CAMPAIGN CATCH-UP: Into the final fortnight of the Croydon North by-election, and things are starting to get a little bit nasty.
Earlier today, UKIP blew the “dog-whistle” on gay marriage and religion with a visit from the party leader, Nigel Farage, although he did distance himself from candidate Winston McKenzie’s comments about running a “straight” campaign. Labour’s candidate, Steve Reed, is openly gay.
Reed dismissed it all as not being a relevant issue. “Jobs is the issue in Croydon,” Reed said today as he toured the borough accompanied by Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor. “Croydon’s Conservative council is bereft of a policy on getting jobs to Croydon.”
But now the Tories, whose candidate Andrew Stranack is having his campaign run for him by Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell, are handing out leaflets claiming that Reed believes “the answer to the debt crisis is more borrowing and more debt”. Reed denies he has ever said such a thing.
Notably, while the Conservative leaflet also says that their candidate is from Croydon, it omits the fact that he is not actually from Croydon North. When Lambeth Council leader Reed was chosen as the Labour candidate, much was made by local Tory supporters of his “outsider” status, even though Reed lives no further from Croydon North than does Forestdale resident Stranack.
Many independently minded observers saw this element of the Tory campaign as an irrelevance, failing to address more important issues in the constituency – an example of exactly the sort of conduct which has turned many ordinary people off politics. Yet the Tories have stuck with it.
A Stranack website post claiming that immigration is one of the causes of Britain’s economic problems has also delved deep into “dirty” tactics and “dog-whistle politics” – of using half-truths and playing on prejudices over emotive subjects, the sort of approach previously associated with campaign strategist Lynton Crosby.
Clearly, since he has only just been engaged by “Call Me Dave” Cameron, the Conservative party leader, to work on the Tories’ 2015 election campaign, Crosby cannot have had much impact on their Croydon North by-election campaign. Which may come as some relief to Barwell and Stranack given the reports in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday that fair dinkum Aussie Crosby referred to “fucking Muslims” when advising Boris Johnson’s London Mayor campaign.
Crosby has not denied the remark, just said he can’t remember saying it.
The Tories have used race issues in a previous Croydon parliamentary election, in 2005, when Crosby was running matters for Michael “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Howard. “Unlimited migration” material was produced by Crosby’s national campaign team. It helped to get Andrew Pelling elected, but not without criticism from the late Malcolm Wicks. Significantly, Barwell was Lord Cashcroft’s marginal seats campaigner at the time.
The quicksands of campaigning on race issues are normally the preserve of extremist right-wingers. That has not stopped a (state-funded) aide in Barwell’s office boasting that their candidate was “born and bred” in Croydon – as opposed to the many people who have chosen to move into the borough to live or work, such as Reed.
Nor has it prevented Barwell from initially denying on Twitter that there had been any reference to immigration in his candidate’s campaign literature. If only that were true.
The online article in question – digital literature – is still on Stranack’s campaign website. However, after Andrew Fisher’s coruscating criticism on Inside Croydon, accusing the Tories of playing the race card, the Stranack campaign has “adjusted” its copy, from the original “We inherited an economy reliant on banking, immigration and debt with the highest deficit in the developed world”, to a slightly more nuanced “… banking, high levels of net migration and debt … ” – though the migration reference remains unexplained elsewhere in the article.
Of course, what is published online can easily be changed – you just hope that no one notices, or keeps a screen grab of the original, offending version. You cannot do that with lies printed on election leaflets. “Nice guy” Stranack therefore may come to regret the latest leaflet with its unfounded accusations about Reed.
Mind you, Croydon’s Conservatives don’t appear to be at all ashamed about the printed promise they issued in 2010 to oppose the Beddington Lane incinerator, which they then proceeded to vote through at the Town Hall just a few months later.
Given Barwell and Stranack’s attempt to blame immigrants for Britain’s financial collapse, and their colleague Crosby’s attitude to Muslims, it will be interesting to see how many voters from immigrant backgrounds – whether the Caribbean, Africa, eastern Europe or Asia – feel they are able to support the Conservatives come November 29.
Stranack does come over as a genuinely nice guy who cares for his community. But his mentor, Barwell, seems to have gone to great lengths to make him appear to be a non-Tory Conservative, distanced as much as possible from the “omnishambles” of the Conservative government under Cameron. Goodness knows what they will do when – or if? – the prime minister comes to Croydon to support the Stranack campaign.
Barwell has been at pains to paint Stranack as the caring local charity worker, and not a “professional politician”, which, by implication, is what Reed is; the irony is that, of course, it is exactly what Barwell is, too. Such a soft focus on Stranack’s background also overlooks, very conveniently, that this is not the first time he has tried to be elected to parliament: the “local” Croydon candidate wasn’t concerned about standing in Camberwell and Peckham in 2010.
Inside Croydon understands that Reed is preparing a form of counter-attack ahead of Tuesday night’s public debate. Labour are to focus on describing the Croydon charity worker as “Cameron’s man”. Ouch. That’s really below the belt.
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