The Labour group on Croydon Council is becoming a bit like the Conservatives. Well, at least in just one small, but important, way, writes ANDREW PELLING
In parliament, Labour dropped the election of its shadow cabinet by its MPs, leaving it to the party leader to choose his own team of ministers or shadow ministers instead. This meant that Labour MPs would spend more time pinning down the Tories, rather than in contesting internal party elections.
At the last parliamentary Labour party shadow cabinet election, a rather embarrassingly large number of MPs ran for office. At one stage, the candidates for election looked like it would amount to a quarter of the electorate. When the national party “modernised”, to have a team appointed by the leader, guidance was given to Labour council groups to follow this practice as well.
And so Labour in Croydon finds itself following the same practice that the Conservatives have always followed, with appointments to council spokesperson positions being in the gift of their own leader.
That’s a lot of publicly funded patronage in the hands of just two people in Croydon – more than £ 1.5 million-worth of front bench allowances a year determined by Mike Fisher and Tony Newman. It’s an amount of money that would make an 18th century patron blush.
An appointment system should in theory allow the leader to provide for a more balanced team of talents than an election allows for. A more decisive ethos might also be created that might help in taking difficult policy decisions. There has been a tendency for ruling groups on the council to put off such decisions often to their electoral detriment.
For the ruling Conservative group in Croydon, a significant majority of Councillors receive an additional “special responsibility allowance” that together with the councillors’ allowance comes to a tidy sum above the average national annual salary – a very generous payment for a part-time job. The payroll vote buttresses the leader of the council’s position.
So Labour’s local leader has this power for the first time to order his own team. There is a consultation process with senior fellow councillors that might counsel against any glaring errors of judgement. However, it’s a change of approach that leaves the Labour leader directly responsible for any demotions. How radically different will Labour’s leader, Tony Newman, make his first team?
Here is the full list of appointments, as announced this morning.
- Leader of the Labour Group: Tony Newman
- Deputy Leader & Shadow Cabinet Member for Housing: Alison Butler
Deputy: Patricia Hay-Justice
- Deputy Leader, Shadow Cabinet Member for Streets, Environment & Highways: Stuart Collins
Deputy: Sherwan Choudhury
- Children, Young People and Learners: Kathy Bee
Deputy: Donna Gray
- Culture, Libraries and Sport: Timothy Godfrey
Deputy: Wayne Lawlor
- Health and Social Care: Jane Avis
Deputy: Pat Clouder
- Communities and the Voluntary Sector: Louisa Woodley
Deputy: Humayun Kabir
- Finance and change: Simon Hall
Deputy: Raj Rajendran
- Economic Development: Toni Letts
Deputy: George Ayres
- Crime and Public Protection: Paul Smith
Deputy: Gerry Ryan
The new line-up will likely be the one that takes Labour through to the next election and beyond if Labour wins the Town Hall in 2014. Current national opinion polls make Labour favourites to win control in Croydon, though of course public opinion could tack back to the Tories in two years.
The Croydon Conservatives’ cutting of services, combined with vast expenditure on the new council headquarters building – which is so expensive that the council refuses to release the figures – will be key issues in the campaign that strengthen Labour’s hand.
Conservative claims to financial competence will be weaker in 2014 than at previous Croydon elections. The 50,000-strong Labour vote in the London Assembly election also suggests that Labour is building a campaign machine capable of matching the Conservatives locally. The vote was way above those received before, even when Labour was dominant in the national polls.
So what elements does a local council party group leader look for in a winning team? Not only does the team need to be made up of those capable of holding their own in the council chamber, but the team must also have the energy to be out there making an impact among opinion formers in Croydon in the election run-up.
Even a decade on, Labour’s 27 per cent Council Tax increase in 2003-2004, when Newman was the group’s deputy leader, remains a powerful weapon for the Conservatives to undermine their opponents at election time. Newman will need to show that his team has credibility in both finance and business relations.
Some eloquence, or at least a special facility with the written word, could secure some a much needed role in the team for someone after some notable errors in the London Assembly campaign literature.
Ken Livingstone made the NHS a strong issue in his campaign back in the autumn and threats to local NHS services look likely to continue. An earnest and experienced voice on the NHS in the Labour group is Norbury councillor, Maggie Mansell, and with her experience from a career in the NHS, she has been given the role of lead on the Health and Well Being Board.
“The Act puts the NHS and Public Health in jeopardy,” Mansell said this morning.
“There is a real job to do in supporting those commissioners, managers and staff who are trying to work within the new Act to improve health and services for people in Croydon. I hope to work as a team with Jane Avis, and my deputy George Ayres and the Scrutiny team. We need to develop Labour’s plans for a better health service after the next election.”
Some cohesion and, in Labour’s case, some representative gender and minority community balance is high on the agenda. Fisher only appoints two women to his 10-strong cabinet, despite there being many bright women on his back benches who are much better than some of the slow-moving male duds on his front bench. Newman’s shadow cabinet is much more representative, and includes the return to the team of Thornton Heath councillor Louisa Woodley after her energetic and successful campaign for the London Assembly.
“After our magnificent result on May 3, the people of Croydon have placed this Tory council on notice: no more cuts, no incinerator, restore voluntary sector grants, cut back on expensive consultants and support the Family Justice Centre,” said Woodley, who takes on the Communities and Voluntary Sector brief.
“This council has flushed hundreds of millions of tax payer’s money down the drain as it arrogantly pursues its agenda of ‘austerity’ for those worse off. I am delighted to return to the front bench and will be standing up for those community and voluntary sector organisations that are being ignored and sidelined by this Tory council.”
Emerging talents Patricia Hay-Justice and Donna Gray have been given deputy roles in Housing and Children and Learners, working with Alison Butler and Kathy Bee.
Selhurst councillor Timothy Godfrey is also back after a year’s break on the back benches. His forensic research, withering wit and centrist politics will be brought to play again on the culture and libraries brief, areas which have been laid waste or put up for privatisation by the current administration’s cuts.
Every year, Croydon’s Conservatives predict with glee that Newman will be ousted. Every year, they have been proved wrong. There are only very modest critics and minor criticisms of Newman’s performance within the Labour group. That these critics are not included in the shadow cabinet is a sign that Newman believes that he remains in a strong position. Appointing your own team does, though, leave a leader much more exposed to challenges by those who feel neglected.
One notable absentee from the team is the hard-working Selhurst councillor Gerry Ryan. Renowned for always speaking of having a “strategy” when he was in charge of Croydon’s highways, this former parliamentary candidate in Croydon Central and Croydon South is not picked for the top team this time around.
Newman takes a fairly conservative approach to his politics and has not drifted that far away from the team chosen in democratic group elections just a year ago. He will need to be confident that the team he has backing him will challenge Croydon Tories effectively over the next two years.
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