COUNCILLOR ANDREW PELLING looks ahead to tomorrow evening’s formal Town Hall occasion which will herald the beginning of a new municipal year, and a new council administration
I am looking forward to tomorrow’s annual meeting of the council. It’s a meeting also known as the “Mayor Making”, and it’s everything that’s good about municipal pomp and circumstance.
I accept that it’s not to everyone’s taste and that the puritans at Inside Croydon Towers regard the exercise as being little better than Trumptonesque.
They may have a point.
So here then is a relevant Trumpton episode all about litter, vandalism, private sector contractors, Miss Lovelace, the Mayor’s hat and public sector cross-agency partnerships. It’s good to see at least one functioning fire station that hasn’t been closed by Boris Johnson. But is the bandstand in the gardens something which the previous council would have wanted to build a tower block over?
For me, there are many pleasant memories to be prompted by returning to Croydon Council as an elected member. It’s going to be my 25th year of service on the local authority, and it is 32 years since I first sat in the chamber as a councillor, then in an administration that held 65 of the 70 council seats. Labour had just five councillors in 1982, all from the New Addington estate. The Conservatives held all the wards in north Croydon. Now, they have none. Indeed, they might never hold a ward in Croydon North again.
I have to admit that I spent a lot of those previous 24 years on the council being especially critical of the performance of my new leader, Tony Newman, and his predecessors as Labour group leaders, Hugh Malyan, Geraint Davies and Valerie Shawcross.
This will be the first time I have not been in opposition on the council since 1994, a period longer than anybody else who will be in the council chamber tomorrow.
Following the success in last month’s local elections, Newman looks on fine form and I reckon that the Labour administration is going to have a very good summer, with much activity as it sets about delivering on its promises.
Even after all those years on the council, I am attracted by the prospect of learning and doing things that I have never tackled before.
This will be only my fourth year out of 25 spent as a backbencher, so that will provide interesting new perspectives. I am excited about my debut on the licensing committee and returning to council activity in Coulsdon in the context of my family’s connections there and previously representing a Coulsdon ward.
I will be serving on the Woodmansterne charities and the Coulsdon and District Day Nursery Fund. The Fund is a 1960s example of the “Big Society” in action and a legacy from the long-lost Urban District Council of Coulsdon and Purley.
Croydon Corporation’s council chamber is a grand affair compared to many town halls.
Sutton Council meets among the library books in the utilitarian and musty, faintly sweaty 1970s Europa Gallery. Would that name have survived a UKIP political presence at Sutton’s Civic Offices?
Other London councils inhabit poorly lit settings. Croydon’s chamber, by contrast, built in 1896, has a towering ceiling with attractive stucco embossed with golden Cs. When Sir Peter Bowness was Leader of the council the place benefited from much high-quality restoration and spectacularly bright lighting.
Labour councillors will wear red roses. Tories will garnish their lapels with carnations tinted blue with marker pens – the fumes from the ink creates the rather odd equivalent of a glue-sniffing high that seems to make Tory speeches welcoming a new municipal year and mayor just that little more flighty and amusing.
For this is also a family event for proud relatives, with tearful farewells and plaudits for the departing Mayor and whimsical and jolly praise for the new office-holder. What’s best is that it’s a bi-partisan affair with no shouting or rudeness, though that might have changed in my eight years away.
There will be one other unexpected piece of familiarity for me. The Conservatives’ front bench will be virtually unchanged from when I was last on the council in 2005.
After the debacle for the Conservatives that was the 2014 election, losing seven seats, two wards and overall control of the council, it is astounding that none of their surviving leadership has stood down from their front-bench positions, taking responsibility for an election that they might have won, yet managed to lose.
The council’s officials, possibly hampered by website issues, had not finished the paperwork for tomorrow night’s meeting, so there was nothing in my councillor’s pigeon hole at lunchtime today. But I understand that apart from one enforced change to the Tories’ 10 cabinet positions (because Simon Hoar failed to win re-election), there is to be only one other change to Fisher’s front-bench team. In comes Jason Cummings, and replacing Margaret Mead – who has been on the council since 1990 – is a recalled Maria Gatland.
The council has not yet been able to post reliably accurate results for the election. This is not as serious a failure as the complete meltdown this past week of the council’s website. Formally, Councillor Fisher is still the Leader of the Council until tomorrow evening, so it’s his job to sort out this latest failure.
The extended internet breakdown is emblematic of the post-election Tory torpor.
The lack of secure data on the election puts question marks over detailed post-election analysis but the failure of the Conservative leadership in the council election is becoming desperately clear.
It was not just Addiscombe Conservatives that outperformed the generally awful campaign the Conservatives ran elsewhere in the borough. More detailed analysis shows that Fairfield Tories, just like their colleagues across the A232, increased their share of the vote. Observations coming back to Inside Croydon Towers suggest that a good election day organisation motivated Conservative sympathisers to the polls in Fairfield. If two wards could hold Labour at bay, why not the others which were not having their campaigning supervised by Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell?
The membership of some Conservative ward organisations has been allowed to atrophy down to just councillors or candidates, and this showed in their election results.
In Addiscombe, though, Barwell recruited a cadre of community-based activists who were, like Labour in every battleground ward, going back to voters from mid-April to remind them of their previous promise to vote. Shoring up the Conservative vote early may have protected their party from some of its losses to UKIP in these two better-run ward campaigns.
In the less well-organised wards, Conservatives, normally dominant in the postal votes sent in by electors before polling day, found themselves being almost matched vote for vote by Labour through the post box.
With Barwell in Addiscombe and the Fairfield team increasing the share of the vote for the Conservatives, Tory members need to ask why their vote share fell by more than 4 per cent in Waddon and by 10 per cent in New Addington.
Labour’s upbeat messaging, “Ambitious for Croydon”, or as in Waddon ward, “Building a Strong Community”, convinced those who had previously voted Green or LibDem to support Labour. In New Addington, Waddon and Ashburton, the Green vote share fell. Persuading Green and Liberal Democrat voters to support Labour was vital in Waddon where the LibDem vote was much lower than in other Croydon South wards and where the Green vote was the lowest in Croydon South.
Croydon’s lazy Conservative council leadership had no message in terms of what they would do with four more years of power. They had not even bothered to write a manifesto. No attempt was made to challenge Labour as to how they would cope with any further government grant cuts to come. The whole Tory campaign, excluding work done by Barwell or the Fairfield team, lacked strategy, forethought or positivity.
The Conservative campaign lacked people as well. There might be Conservative Party members willing to stand outside polling stations, but those actually talking to voters on doorsteps were mainly councillors and candidates. Labour transformed its capability to reach voters on election day outnumbering Conservative “door knockers” willing to talk to voters face-to-face by a factor of at least 7 to 1. In Waddon, there was even enough resource for Labour to target Conservative leaning voters asking them to lend some or all of their votes to Labour.
The lack of Conservative people power was evident also at the count, with the Conservatives falling well below their normal professional performance at such occasions. There was no excuse for this: it was after all a count held on home ground in the equivalent of Gavin Barwell’s front room, Trinity School, where he is the chairman of governors.
Conservatives had no formal tally sheets and missed out on some of the normal analysis that a count allows you to do to calculate how you performed in different polling districts. This was because limited numbers of very senior Tory councillors had to abandon one count for another as yet another crisis showed itself with each and every target ward for the Conservatives looking to be in trouble on the night.
From my point of view, it was a bit of a relief when there were no Conservatives at the Waddon count, but was this the performance of a ruling Croydon party? It was just shambolic and Barwell will want that sorted for the Croydon Central parliamentary count in just 339 days’ time. Croydon Central is a count that has a history of being close.
This year’s campaign was weak in a number of respects. The scaremongering over a Labour Council Tax hike – when the Tories know that the law caps Council Tax increases – clearly did not convince anyone but themselves. And the “get out the vote” Conservative leaflet on the day was an embarrassment for the Tories. I felt rather reassured when I saw it by 10am.
“Remember 2003?” it began. I doubt many voters could: 2003 was the year of the Iraq War. Some of last month’s voters were just seven years old in 2003.
The slogan on leaflets in Waddon “You’ve only got until 10pm to stop Labour trashing our town again” must have looked jolly funny when drafted at the Conservative HQ in Purley. Exposed to the bright light of a polling day morning, it looked hateful, mean, negative, aggressive and lacking any positive reason to vote Conservative.
It was also full of unintended and bitter irony: for there, in the middle of the three Tory candidates was Simon Hoar, the cabinet member supposedly responsible for safety and security in the borough on the night of August 8, 2011, the night when the Conservative administration presided over the worst riots, arson and looting our borough has ever seen, and from which many businesses and residents have yet to be compensated.
By contrast, the Labour literature gave positive reasons to vote Labour including a service promise that counts for many voters – cleaner streets. The reference to “a strong community” was an example of how Labour have captured the old Conservative theme of “One Nation” and want to build a unified society.
Tory social media performance was pathetic. The local party leader has zero presence. Otherwise, social media was characterised by Tory trolls hunting in packs in a style that so alienated voters it got reported adversely in the local papers. The cavalier nasty Tory tone culminated post-election with voters being labelled ungrateful, “dumb” and unworthy of the right to vote by one of their former Conservative councillors.
The precipitate collapse in the vote share in Margaret Mead’s Heathfield ward, which includes Addington Village and the exclusive Shirley Hills, to below 40 per cent must worry Barwell, for this ward is meant to deliver a huge boost to his parliamentary election score next May. That’s reason enough for Mead to retire from the frontbench to give her electors some TLC.
But it’s the varying rates of swing from Conservative to Labour across the three parliamentary constituencies that tells of a Conservative Council under Fisher that had become a party with appeal only in the deep south of the Borough, where they are challenged by UKIP, not Labour.
- Other than Waddon where the swing was 7.1 per cent to Labour, the swing to Labour in the Croydon South constituency was otherwise less than 2.5 per cent.
- In Central Croydon, the swing from Conservative to Labour was more than 4 per cent.
- In Croydon North, the swing was more than 7 per cent.
With fewer than 1 in 5 votes going to the Conservatives in the north of the borough, Fisher’s council had no appeal there. No surprise, perhaps, from a council that callously diverted post-riot cash to Tory wards in central Croydon from the riot-hit London Road.
Labour are so ensconced in the north that they could divert campaign resources to overwhelm Tories in the borough’s marginal wards. It is fair to say, however, that in Croydon South, Labour also secured less than 1 in 5 voters’ preferences (as measured by top-placed candidate for each party). Croydon under the Conservatives was an ever more divided town. One of the jobs facing me and my Labour colleagues from tomorrow night is to overcome those divisions.
- Andrew Pelling is a former Conservative councillor, London Assembly Member and MP in Croydon. Since 2010, he has joined the Labour Party and last month was elected councillor for Waddon ward
Coming to Croydon
- Croydon Tech City “summit”, June 6
- An Improvised Murder, Spread Eagle Theatre, June 7
- Old Town residents’ meeting, June 7
- Crystal Palace Transition Town annual meeting, June 11
- Old Town residents’ meeting, June 11
- Lakes Playground Action Group fun day, June 14
- Croydon Green Fair, North End, June 14
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, June 15
- Norwood Society Talk: The Concrete Church, June 19
- Airport House swing dance free event, June 21
- Classic Car Show at Purley Rotary Fields, June 22
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
- Warnings to the Curious, Spread Eagle Theatre, June 27
- South Norwood Allotments open day, June 28
- Fragile, Spread Eagle Theatre, July 24-26
- CODA’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at Wandle Park, Jul 30-Aug 2
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, Aug 10
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
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