The Croydon woman who must try to keep Boris in check

Val Shawcross: the former Croydon Council leader now holds considerable influence across London

Of all the election results for the London Assembly announced last Friday, few could have been as emphatic as that enjoyed by Valerie Shawcross.

The former Labour leader of Croydon Council has been AM for Lambeth and Southwark since the very first City Hall elections in 2000, and last week she won her seat with a smashing majority of 57,702 – just the majority was close to the total vote secured by the Conservatives in winning Croydon and Sutton.

Since moving on from Croydon Town Hall to City Hall, Shawcross has retained strong links with the borough, where she still lives. Over the past four months or so of the London Mayoral election campaign, as Ken Livingstone’s nominated deputy, there were few figures as prominent or as hard-working as Shawcross.

Now, with another four years of Boris Johnson as London Mayor, but with Labour the biggest group in the Assembly, Shawcross – as she showed on Day 1 of the new administration, highlighting the “shambles” of Boris’s mishandled appointment of seven deputy mayors – the Croydon resident seems certain to be equally busy, calling the Mayor to account.

Shawcross’s seemingly boundless energy and political nous, with her strong reliance on her inner London powerbase, was highlighted on Friday night when she found time, as the City Hall Mayoral count dragged on, to dash off to her local party’s celebration of her convincing win.

Shawcross’ experience in City Hall administration and her voting strength in Lambeth and Southwark made her well qualified to be Livingstone’s running mate.

It is nearly 20 years since Val Shawcross burst on to the Croydon political scene, appearing in 1994 with a huge smiling picture of the councillor for New Addington on page 3 of the Evening Standard. She was among those celebrating Labour’s first ever win in Croydon, beating the long-established and successful Conservative administration of Peter Bowness. A new red star was launched into the capital’s political firmament, as Shawcross quickly rose up the ranks.

Within a year she was the chair of Croydon Council’s education committee. As noted in the retirement speech of the outgoing council chief executive, David Wechsler, Shawcross’s appointment saw the beginning of one of the most acrimonious political relationships the council had ever seen, between her and her opposite number, the previous chairman of education, Andrew Pelling.

Shawcross has been a Croydon borough resident for 26 years, now living in Upper Norwood close to her Lambeth and Southwark London Assembly constituency.

Her seat on the London Assembly has not always been so safe. In 2004, the Liberal Democrats – who have deputy party leader Simon Hughes as their long-time established MP in Bermondsey –  came very close to unseating Shawcross, bringing the majority down to just 5,475. Caroline Pidgeon was her challenger.

LibDem AM Caroline Pidgeon, once an election rival of Shawcross, now often an ally across the floor of City Hall

Both women now sit on the London Assembly (Pidgeon being elected on the LibDems’ list), but that 2004 election contest rivalled the bitterness of any conflict at Croydon Council. The two now though work closely together at City Hall, across party lines.

In some ways the women are similar campaigning inner London politicians. They also continue to share the same short-cropped haircut that led another former Croydon councillor, Gavin Barwell, to nickname Shawcross as “Servalan”, the ruthless, man-controlling villain from the cult 1970s sci-fi TV drama Blake’s 7. Barwell’s choice of nickname possibly says much about him, and his taste for kitsch television.

Shawcross’s background could not be further removed from the private school- and Oxbridge-educated, born-to-rule types who were so used to running Croydon politics. Shawcross was brought up on a council estate in Rochdale, where her father was an active trade unionist and Labour Party member. She studied at Liverpool University but was not impressed by the Militant Tendency activities of the Derek Hatton era on Merseyside.

After graduation, she worked at the old Inner London Education Authority. Further study led Shawcross to lobby government and aid agencies on the role of women in aid projects, which led to a job for the Commonwealth Secretariat. There, she worked across the Commonwealth, promoting women’s equality.

Val Shawcross in 1994, then the newly elected Croydon councillor for New Addington

Her feminist calling then led her to work as the National Women’s Officer for the Labour Party.

Following her election in Croydon, Shawcross made quick progress, becoming deputy leader within two years. In 1997, when Geraint Davies, the then Labour leader of Croydon Council, unexpectedly found himself as MP for Croydon Central as part of Tony Blair’s Commons landslide election victory, Shawcross was promoted to take charge at the Town Hall.

As Shawcross admits herself, upon becoming leader, “My first job was to get the budget sorted.”

The first three years of Labour control in Croydon, from 1994 to 1997, included time when Davies had concentrated too much on using the council as his springboard for Westminster. This left things in some disrepair. Yet deftly, Shawcross steered Labour to another local Labour victory at the 1998 Town Hall elections.

In 2000, she departed for the newly formed London Assembly, leaving Croydon in the hands of the inexperienced Hugh Malyan, who eventually increased the Council Tax by 27 per cent after some adventurous games with Council Tax referendums. It all had a disastrous long-term impact on Labour’s prospects in Croydon.

Up at City Hall, Shawcross was meanwhile proving her worth under London’s first Mayor, Ken Livingstone, who had been elected despite standing as an independent against the official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson.

Shawcross was appointed as chair of the London Fire Authority, where she fended off an acrimonious firefighters’ strike and found significant savings to plough back into Livingstone’s City Hall Budget. She is proud in how her administration managed “to halve the numbers of fire deaths in London and massively reduce arson and attendance to hoax calls”.

Shawcross received the CBE for her services in local government in 2002.

With Mayor Johnson’s election in 2008, Shawcross found herself pinning down the detail of Transport for London’s massive budget as the Assembly’s Transport scrutiny chair, in partnership with her previous adversary, Pidgeon.

That’s a transport portfolio role for Shawcross that will continue in a 12-strong Labour group on the Assembly that includes five women. This gender balance differs radically from the Conservatives, who have just a single woman among their number.

She is Victoria Borwick, just appointed as the Mayor’s newly appointed statutory deputy mayor. That’s the role Shawcross would have expected under Livingstone, though you can imagine Shawcross being a somewhat more challenging and questioning deputy.

Shawcross seems to have a softer spot for Borwick than other London Assembly Tories. Borwick was shunted down to third on the Tories’ top-up list, and she expected not to get back to City Hall, but she benefited from the defeat of senior AMs Brian Coleman and Richard Barnes in constituency seats, thus leaving more room for Conservative list members to get elected.

Standing alongside Livingstone before the election, Shawcross supported the promise to finally build the extension of the Tramlink system to Crystal Palace, which Mayor Johnson cancelled after he was elected in 2008. Since Boris adopted the tram extension among his own policies in his campaign, it seems likely that it will be an important election promise which at least one Croydon woman will try to ensure that he keeps.

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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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