Tony Newman, the leader of the Labour opposition at Croydon Town Hall, was clearly enthused yesterday when he reported the positive response from his party’s members seeking to be candidates at the next borough elections in 2014.
As many as 30 people came forward, many who had not fought local elections before, drawn from a broad section of Croydon’s different communities for an initial training session. This compares quite favourably with the local Conservative federation, which has been forced to recruit … a recruitment officer.
The last council election result in May 2010 was a close one, with Conservatives keeping control of the council they had won in 2006, this time by winning with a reduced majority of 37 seats to Labour’s 33.
Croydon is a clearly divided borough, with very few marginal contests, Labour holding most of the wards to the north, the Tories virtually unchallenged in the south.
But for 2014, Labour in Croydon is matching the Conservatives by employing a full-time Croydon election agent between elections these days. That has much to do with Croydon being targeted as one of two key London boroughs that Labour wants to win from the Tories.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, will want to see progress in London after the disappointment of the Mayoral election where poll strategist Lynton Crosby got Boris Johnson across the finishing line despite appallingly low standings for the Conservatives in the polls nationally.
But just how easy will it be for Labour to regain control?
The Conservatives have controlled the council since 2006, when they turned around the 37-31 majority held by Labour from 2002 (when there was a solitary LibDem elected to the chamber) with a thundering 43-27 majority.
The number of Labour seats won in 2006 was particularly fitting.
For that number matched the percentage increase in Council Tax in Croydon in a single year under the 2002 Labour administration, when Newman was deputy leader of the council.
Given the beating Labour suffered six years ago, the road towards 2014 has been a hard slog. But Newman and his team now believe that their Tory successors have delivered up a series of equally daunting figures which they will need to explain.
The Conservative council’s estimated spend on new headquarters offices at a time of cut-backs in public services in a time of harsh austerity seems to be a particularly poor piece of judgement.
The overall value of the speculative property deal with John Laing which Croydon’s Conservative leader, Mike Fisher, allowed to go forward, at the top of the property market, but which the council has had to bail-out with government loans. Details of this scheme have never been made public.
The public spend on “Rouse’s Folly”, a footbridge over East Croydon railway station for which the council, under the gaffe-prone chief executive Jon Rouse, failed to secure proper guarantees from the private developers.
These are just some of the big ticket items among a litany of unforced errors by Croydon’s Tories, who despite claiming to be sound on financials, manage to preside over the fifth worst council tax collection rate in the country, offering inferior services to neighbouring boroughs where Council Tax is lower, and watching major businesses walk away from the town, where an estimated 3,000 private sector jobs have been lost in 2012 alone.
Newman is running a “Labour Listens” campaign, to understand better Croydon’s residents’ concerns. They are also buoyed by the long-lasting advantage that their party holds over the Conservatives in the national opinion polls.
BUT A FAR BETTER guide to prospects in Croydon comes from recent local council election results in Greater London.
More than 10,000 London voters have been to the polls since the Boris victory in May, and this provides a much bigger and more localised database than that provided by national polling figures.
Importantly, local elections also record voters who actually possess the willpower to make their way to the polling station, rather than just chat to a pollster. They are real votes cast by real voters.
In five recent council by-elections, the Conservative share of the vote in London compared to 2010 is very stable indeed, down by less than 1 per cent.
This is partly explained by the Conservatives continuing ability to “get the vote out”, ensuring that their supporters actually take the trouble to put their X on the ballot paper.
In 2010, the London borough elections were held on General Election day. This coincidence of voting day flattered Labour’s performance by delivering a higher percentage of Labour supporters to the ballot box than would be usual. In Croydon, however, the returning officer – a task which paid chief executive Jon Rouse a few extra thousand quid – managed to produce ballot papers without the Labour party’s logo on them (important for voters where English is not the first language or literacy is an issue), and closed the doors on some polling stations at 10pm with dozens of residents in queues outside, denied their votes.
Dealing with the relatively lower participation rate by Labour supporters in local elections will be the real challenge for Labour in 2014 in Croydon.
Local election results in London this summer show that the significant shift in voting shares is from the Liberal-Democrats. The LibDems, caught in a “loveless marriage” in their coalition at Westminster, have lost almost half their vote since 2010.
The Liberal-Democrat share of the vote in the five London borough by-elections in Barnet, Hammersmith, Kensington and Chelsea, Kingston and Waltham Forest this summer dropped from 26.7 per cent in 2010 to 13.2 per cent.
This meltdown, if repeated in neighbouring Sutton, would see the LibDems completely buried, though Sutton Liberal-Democrats do sometimes outperform their national party. On pure projections from London by-election results the LibDems would be wiped out completely, with the Conservatives securing 42 seats and Labour getting back on the council at Sutton Civic Centre with 12 seats.
And therein lies the rub for Labour in Croydon. Because while Labour’s share of votes across London is up by about 10 per cent, much of that gain is at the expense of disenchanted LibDem voters, rather than an increase in Labour support or an exodus of Conservative voters.
In Croydon, there is no great Liberal-Democrat vote for Labour to squeeze.
Using these real votes in London borough by-elections as a guide, a council vote in Croydon now would be a less attractive result for Tony Newman’s Labour group than you might expect from looking at national opinion polls only.
The national polls suggest that Croydon would see Labour gaining the council by 37 seats to 33 seats, reversing the 2010 result.
But based on the results this summer from elections in other London boroughs, Labour would gain enough votes from the LibDems to just reach a three-figure majority ahead of the sole Tory Councillor in New Addington and they might take a seat Waddon, with Conservative cabinet member Simon Hoar the most exposed as the third-placed candidate last time.
Labour would also likely get their best placed candidate within some kind of shouting distance of the last-placed Conservative candidate in Ashburton ward.
But this would all leave the Council tied at 35 seats each and the Tories would retain control on the outgoing Mayor’s casting vote.
A possible conjunction of the 2014 election day with the European elections might yet trip up Croydon Conservative candidates for the council, if UKIP puts up candidates for the Town Hall as well as for Strasbourg.
For Labour in Croydon to rely on UKIP to undermine the Conservative vote might be too much of a stretch. Newman must realise that he still has considerable work ahead to turn his prospective candidates into councillors.
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