Local elections 2022: Vicious home assault inspired Liberal Democrat candidate in Merton into politics

Ahead of the May 5 local elections, Jessica Frank Keyes meets Liberal Democrat candidates in Wimbledon standing in the closest Lib Dem - Conservative marginal seat in England.

“It changed my life.” Football-playing dad-of-four Paul Kohler never expected to get into politics.

But after four men broke into his south London home in 2014, savagely beating a rainbow of bruises into his face, the university lecturer, now 63, underwent a transformation.

Livid at being used as a poster boy by both the far-right and left, following facial reconstruction surgery, he took the plunge.

Paul Kohler, left, and Simon McGrath, Liberal Democrat candidates in Merton. Photo: LondonWorld

“It was quite a transformative moment,” he tells me, while door-knocking in Wimbledon Town and Dundonald, Merton, southwest London.

“I was attacked by four Polish lads. The right wing tried to use it, UKIP used me in anti-Europe stuff.

“I was so angry about the way the hard right and the hard left used me to push their agenda.”

Paul’s experience culminated in a restorative justice meeting with one of his attackers in prison, alongside his wife and eldest daughter, both also at home at the time of the attack.

But another consequence of the seemingly senseless assault was his long-standing mission to keep Wimbledon’s police station open in the face of law enforcement cuts.

Elected as a Lib Dem councillor in Trinity ward in 2018, Paul went on to successfully challenge the mayor of London’s plans to sell off the building in court - and won.

For now, the councillors say, Merton is one of the only boroughs in London with more than one station open 24-hours a day - but it could face closure again in 2023.

The Met Police told LondonWorld they weren’t able to confirm the number of stations across the 33 boroughs.

“If they hadn’t been two minutes away they wouldn’t have come,” fellow candidate Simon McGrath, a former HR director and 40-year Lib Dem member and activist, adds.

“Otherwise he wouldn’t be alive. He’s a huge asset.”

A Lib Dem placard in Wimbledon, Merton. Photo: LondonWorld

Electorally, that is. Wimbledon, dotted with Land Rovers on drives and diamond-shaped orange placards, is the closest Lib Dem - Tory marginal in England.

Four years ago, residents elected six Lib Dem representatives to Merton council - a huge leap from the previous one - and activists are now hoping to elect up to 12.

In the 2019 general election, Paul stood as MP for the area, losing to Conservative candidate Stephen Hammond by just 628 votes.

It’s a stat repeated by canvassers, including organiser Molly and neighbouring ward candidate Sam, on the doorstep of every wavering voter.

Not that there seem to be many, at least during this door knocking session.

Residents of the leafy, bluebell-lined streets seem to be lining up to tell Paul and Simon how fed up they are with the area being a “badly managed dump”.

Around a third of these homes are privately rented, meaning the level of turnover is high.

“[I’m for] whoever sorts out Wimbledon,” Theresa tells them.

“There are 15 mopeds outside the station, it’s not environmentally friendly and it’s dangerous.

“The people who run Merton live in Morden.”

Paul Kohler and Simon McGrath. Photo: LondonWorld

Annoyance in the borough is focused on the split, with Labour councillors tending to live in less well-off areas of Morden or Mitcham, Paul tells me, while Wimbledon is a “cash cow”.

While neighbour Susan says the continued presence of the police station is a priority for her, adding: “Wimbledon is so busy with all the bars and restaurants.

“A lot of people come here who aren’t from here. I think it’s important to have them there.”

And another woman rushing out to her car says: “I’ll go Tory in the nationals but I think they’re too complacent around here.

“You’re very good at being seen and heard and read about.”

But another group - also in this instance represented by women -  are led by a simmering rage at recent national events and are determined to send a message with their votes.

“We need to kick these Tories out,” one voter, who asks not to give her name, tells Simon.

“I’m just so shocked people are willing to give them a chance. How can people be wavering?

“It’s like we’re living in a Trump world. It’s not just partygate… coming out of the EU on a pack of lies and people don’t seem to care.

“Where are our values?”

A Lib Dem flyer in Merton. Photo: LondonWorld

She practically shoos Simon away from the doorstep, telling him not to waste time canvassing her and focus on convincing elsewhere.

While a more concise, or perhaps busier, voter echoes her sentiments.

“Boris Johnson, I think, shouldn’t be prime minister,” she says.

It’s these reactions fuelling the party’s hopes of gaining candidates in this part of the ‘golden crescent’ - as the Lib Dem run boroughs of Kingston, Richmond and Sutton are dubbed.

“There’s no demographic reason Wimbledon should be different from Twickenham,” Simon says.

“These are the nicest houses in the ward with a view of South Park Gardens.

“I don’t make predictions but the canvassing here feels really good. The key thing is squeezing the Labour vote.”

Simon previously stood as a paper candidate - a name on ballots in an ‘unwinnable’ area - but is now “taking it seriously” armed with a Trader Joe’s branded tote bag full of leaflets and election software from the team behind the Obama campaign.

He’s previously represented Dundonald ward since 2018, and is now standing in the newly redrawn Wimbledon Town and Dundonald, alongside Paul and Anthony Fairclough.

So, why the Lib Dems?

Merton Council after the 2018 election. Credit: By The/WikimediaCommons

“My wife says it keeps me busy,” he jokes.

“I’m not a socialist so I could never join Labour and I could never imagine being one of the Tories.

“[As a councillor] you can make a difference to people’s lives.

“It was more difficult during the coalition because people blamed us for everything - and the dreaded tuition fees.

“That rarely comes up anymore apart from the most rabid Labour supporters, although I shouldn’t really say that.”

He’s more optimistic about the party’s chances under Ed Davey’s leadership - describing him as “focused” and noting his visits to the borough twice in the last two weeks.

They included the launch of the party’s local election campaign, spearheaded by their policy on cleaning up rivers of sewage, which Simon said was proving “amazingly popular”.

And he highlighted the “local bowling club organising against her” as crucial in ex- leader Jo Swinson losing her East Dunbartonshire seat, after she “pissed them off”, he claims.

“People really didn’t like her,” he says.

“[Ed] is not as much disliked. People would really rant on about Jo - I’m sure her sex had something to do with it, although she’s not Keir Starmer unpopular.”

A Lib Dem flyer in Merton. Photo: LondonWorld

It would be impossible to door knock with the Lib Dems without discussing proportional representation and bar charts - both issues raised by Simon as we head to the police station.

Although he insists it’s the other parties whose charts are “misleading”, displaying data from the mayoral elections and or accompanying inaccurate claims about the Lib Dems.

Both candidates are keen to discuss their successes on the council: from fighting for the London Living Wage to be paid to carers and battling the Heathrow runway expansion, to reducing the height of plans for a YMCA hostel redevelopment from 25 stories to just 11.

They don’t want to see the borough “looking like Croydon”, Paul tells me.

Simon adds: “We do our best not to be NIMBYs but it’s a fact that people don’t like not having any say.”

Out in the magnolia tree-lined home turf, it’s a fairly comfortable ride for the candidates.

Elsewhere in the capital, Haringey could have potential for party gains, I’m told, while Labour-run Southwark and Tower Hamlets are also areas of interest.

While nationwide success simply looks like “more councillors”, Paul says.

But outside the so-called ‘golden crescent’, where tactical voting is clearly a major campaign boost, how well can they really hope to do across London - and further afield?

Local elections 2022