Kate Hoey is the face of the new-look Labour party. Less right-on than right-wing, the MP for London's Vauxhall, in the heart of "loony left" Lambeth, has taken up the challenge of imposing order on the chaos left in the borough after years of council mismanagement and corruption. But, asks BRIAN DEER, whose side is Kate Hoey really on - the party's, the electorate's or her own?
It's six-thirty in the evening, and upstairs at the Brixton Neighbourhood Community Association two dozen people are waiting to see their member of parliament. They are a sad-looking bunch and have pitiful stories to tell. A pensioner widow has turned up to complain that her bathroom keeps flooding and nothing has been done to fix it. An old man hasn't had hot water in his flat for two years. A young family feel trapped in their tower block because the lifts never work.
As individuals, or in family groups, they take their turn to file into a small room, to seek advice from Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for Lambeth, Vauxhall - whose constituency is a wedge of south London between Brixton and Waterloo. "It took them twelve visits to fix my heating," is how a young fair-haired woman kicks in with her tale, after a minute of personal detail. "They kept sending different plumbers. And sometimes they'd say, like: 'We'll be round tomorrow.' And I'd wait all day. And nobody turned up."
They - in this and most of the other accounts that Hoey will hear this evening - is shorthand for Lambeth Council, believed to be the most incompetent, defrauded and strife-torn local authority in human memory. Vauxhall constituency is the heart of the borough, and more than half of its 90,000 residents live on the Labour-run council's estates. It's rare for someone to come to one of these advice surgeries and not say that They are involved.
"Mm. Hm," says Hoey to the fair-haired woman, with a curl of her wide mouth and a nasal mid-tone sound that's somewhere between expectant and weary.
"And then I said that I would go to court," the woman continues. "And then the foreman came round himself and fixed it all in one go."
"So now they've sorted it out?" asks Hoey in an upbeat voice, betraying a distinct northern Irish accent.
"No, no, no."
"The heating's working, but when the hot water was turned on, there was a lot of black gritty bits in the water, so I couldn't use it."
"Mm, hum." Hoey repeats herself, definitely weary, jotting a note on a pad.
"So I reported it on quite a few occasions, and finally, about five, six weeks ago, they came. And he couldn't really understand why it - the water - was dirty. I've never, ever had a bath."
"Is your rent being paid direct, or are you paying part of it?"
"I just pay, like, the water rates."
"Water rates for no water," the MP snorts, putting down her pen as if signalling the consultation's closure.
"Yeah," says the woman, opening her next chapter of grief. "And I am getting all this sewage coming up in my bath."
It's all pretty pathetic stuff - and, by the end of an evening, you'd need a stone heart not to feel disturbed by these people's plight. But you'd need cloth ears not to catch what Hoey doesn't say as she doles out sympathy. Her constituency encompasses one of the poorest inner-city areas in Britain, and she enjoys a Labour majority of more than 10,000, but the words "government", "Major", "Tories" or "spending cuts" are not among her standard responses. Instead, she'll agree with those who suggest that their landlord - They - is to blame.
"Who are your councillors?" she may ask towards the end of a discussion. "Oh really? Ah. Em."
Given the woeful experiences that her constituents recount and the borough's appalling reputation, she seems on pretty safe territory to take this tack. Agreeing with electors is not an innovation. On the jigsaw puzzle of housing estates (which, after a veneer of owner-occupation is stripped away, is pretty much all there is in Vauxhall) you'll find that hatred of the council transcends any political idea. "Lambeth" is a dirty word, and Hoey knows better than most how foully it can be spat by the population.
In the past few months, the borough has been rocked by reports about unparalleled mismanagement and corruption. According to sources ranging from the council's own chief executive to the government-leaning district auditor, tens of millions of pounds have been improperly diverted. The level of financial waste goes off any recognised scale. And behind many apparent screw-ups that tenants bring to Hoey are a web of elaborate bloodsucking frauds.
It's a sad picture to paint of any public body, but that it should be Lambeth Council has a special irony. They are meant to be a socialist authority, professing a better way than capitalist greed and waste. If you believe the theory, people should be queuing at Hoey's surgery, not to complain about their water or lifts, but to praise Labour's New Jerusalem.
For people seeking help about sewage in their baths, of course, the grand sweep of ideology isn't pressing. But it was Lambeth which in 1979 - under the Marxist administration of Edward "Red Ted" Knight - organised the first public demonstration against the Thatcher government. It was Lambeth which, in 1986, saw Knight and nearly the entire Labour group surcharged and disqualified from office for refusing to set a rate. It was Lambeth which in 1991 - under another left-wing leader, Joan Twelves - failed to collect the poll tax and opposed the war in the Persian Gulf.
But now such ambitions have been crushed by the facts - and this little borough that clings to the Thames has become a microcosm of the collapse of socialist systems that once spanned the globe. A formal inquiry, headed by a senior lawyer, has been trying to track the missing millions. The Department of the Environment is poised to order the wholesale firing of the borough's "direct labour" work force. And the only reason why the government doesn't step in and suspend the council is because They are doing such an embarrassing job.
It's a strange place, at the best of times, to be a member of parliament, but Hoey has a specially weird position in the beleaguered borough's affairs. While MPs are normally chosen by their constituency organisations, Hoey was picked by Neil Kinnock's high command and imposed on local activists in a by-election four years ago in a bid to modernise the party's image. They, you see, are mostly of the Left and she is emphatically of the Right.
From the activists' viewpoint, it was an unforgivable imposition, but Hoey has set about her mission to reform with an evangelical zeal. After the Gulf War fiasco (when some councillors were alleged to have shouted "Victory to Iraq" in the town hall), Hoey called on the party leadership to once again exercise its power. Twelves - the leader - plus her deputy, the chief whip and ten others were either suspended or expelled from the borough Labour group - and Hoey made no secret that she rejoiced.
"One view is that Lambeth is a hardworking socialist council, trying to do its best whilst getting a hard time from the press, the government and from the Labour Party," she declared in a typically pointed written statement. "I totally disagree with this view."
It's big risk for any MP to confront their local party workers, but Hoey isn't content to be just a woman of strong words. After verbal and printed sniping, in recent months she has launched an all-out war to wrest control of the borough's affairs from the hands of the "loony" Left. Already, her supporters have seized key party positions - and she hopes that, during the coming weeks, the candidates selected for next May's council elections will be overwhelmingly from her reforming camp.
But even if she held an advice surgery every night of the week it would be an uphill journey to stay popular. As seen from the estates, They are Labour and she is Labour - and for all her efforts, she is finding it difficult to escape the political flak. "You go along to speak to meetings on some particular thing - on housing, or social services, or anything," she explains, "and you spend the whole evening being lambasted about Lambeth."
At public meetings, she can usually fend off critics by explaining that she's on their side. But face-to-face in her periodic advice surgeries, things can get more difficult. She usually carries a heavy business briefcase to the sessions, but it doesn't contain a list of desirable vacant properties. She wears smart, bright dresses, but the pockets aren't crammed with vouchers for cheap furniture. She has influential Commons writing paper, but a Waterloo down-and-out would need a stack of that to keep warm in winter.
One mother who came, wanting to be given a larger flat, got close to being abusive when Hoey pointed-out that many others were worse off than she. "It's all very well you sitting there and saying this, that and the other," the woman stormed. "But I don't think anybody can see it from my point of view. Every time I go and see my councillors, They say the same thing."
On a sunny morning a couple of days later, Hoey is sitting in her car outside Clapham police station, anxious to return to her Westminster office. Although her MP's salary and a consultancy with London Weekend Television mean that she could afford to cruise a Merc or a Porsche, she chugs around Vauxhall in a green Mini Cooper, and now she revs its engine as a hint to a constituent that it's time to say goodbye.
Hoey has just come out of the police station after a meeting on crime prevention, but it's not officers who are causing her delay. Stooping to speak through the Mini's window is a Lambeth manager from the district housing office next door, who had been her previous appointment this morning and has since been tagging-along. He's a Labour party member, and is proving quite difficult for the MP to shake-off diplomatically.
"You must come back soon," he implores, like he was kneeling in the gutter. "You must come back and meet everybody."
Hoey's clutch foot rises and the car's engine changes tone. "How many of them live in Lambeth?"
It's at times like this that she comes closest to her role the new model Labour party's new model woman - here to do a job for Kinnock. While Stuart Holland, her predecessor as Vauxhall's MP, would have earnestly pressed the public about shifts in wealth and power, she primarily builds her image. She knows that the deference shown to even the most obscure, selfish or incompetent MP, means that a cheerful smile here, a welcoming handshake there, is really all it takes to be popular.
But when she was picked to take on Lambeth, it wasn't just her friendliness which landed her one of the plum London safe seats. When Holland's resignation led to a by-election in 1989, Arthur Scargill's mineworkers and Ken Livingstone's GLC had already been consigned to the dustbin. The Liverpool Militants were already in terminal difficulty - and the truculent south London borough was the last solid English fortress of old-style, left-wing power. In the modernisation of Labour, Kinnock's road back to power, here was a job for a hard-nosed fixer.
Ideologically speaking, Hoey has turned out to be just what Kinnock wanted. Talking to the housing manager, she revealed herself to be an enthusiast for hospital trusts and the "purchaser-provider" division in public services. She is for local management of schools, compulsory testing and a rigorous national curriculum. On welfare reform - which will affect thousands of Lambeth mothers - she says she would find it "difficult to justify" paying child benefit to some mothers she knows.
"We still believe in the ideals of community and of people needing each other and working together," she says, when asked what makes the revamped Labour Party distinctive from the Conservatives. "And that there is strength and benefit to be had from individuals having individual freedom and rights, but working so that, ultimately, the best for everyone will be obtained by - in certain areas - people working together, providing a kind of support mechanism for people who can't handle it as individuals."
The current Chancellor of the Exchequer, of course, would say nothing particularly different (if perhaps more comprehensibly) - and such vague thinking would make nobody stand out in a crowd. But Hoey had another virtue that set her apart from rivals for the Labour nomination. Just as Kinnock's ability to defeat Labour's socialists in the national party had relied on his early record as a radical firebrand, so Hoey was picked for Vauxhall because she really understood the Left.
Although she admits the details only under protest, before she joined the Labour Party in 1972, she had been a member of a Trotskyite outfit called the Spartacus League - at the time perhaps the most loony of British extremists. The league followed the Russian revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in expecting a spontaneous workers revolt, and was so notoriously penetrated by MI5, people joked that if security service agents raised their hands en bloc they could win every vote at meetings.
"I didn't have much contact with ordinary people," she says today to explain this invaluable training in sectarian manoeuvring. "So I didn't understand their concerns."
Although Hoey raised only five votes among Vauxhall's thousand party members when she competed openly to succeed Holland, she appeared to Kinnock's people like a person who would fit with their broader ideological designs. She had already twice (unsuccessfully) fought the nearby marginal seat of Dulwich, as a professed left-winger, and before that had been chair of leisure services on Hackney Council, which at the time made Lambeth seem like a model of sobriety. One of her demands was leg-waxing on the rates.
At Lambeth today, this kind of policy proposal could raise you within months to, say, deputy mayor, and it should have proved the camouflage to render her position secure. But these days her power base is the parliamentary party, and she prefers not to dwell on the past. "If I had known you were going to go into all that, I wouldn't have agreed to this," she declares in a prickly manner when her hard Left days are raised. "I don't see that it's relevant."
There's a saying (possibly attributed to Denis Healey) that if you're not a communist before you're thirty, then you've got no heart, and that if you're still a communist after you're thirty, then you've got no brain. So, at the age of 47, these revelations are unlikely to scar her with a loony leftist reputation. In the modern game of images, in fact, she has the opposite issue to address: whether her more mature ideological stance makes her impossibly remote from her constituents' lives.
This may be Hoey's trickiest task of imagery, since the new model woman enjoys a style of life well removed from Lambeth's estates. Unlike Holland, who bought a family house in the heart of the constituency, she recently moved from Dulwich to a luxurious Manhattan-style apartment overlooking the Thames at Tower Bridge. Although ideal Through The Keyhole territory, she's sensibly wary that it might look iffy to Vauxhall folk. She banned me from visiting there, much less give permission for a Sunday Times photographer to drop by. "You will only go and contrast it with a grotty slum in Brixton," she said. To be honest, she was probably right.
She gets good advice: she lives with a photographer, Tom Stoddart, who she met at the World Cup competition in Mexico, and they have been partners for the last eight years. "I don't like wallpaper, so I've left the bare bricks showing on the walls," is how she described their home to The Sun. "The bedrooms are more feminine - all pinks and pretty colours. The carpets, walls and bed linen are all pink, and I have loads and loads of plants."
If she sounds like a winner from the late-eighties boom, then that's possibly because she is. The Thatcher years were kind to Hoey, seeing her vault from her previous career as a PE teacher in a further education college to the heights of one of the safest and most convenient of parliamentary seats - from which you can see the Palace of Westminster. And unlike her fellow boomers who bust with the decade, she hopes that her mission for Labour in Lambeth is a job she can keep for life.
Other MPs who have challenged their local parties have often run into difficulties, but she is in an unsurpassed position to build a personal vote. In just the week of the Brixton surgery and the police station meeting, for instance (during which I noted Nazi memorabilia in the chief inspector's office), she was able to slip across the Thames to chair a church discussion at Waterloo with the Archbishop of Canterbury ("I must confess that I am one of Kate's constituents"), visit the local black radio station ("We gotta signed picture of Shabba Ranks") and go walkabout on a housing estate ("The Department of the Environment is paying for all that").
She is the near-perfect operator on these kind of trips, but there are moments when the new model Labour party's image fleetingly slips from her demeanour. One such instant occurred in the Clapham police station, where she quizzed the inspectors about a reference they had made to the "Territorial Support Group".
"Do they have special flashes, or something like that?" she inquired, revealing with a charming innocence that she didn't know who they were.
"No. No," one of the officers put her right about the notorious armoured squad vans that prowl her constituency. "We used to call them the Special Patrol Group."
On the following Monday morning, Hoey sits in her Westminster office, glancing through a stack of mail - most of which, she admits, is junk. The room is big, with plenty of bookshelves, a round conference table, her desk turned diagonally in a corner by the windows and two armchairs, in one of which she's sat. A moment before, she had distractedly spilt raspberry tea (her favourite) on the carpet and had made weak efforts to thin the stain by adding water.
Although we asked to visit her home, the office in many respects, is a better symbolic location. From this nerve-centre, she is masterminding her crusade against Lambeth's Left, and from an interconnecting door to the next room comes the muffled voice of her neighbour, Frank Field, the maverick right-wing MP for Birkenhead, whose wars with his local party are legendary.
Field has been triumphant, and Hoey believes that she will soon follow his example. Under a private deal with the right-wing Union of Communications Workers, she is currently channelling thousands of pounds through her Westminster office to support a full-time employee, a loyalist activist network and two Vauxhall branches which back her.
But in trying to change Lambeth, she doesn't have it easy. While the media's "loony left" image of the borough makes the problems seem obvious and the solutions look clear, in the real world things are a lot more muddy. Many of the hum-drum complaints which are voiced at her advice surgeries can't easily be pinned on socialist politics. And it may be hard to draw up a balance sheet of success and failure without questioning Hoey's contribution.
It was she, after all, who advised the national party to suspend, the former council leader Joan Twelves, who was the widely-regarded as first effective administrator since the old war-horse Knight was disqualified. Twelves - a small and sometimes diffident working class woman - lives in a council flat near Brixton and, like Hoey, was once a Trotskyite. But far from having caused the borough's crisis, many observers think she was working to bring it to light. "We created, for the first time, a proper management," Twelves says. "It was our changes which began to expose the mismanagement and corrupt practices."
Hoey rubbishes this claim, but there is evidence that Twelves's removal helped to plunge Lambeth into its present chaos. Labour's shrunken ranks throw up little talent at the best of times to run Britain's town halls, and after Knight was kicked out by the Tories, and then the next generation by Kinnock, members of all political views say that the present turmoil is an only-to-be-expected result.
Surprisingly, maybe, this argument finds some backing from the district auditor, Paul Claydon, who issued one of the much-publicised recent reports on fraud and mismanagement in the borough. In December 1990 - four months before Hoey danced on Twelves's political grave - he wrote to councillors acknowledging "real progress" in the borough's affairs and "substantial plans for continuing improvement". This year, he said, Labour's suspensions and expulsions had made the council "unstable" and had "increased the difficulty of managing the Authority."
Deceptions in Lambeth are unusually well-concealed, but this may be one of the hidden truths that will haunt the Labour Party. Many of her Vauxhall critics believe that Hoey supported Kinnock and his image-conscious leadership against her own constituents' interests - and that the assault on the Twelves administration by Labour had more of an eye on the Daily Mail's national readership even than did the Tory's battles with Knight.
Right or wrong, this theory is widely accepted in Vauxhall and has added to an atmosphere of bewilderment and despair. During Hoey's period as the member of parliament, the active party membership has halved, its income fallen sharply, and there have been countless allegations that party rules and agreements are being broken on every sides.
"Everybody fiddles," she says matter-of-factly, responding to the claim that her trade union financial backing amounts to a personal slush fund. "It's how it is in the Labour Party. People on all sides fiddle all the time."
But organisational campaigns have a long history in the Labour party of producing their own opposition. And her uncompromising attitudes may be causing ordinary members to polarise in unpredictable ways. "I used to be for Kate," says Joe Callinan, a right-wing councillor and last year's mayor. "But I don't hold with an MP who attacks the local party."
Sentiments like this are a chill wind in Vauxhall, and may blow the open the doors to Lambeth town hall for the John Smith leadership's doomsday scenario. Instead of Hoey ushering-in a period of moderation in Lambeth, some fear they may see a swing Left, not the Right, and even the return of "Red Ted" Knight. "I certainly will put myself forward for selection as a candidate for the council," says Knight, now free of the disqualification imposed on him in 1986. "There isn't any basis on which I can be excluded."
Hoey thinks that no Lambeth branch would pick Knight to stand, since his candidacy would prove fatal at the polls. But if he is the Devil, then the Deep Blue Sea is that pro-Hoey candidates have stood in recent council by-elections, only to be trounced by the Liberal Democrats. And though the reports of town hall corruption are the major factor, the Lib Dems think that her anti-Left crusade is another reason for their success.
"When she attacks the council she is telling people not to vote Labour," says Mike Tuffrey, the local Liberal Democrat leader, who believes that Knight's traditional Labour rhetoric would actually prove more popular on the estates. "If they want to keep power in Lambeth they have to go back to confrontational, antigovernment politics."
That Hoey's strategy has produced disarray in Labour's ranks and boosted the Lib Dems' prospects has led many of her opponents to wonder aloud if this isn't really a secret goal. Even her own supporters think that the minor party will take control of the borough next year - a change that will delight those who want a national political realignment. Not only would it vanquish the Left, but the switch of such a high-profile prize would reassure right-wing Liberal Democrats who might otherwise defect to the Tories over any parliamentary Lib-Lab pact.
Such an elegant scenario, however, isn't something that Hoey admits has ever crossed her mind. "I have very little difficulty in agreeing with most things that Liberal Democrats say," is as far as she goes. "If the Lib Dems were to win for a year, then it might shake things up. But I know that once they got control they would keep it."
Since there is every chance that this will happen, many party members are wondering how it could be that Lambeth might face the choice of Knight or the Lib Dems. And since either would threaten her own long-term security, they wonder why she sprayed petrol on the fire. "She has an inferiority complex over not being selected by the constituency party and so she has never built bridges," suggests Michael English, a moderate local councillor and himself a former MP. "And then, of course, she grew up in Northern Ireland, so she is inclined to see everything in terms of black and white."
This seems like a crude psychological explanation, but the bizarre, factionalised, politics of northern Ireland must have helped shape the person she is today. Catharine Letitia Hoey grew up in County Antrim, near Belfast, the daughter of smallholding farmers who specialised in pigs. Her parents, Thomas and Letitia, were liberal and, she says, "opposed to any truck with the Orange Order", but she gained Loyalist attitudes she never lost.
If Hoey has translated Ulster's "Catholic-Protestant" sectarianism into a "Left-Right" split in Lambeth, however, there is also the principle that like-and-like repel - since she has much in common with her opponents. Like Twelves, for instance, she is a former working class women who bettered herself: the former Lambeth leader being a Southend bricklayer's daughter and Hoey pig-farmer's child. "We weren't walking round shoeless or anything like that," she remembers. "But we were very poor, and my mother and father made great sacrifices."
When Twelves (who is just two years the younger) was an Essex girl, it was in a rural Ulster setting that Hoey got involved in politics - awaking from the innocence of childhood when she got into grammar school, her best friend didn't and she learnt that the wealthy just paid to get their children in. "I remember being really upset about that," she says. "I felt that it was really wrong that some people always had life so easy and others had it so hard."
They are origins, moreover, that have given her a tough-minded attitude - and, as the borough's scandals rumble on in the coming months, she plans to press forward from her distinctively aggressive corner for Labour's modernisation. The local party is busy revamping its old-style socialist tradition, she believes, and is spreading the false message that They uncovered the corruption - making her more determined than ever that now is the moment to strike against their influence.
"The time for gesture politics and for trying to change to world through what Lambeth does is gone," she says, looking at the clock, metaphorically lifting the clutch to suggest our discussion is over-running. "That time is finished and therefore the key thing for any Labour council has to be to try to work within government - whatever government - requirements and to maximise the services that can be delivered."
It's a view of the troubled borough that would find cross-party support, but it will make her few allies among activists. They say that if you disagree with Conservative government policies you must fight them, with whatever institutions you have to hand. And that if their own MP can't help in this struggle, they should try to find one who will.
To that she offers those famous last words the Labour party around the country has often heard. "I don't feel allegiance to anybody except the electorate," she tells me. "I will do what I think is right."
Read "Rotten to the Core" on Lambeth Council fraud in 1993