ANDREW PELLING, a former Croydon MP, councillor and London Assembly member, has been following the by-election campaign and here analyses the high points and low marks of the past six weeks in a giant constituency which today will set a British electoral record
Today is polling day in Croydon North.
This is the day when political parties fret about whether voters will actually get out to vote.
It’s cold today, with a chilling northerly wind. It’s already dark outside just after 4pm. The short days and the short campaign have not been conducive to any party reaching voters in a November by-election campaign.
Labour’s worry will be that if voters think that the result is a foregone conclusion they’ll give a wintry trip to the polling station a miss (campaign mythology is that Labour voters tend to cast their votes in the evening).
The Croydon voting register is also a very old register, with the new one due for publication early next month. The new register will be cleansed of many voters who no longer reside in Croydon North.
Thus we’ll have one record in the bag straight away that the register, which with its 11 monthly update additions now including perhaps as many as 104,000 names, will be the biggest by-election by voters registered ever.
But that also means that with so many out of date voters on the register, the final turnout will be artificially low.
The huge size of the constituency comes partly from the increases in housing density that have taken place since the population figures were put together 11 years ago and were used to put the last boundary changes in place.
Also, the council lobbied to have only three MPs wholly based on Croydon, rather than three MPs and a fourth constituency shared with another borough with a different political culture – something that neither party in Croydon’s two-party state wanted.
The large size of the Croydon North seat has also made it very difficult for Respect (George Galloway), with no history of support, to gain traction. The glamour of their candidate Lee Jasper and his hoped for cavalry of young voters on social media may, if not created by his Twitter bots, be just enough to save his deposit.
Jasper’s sojourn on his own on his touring open-topped double decker suggested that the small Respect party had to concentrate its scant resources elsewhere when there were three by-elections on at the same time. Rotherham, it soon transpired, looked to be a better prospect for Respect, following the resignation of sitting Labour MP, the expenses cheat Denis McShane, and after the UKIP foster publicity went national.
From the very start of the campaign, Jasper has indicated that now was not going to be his time, as he said that he intends to run in Croydon in the General Election and to run candidates in the 2014 local elections.
Although Jasper came up with some very moderate mainstream proposals, this message was overwhelmed by the response to the podcast from George Galloway at the start of the campaign which talked of the electorate in terms of racial groups with dedicated voting patterns.
This allowed Respect (George Galloway)’s opponents to portray them in the local print media as divisive. Post-riot and conservative with a small “c” northern Croydon felt uncomfortable with that portrayal when it aspires to maintaining relatively good community relations.
Jasper will need to get a decent number of votes to save his deposit as turnout may not be as dire as some are predicting. The bar for getting your £500 deposit back is 5 per cent of the share of the vote.
Northern Croydon’s turnout in local elections is not that bad, so I don’t expect to see Croydon North coming anywhere close matching the paltry 18.2 per cent turnout of inner city Manchester Central earlier this month.
The last time there were local council elections held on their own was in May 2006 and then the highest turnout in the constituency was Norbury with 43.6 per cent and West Thornton scored the lowest with 31.4 per cent.
Thus I feel it very likely that around 30,000 voters will make the effort to cast a ballot today.
It is difficult for parties outside the Croydon political party duopoly to break through. That did happen in the 1981 by-election in what was then Croydon North-West, but there’s no SDP-Liberal Alliance-type hysteria in the national media to give a strong platform for such a challenge. The recent UKIP travails in the press do not compare to the scale of the enthusiasm of the press in 1981, who sold the SDP-Liberal Alliance as the very end of the two-party system.
The Labour versus Conservative battle is ingrained into the culture of Croydon politics, so the Tories look safe in their modest second placing. The Sadvertiser’s line that the Conservatives could come through the middle and snatch victory with Respect splitting the Labour vote always looked fanciful. The Labour vote at the 2010 General Election was more than double that of the Conservatives. It was to the credit of the Conservative candidate Andy Stranack that he dismissed the Sadvertiser’s ludicrous scenario.
There has been a good deal of demographic change in this seat since it returned two Conservative MPs to Parliament in 1987. If you look at the excellent London 2012 Election Cartograms of party political support concentrations in London produced by City Hall and Benjamin D Hennig of the University of Sheffield, you can see just how poor north Croydon is for the Conservatives compared to other parts of London, so securing a Conservative victory was never a realistic prospect.
Gavin Barwell is a very experienced campaigner and the Tory candidate Andy Stranack was very lucky to have the Croydon Central MP running the show as his campaign manager. Barwell has spent almost all his adult life as a professional party election campaigner either for the Conservative party directly or in the pay of Lord Ashcroft. A lot of his work, though, was stymied by the way that the Conservatives were perceived as a toxic brand.
Stranack was presented as a sympathetic character who had overcome adversity encountered in his cerebral palsy. He interviewed well with his life story. When venturing into “facts”, however, it was not so good, such as when he asserted that 98 per cent of Riot Act claims had been paid out – making him look very out of touch in the context of the scandal of compensation not being paid to London Road residents and businesses.
Stranack’s Croydon background and charity work accommodated on London Road seems to have secured a little bit of modest additional support as the Labour candidate, even though living closer to the constituency than Stranack, has been perceived as being from Lambeth Council, whose outdated image with some Croydon voters still goes back to the difficult days of “Red Ted” Knight.
However the almost apologetic approach by Barwell, missing out references to the Conservative party, may yet have proven to confuse the voters. Claims by Stranack to be the heir to the late Malcolm Wicks was odd and presumptive. Barwell might, in this seat, have sought to motivate the core Conservative vote with a robust defence of the government. Maybe in Croydon North he felt that would have been defending the indefensible.
The most recent November by-elections saw precipitate falls in the Tory vote. Conservatives saw their percentage score drop by 61.1 per cent, 57.4 per cent and 34 per cent in Manchester Central, Cardiff South and Penrith, and Corby respectively two weeks ago.
A Conservative voting tradition in Croydon among older voters who have not moved out of Croydon North since 1987 will see a slightly better performance here and I predict a fall from 24.1 per cent last time to 18 per cent this time around, “only” just over a 25 per cent reduction in their percentage score.
The result last time for Labour was impressive with Wicks actually securing a swing to Labour on an awful day for Labour nationally following 13 years in government.
Labour’s 2012 candidate, Steve Reed, led with promises of bringing jobs to Croydon where Jobs Seeker Allowance claims represent 7.8 per cent of the available for work population. He was also able to campaign on the lack of London Road riots compensation and the closure of South Norwood police station.
Labour was determined to overwhelm the opposition with a rapidity of visits from senior political leaders that included Ed and David Miliband, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Keith Vaz, Ross Kemp, Sadiq Khan, Chris Bryant, Tom Watson, Chuka Umunna (twice) and Ken Livingstone (three times). Senior Labour politicians reassured voters that Reed’s achievements on securing regeneration and jobs in Lambeth are tangible. Notably, the closest that Stranack’s party leader, David Cameron, came to campaign with his candidate was a lacklustre letter to a local free paper that was published yesterday.
Expectations of an increase in the Labour vote share should be modest bearing in mind that previous very good result, with Reed yet to establish himself with many locals, plus a modest number of voters reacting to the Lambeth connection, and the distraction of a large field of centrist or radical candidates.
But most important of all is Labour’s challenge in motivating its voter base to go to the polling station. Labour should be able to get more than 2,000 supporters out of each of the eight wards of Croydon North, all of them represented on the council by Labour councillors.
If Lambeth is a difficult sell to proud Croydon voters, the Liberal Democrats’ candidate will find her Islington link a bit off-putting for voters, but that’s the least of her worries.
She’s had a low media profile except for a good LibDem tradition of sneakiness when her campaign tried to steal the credit for Croydon South MP Richard Ottaway’s work on regulating the scrap metal business. Ray has worked hard with a small team to get out LibDem literature. It will not be enough to save her deposit. LibDems will likely come sixthafter a third place finish last time.
Green candidate, Shasha Khan, benefits from being an established local politician. The incinerator issue might garner some votes and my prediction reflects the kind of increase that other Greens have seen in their vote share in recent elections. Khan seems resigned to coming in fifth – a bit of a blow for the Greens who would have wanted to establish themselves as the third party in Croydon ahead of the 2014 local elections.
Locals could have told UKIP that Winston McKenzie’s selection would be troublesome for his party. His car crash candidacy was entirely predictable. Nevertheless, his campaign has drawn some attention to itself even if the regional and national coverage has been adverse and seen his comments disowned by his own party.
It’s notable that the UKIP interviews have secured the leading viewership on Croydon TV’s coverage of the by-election. The 10,000 a day viewership of the whole coverage was a great deal more healthy than that for a Conservative party Andy Stranack’s own “Non-Tory Tory” video, at just 360 views (by mid-morning today) in nine days.
The apparent abandonment of Stranack’s campaign can be found on his local party’s website. Or rather, it can’t be found: no campaign news articles had been posted there for the final fortnight before the by-election.
There’s a good deal of prejudice to tap into out there and McKenzie’s gay averse campaign of innuendo and homophobia may win some support. The national coverage of the Rotherham UKIP foster parents will boost UKIP’s fortunes and I predict that McKenzie will secure an undeserved third place, getting a respectable distance over the deposit-saving target, but not that strong a showing as the London 2012 election.
So below is a very detailed prediction for the election result that will likely be announced early tomorrow morning.
The chance to mock the mistaken election guesses will then follow.
|Party||Predicted vote||Predicted vote share %||Change in vote % share from 2010|
|Respect (George Galloway)||1,600||5.3||+ 4.8|
|Following candidates lose their deposit:|
|National Front||400||1.3||+ 1.3|
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- Low turnout looms at Croydon North as just 26 watch by-election film promoting Andrew Stranack (standard.co.uk)
- Jasper admits to using Twitter bots to drive election bid (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon North and the Utter Hypocrisy of Respect (thepoliticalidealist.com)