difficult situation.
“My eldest daughter is nine – that was our generation and our experience, it was very, very, difficult to get a place in the local school. We have worked since that time as hard as possible to deliver and open new schools. Actually the Lib-Dems have caused some problems – they were behind proposals for a Nunhead primary school which the government wanted to build on the Dulwich Hospital site, which would have compromised our plans for a new secondary school. That’s nonsense, quite frankly.”
She also highlights her role in proposing that all council-run roads adhere to a 20mph speed limit, and excitedly announced the introduction of London’s first ‘Dutch-style’ roundabout – in which cyclists are kept separate from cars – at the junction of Crystal Palace Parade, Sydenham Hill, Westwood Hill and Fountain Drive.
However, she says the two main issues affecting Southwark and Lambeth [which the constituency straddles] going into this election, are housing and local spending.
“We do have a crisis in housing locally. It’s a Southwark-wide and a Lambeth-wide issue. We need to get more affordable homes and we need to intervene in the privately-rented sector to get people a better deal when they’re renting, which more and more people are doing in the area.”
Are the much-quoted 11,000 council homes that are to be built over the next 30 years enough? Labour-run Southwark Council was recently slammed by Bermondsey &?Old Southwark Lib-Dem candidate Simon Hughes, who said that many people on the waiting list ‘would be dead’ by the time the new homes were available.
“It’s pretty rich for Simon Hughes to comment on that issue when his government voted to cut the budget for new social house building by 60%. We were the first council ever to have someone take an independent look at our housing needs and make a long-term plan, after years of councillors taking short-term decisions. That was where the plan for 11,000 new council homes came from. It was a realistic and affordable and deliverable commitment over 30 years. If we can deliver more, we will. If we have a government that will make it easier and quicker to build more homes, we will do that.”
She also quoted the Daily Telegraph when discussing the Conservatives’ plans to extend Right to Buy – ‘economically illiterate and morally reprehensible’ – and slammed the level of local spending cuts imposed on Southwark and Lambeth councils by the government as ‘unfair’.
“The figures I have seen from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an independent body, shows that on average more deprived authorities had around £220 per head of population taken away, while the least deprived authorities had £40 taken away.”
Her facts are sound and her policies are well-researched – but attempting to replace such a well-established MP is always going to be tricky. While her quiet, uncombative nature may be enough to win election in a safe Labour seat, will this be enough, ably to represent her constituency in a possible minority government? Will she be able to escape the shadow of her predecessor?
“I’ll find my own way. On surgeries, for example, I think that continuity is important because the need is there and the system works well. But I am a different personality and I’ll have a different way of doing things.”