Parliament regales the government’s main opponents with the grand title “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition”. Such loyalty is important in times of crisis, and it is still a crisis for Croydon post-8/8.
Is that obligation to be loyal in times of trouble hampering Labour in Croydon?
Malcolm Wicks, the Croydon North Labour MP, has been robust in pursuing just how many police really were in Croydon on that infamous night, now almost a month ago. Wicks wants a “minute by minute” analysis of what went wrong on the night, a night where his constituents were left without the protection of the law of the land for up to 10 hours.
His demand has gone to Croydon Council’s chief executive Jon Rouse in the following letter:
Our Ref: 01111205
22 August 2011
Dear Chief Executive
I am calling for Croydon Council to establish an independent public inquiry into the events leading up to the burning, looting and destruction that we have witnessed. I think that we need to address certain key questions:
How did the police and the Council react?
Was there effective leadership and co-ordination?
I think that the Council is the best authority to establish such an inquiry, but it must be independently led. It is important that we avoid any glossing over of recent experiences. I hope that the call for an inquiry can attract support from all parts of the borough. It is certainly not a Party political matter. I would be grateful for your response.
Rt Hon Malcolm Wicks MP
At the time of writing, only an acknowledgement had been received.
The difficulties of a loyal Labour opposition on the council, meanwhile, are well illustrated by the controversies surrounding the unilateral call of a 8/8-related emergency council meeting by Croydon Labour next Wednesday (September 7, 6.30pm, at the Town Hall).
Tim Pollard, the deputy leader of the ruling Conservative group on the council, has pointedly remarked that while Labour talk about being constructively consensual about 8/8, the opposition nevertheless requisitioned a council meeting on the subject without any consultation with their political opponents, despite their claims to be working in a non-partisan fashion. Pollard said that he expects a constructive discussion next Wednesday; he even thinks that a motion is likely to be passed unanimously.
Yet elsewhere there is a significant difference opening up between the two sides.
Pollard, tapping in to a widespread public dislike of criticising the police, derides the Labour call for a public inquiry, stating: “We know what happened on the night and now we need to move forward and be positive about working on Croydon’s recovery.”
It is intriguing that the Tory group on the council should resist an inquiry, since there are sure to be some very difficult questions about why leading Conservative politicians sat on their hands when the police warned from 9am on that fateful Monday of the serious risk of civil unrest, and that businesses should prepare for the worst.
I cannot imagine Jack Weatherill, arguably Croydon’s best ever MP, doing what one local Conservative politician did that night – drive past and straight home, only seeing a distant Croydon in flames in his rearview mirror, or from the safety of his living room on the TV news.
Equally questionable was the case of the local London Assembly Member, who only called a junior politician in the London government for help, and then too late in the day.
Weatherill was a heavyweight politician who would have called the Prime Minister, or at least the Home Secretary, if his town was threatened with mayhem.
Malcolm Wicks’ decision to push consistently for a public inquiry seems to have been vindicated by the shocking revelation last night by a senior Metropolitan police officer, that perhaps as few as 60 out of a complement of 700 Croydon officers were fielded in the borough, and not one of them with any riot training. Some were even turned out of their offices in the police station, if uniforms could be found to fit them.
The decision by the police service to give Croydon’s departing borough commander the task of chairing an internal inquiry into the London Riots seems a cruel one. Among other things, Adrian Roberts will be asking after his own performance and those of close colleagues in Croydon.
London Road abandoned at the expense of the High Street
Wicks’ call for an independent inquiry has a particular resonance with residents who were left to fight for their own safety and property, when the police admitted it was powerless to help, for lack of numbers and fear that one of their own was a target for the rioters.
Wicks talks of “a policing failure” and residents in West Croydon will be unhappy to have heard Chief Inspector Mark Nanji say that all that could be done when left with so few officers was “to hold the High Street to protect people on the High Street”. By definition, Wicks’ accusation that his constituents were “abandoned” seems proven.
It is a sad coincidence that 12 very brave police officers held the line on the very border between Croydon Central and Croydon North constituencies, with the prosperous town centre to their backs.
But Labour have been very bashful of media coverage.
Labour politicians were out seeing residents and business people all the way from Norbury to South Croydon and to New Addington the morning after the riots. But mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone’s private visit to London Road was not on the same publicity scale as that arranged for the visits of “Hug a Hoodie” Cameron or Prince Charles.
Tweets, twits and Croydon’s new figure of fun
The Labour opposition in Croydon don’t have access to the public money of the council to throw at public consultations as the ruling Conservatives do. But their main public meeting attended by 200 residents was a little confused at times. That meeting on London Road had a very strong emphasis on long speeches from councillors, often with quite differing and unco-ordinated perceptions on the causes of the riots, and so time consuming that it was to the exclusion of the fullest airing of the views of the public.
Councillor Donna Gray was quite clear in her views, quoting Martin Luther King in saying that, “Riots are the voices of the unheard”.
The audience may have been uncomfortable with the message but at least you could understand the point. Councillor Gray’s sentiment does clash with Wicks’s desire to give no excuse to criminality.
There is certainly a stark contrast with the Conservatives regarding media exposure. Malcolm Wicks did get national media coverage from his question to the Prime Minister at the emergency session in the Commons. Compare this, however, with his next door MP Gavin Barwell, who was christened “Communicator of the Week” by a conservative blogger for his extensive and very high profile following the riots.
Barwell’s own Tweets had at least five separate and rather gushing references to upcoming appearances on radio or TV, where he adopted populist “hang ’em and flog ’em” attitudes to sentencing for rioters, and regularly misrepresented the response of no more than a couple of thousand people – mostly self-selected by being signed up to his well-funded website – as being the “overwhelming” majority view of all the 77,000 people who live in his Croydon Central constituency.
His braying and near-hysterical laughter to demean the argument of one experienced Queen’s Counsel in a radio debate can surely not have enhanced Barwell’s reputation for reasoned argument.
Maybe Rod Liddle, of the Sunday Times, had heard that soundbyte before writing that Barwell was this summer’s “new figure of fun”.
Meanwhile, it is as if Labour has played down its profile because it is the part of town that they represent that has been hardest hit. Their residents might just resent their politicians taking their suffering as a chance to preen themselves in front of the camera.
Croydon’s Labour leader, Councillor Tony Newman, says that the party’s approach has been “victims first” and that the process has been about “getting things in the right order – listen and then a public inquiry, so that the right thoughtful lessons are learned”.
Newman declines to comment on other politicians. But after a great deal of pressing, he conceded that there is a “growing suspicion of people around Mr Barwell who have taken the opportunity to promote Mr Barwell’s image at this time”.
For his part, Malcolm Wicks said, “I am not going to comment on any other MP. I and my office have been concentrating on giving practical help and practical advice. We have had problems to deal with including burnt out businesses, homelessness and an inflexible approach by the Job Centre to those who have lost their livelihoods and businesses.
“A more hands-on process is needed by the authorities to deal with the challenges that the riots have left behind.”
Wicks has avoided jumping in with instant solutions and easy soundbytes. He feels that it is now a time for Croydon to undertake “a thoughtful analysis; a thoughtful analysis about what happened and what were the factors” in the civil unrest and to seek out “what we need to do”.
Without excusing any criminal behaviour Wicks says we do have to answer the question “why do we have a hard core of disaffected young people?”
Wicks speculates openly as to whether the solution is “a guaranteed job or internship for all 16 to 18-year-olds such that they no longer have a negative vision of themselves”.
Guided by Wicks and his relentless pursuit of the failure of policing on 8/8, Croydon Labour are biding their time to strike regarding what was a fundamental failure in public policy.
- Andrew Pelling is a former Croydon MP, leader of Croydon Conservatives, London Assembly Member and councillor
- Croydon 8/8: Police admit only 100 officers in thin blue line (insidecroydon.com)
- MP Wicks renews demand for urgent inquiry into Croydon riots (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon’s Tories look £50m gift horse in the mouth over EZ (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon 8/8: Local Tamils say “We have been doubly let down” (insidecroydon.com)