Not everyone recognises a good thing on the election trail

Saturday morning, what do you do? Bit of shopping, perhaps?

Ken Livingstone, accompanied by Chuka Umanna, Louisa Woodley (red coat) and Tony Newman (grey jacket), speaks to shoppers in New Addington yesterday

Ken Livingstone was in the market for some more votes in his campaign to be elected as London’s Mayor on May 3 as he spent a couple of hours touring the shops along Central Parade, New Addington in the morning, before visiting Surrey Street yesterday afternoon.

With less than two weeks to go until the London elections, the Labour candidate for Mayor was again back in Croydon, re-emphasising his position on the importance of outer London.

And unlike Boris Johnson, his Tory successor as London Mayor who infamously travelled to East Dulwich instead of East Croydon when he was campaigning, Livingstone was able to make his way by tram to New Addington, where he met up with Louisa Woodley, his party’s London Assembly candidate for Sutton and Croydon, and Chuka Umanna, MP for Streatham and a rising star in the parliamentary Labour party.

There was a spring in Livingstone’s step as he strolled in the weak April sunshine towards the New Addington shops, rucksack on his back. “You’ve got my vote!” one local shouted from their car as Livingstone and his small entourage crossed from the tram stop.

But regardless of political affiliation, life on the campaign trail is rarely so easy.

The purpose of Livingstone's New Addington photo-op: Labour's promise to cut fares in London would save commuters in outer London £1,700 over four years

Livingstone, Woodley and Umanna’s first stop was the local Co-Op supermarket: after a £1 million revamp in early 2011, the store was torched during the August riots, requiring another £800,000 to be spent before it could re-open recently.

Three teenaged girls walking past noticed the gathering throng of local and national media outside – Croydon TV had a crew there, the Sunday Times had sent a reporter. The girls asked what was going on.

The following is a verbatim account of their reactions as they continued on their way:

Girl No1: “But what’s politics?”

Girl No2: “It’s voting and stuff.”

Girl No1: “Have you got a vote then?”

Girl No2: “S’pose so.”

Girl No3: “You gonna vote then?”

Girl No2: “Naw, don’t think so.”

This cultivated indifference is not confined to the younger generation. Councillor Tony Newman, leader of the Labour group on Croydon Council, was handing out leaflets to passers-by and approached an elderly, grey-haired woman pushing a wheeled shopping bag. “Can I ask if you’ll be voting on May 3?” Newman said.

“No, not for any of ’em,” the woman said, quite determined in her attitude. “They’re all as bad as one another.”

Someone else in the lobbying group reminded the woman that her pensioner’s bus pass had been first introduced under Livingstone, during the GLC days. But she would not be swayed, shook her head and pushed her bag on down the parade.

For an old campaigner like Livingstone, such stubborness is an occupational hazard. What is more galling, especially in this age of 24/7 news channels and broadband information streams, is the constant battle against misinformation. What ordinary people usually call “lies”.

There is little doubt that London 2012 has descended into a particularly dirty campaign, seen by some observers to have been orchestrated by Johnson’s campaign manager, the Australian, Lynton Crosby.

But it is not just personal smears that Livingstone has to deal with. “I’m not voting for you,” one Co-Op shopper told Livingstone in the aisle alongside the baked beans, spam, tinned ham and other canned goods, “because when you get in, you’re going to introduce Sharia law in London.” In case it needs stating, that particular measure is nowhere to be found in Livingstone’s manifesto.

And, just as “Bullingdon Boris” has a reputation to overcome, so “Red Ken” is sometimes held back by Daily Mail-style headlines which many people fail to see beyond.

Statler and Waldorf: "He ain't half bad"

Livingstone is the man who was too radical and outspoken for Tony Blair, so that in 2000 he stood for London Mayor as an independent against the official Labour candidate, and he won. For some, that would be a plus point, but not for a pair of old pals visiting the Co-Op at just after 10 yesterday morning.

If we compare these gentlemen to Statler and Waldorf, the two old grumps on The Muppet Show, we do so merely to set the tone for their encounter with one of Britain’s most recognisable characters of the past 35 years.

“‘Ere, what’s going on?” said one as their path down to the fresh veg aisle was partly blocked by the camera crew and photographer.

“It’s your old mate, Bill,” said the other, ladling on the sarcasm.

“He’s no mate of mine,” said Bill, pulling a face as if he had just sucked on a particularly sour lemon, and they had not even visited the fresh fruit area yet.

“Oh, go on, he ain’t half bad,” Bill’s long-suffering friend suggested, perhaps sensing that there was a chance to get to appear on the evening TV news bulletin here.

“No, Joe. You’re right. He’s not half-bad. He’s all bad.”

Impressions, rather than policies.

Photo-shoot done with the basket of goods that Livingstone’s promised fare cuts could pay for each week, the group moved along the parade, visiting in turn the DIY store and police “shop” which, as a result of recent staffing cuts in the Boris Johnson-controlled Met, is left unstaffed more often than it is open.

In the pet shop, run by local business leader Ken Burgess, the politicians engaged on the subject of a new mega-Tesco to be built across the road on the site of the New Addington library (and to think that the council and the local MP, Gavin Barwell, still maintain that no Croydon libraries are to be closed).

Umanna, Ken Burgess, Livingstone and Gavin the rabbit discuss business in New Addington

Some shopkeepers believe that Tesco-fication of New Addington will kill off their businesses – few stores can rival Tesco for its massive economies of scale and purchasing power – while others, including Burgess, see the supermarket bringing more people to the area, increasing footfall to their own shops.

Burgess mentioned his group’s application to run a BID, a business development area, in New Addington, similar to that established in central Croydon. Umanna grasped the concept keenly, since in the past week Streatham High Road had agreed a BID of its own. Burgess and Umanna might want to meet some of the traders on London Road, outside the Croydon BID area, to hear their views on the benefits, or otherwise, of such a scheme.

Livingstone avoided any political pot holes, such as pictures with newts, though he was positively enthusiastic in viewing Burgess’s crested geckos. Mindful of his duty to the press photographers, he happily held a New Addington rabbit, which someone suggested was called “Gavin”.

But it was as the group headed into the florist that the starkest illustration of how political engagement has barely worked, even with the party machines in full swing.

Woodley was approached by a young black man, no older than 20, together with his younger brother. He’d recognised Livingstone, and he asked her what was happening. Handing the young man one of her campaign leaflets, Woodley asked him how he intended to vote.

“Yeah, I can vote,” he said. “But I don’t know whether I should. I don’t feel safe, you know…”

Woodley asked why, and he mentioned the police and the area’s reputation for violent crime. He then asked who she was. Pointing to her picture on the leaflet with Livingstone, she explained that she was standing for the London Assembly.

The young man could not disguise his surprise. “You’re… like… the candidate?”

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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1 Response to Not everyone recognises a good thing on the election trail

  1. Very good article which accurately reflects the way some people view politics. Large parts of what used to be called “the working class” have been depoliticised, due to factors like the decline of trade unions, unemployment and our consumerist and celebrity culture. However there are also some who are more clued up and involved, thank goodness.

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