CROYDON COMMENTARY: There was a reason for Steve Reed’s campaign to focus so much on the state of our streets. It was because Labour are planning to clean-up at the next council elections, say ANDREW PELLING
Eddy Arram, the neutral returning officer who also happens to work in the office of Conservative MP Gavin Barwell, has spoken. Steve Reed is the new MP for Croydon North.
In his acceptance speech, Labour’s winning candidate dedicated his victory to Malcolm Wicks and used Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” theme in pointing out the division to Croydon society that comes from the high level of youth unemployment.
Several potentially exciting changes to Croydon politics arise from the result.
By far the biggest group of voters on Thursday was those who did not vote. The 68,356 abstainers will include those on the 11-month-old register who have moved away from Croydon or have died in the past year. But abstainers are more than four times greater than the vote for the winning candidate.
Disillusionment, distrust and disinterest in party politics runs deep, unsurprisingly on a polling day which clashed with the publication of the Leveson Report, when our politicians were showing their pusillanimous weakness in front of the media moguls, the people who really run the country.
Croydon’s political duopoly remains robustly in place.
Labour is overwhelmingly dominant in north Croydon elections and the Conservatives are a very weak second there, with no prospects of elective representation in Parliament or on the council there. Thirty years ago the Conservatives held all the council seats in north Croydon – demographic change has driven much of this transformation.
The Conservative campaign was based on avoidance: avoiding having to defend the government’s record, and avoiding the use of the word “Conservative” at every opportunity. As well as videos which did not mention the candidate’s party, the Tories’ “North Croydon News” leaflet’s leading article made six references to Labour or to the late Malcolm Wicks before the first reference to the Conservatives.
Instead, they preferred to tell the life story of a candidate who impressed in interviews. But this did not work with the voters as the swing against them to Labour was bang in line with national poll trends.
Andy “not a typical Tory” Stranack’s message of “I am a Conservative, but I care like Disraeli and Wilberforce did” was obscure, misjudged and suggested that Conservatives felt unable to defend their 21st century record nationally or locally.
It was as if the white flag of surrender had been flown from the start.
The percentage fall in the Conservative share of the vote in the Croydon North by-election was almost as bad as in Corby two weeks before, when there was a voter backlash against the abandonment of that seat by the Tories’ Louise Mensch. In Croydon North the simple Conservative to Labour swing was not as severe – had it been so, then the Tories would have gone down to a most unlikely 12 per cent share (they polled nearly 17 per cent).
Gavin Barwell, the Croydon Central MP, spent the past month managing Stranack’s campaign. Today he has been heroically telling BBC regional news that the campaign he ran was a model for future Conservative elections.
The Conservative candidate has also been trying to downplay the crushing result for his party, saying that he is happy that the swing was significantly less than national opinion polls are suggesting. This sadly is a falsehood as the swing is right in line with national opinion poll trends. With only a very modest Tory share to erode in the first place, the near 8 per cent swing is impressive when the arithmetic of safe Labour seats make swings matching the national average harder to achieve.
The 2010 General Election result in Croydon North was unusual in that Malcolm Wicks actually secured a swing towards him on an otherwise dreadful night for his party. Thus to improve significantly on that result, taking the vote share from 56 per cent to such a dominant 64.7 per cent is a notable achievement for Labour and Steve Reed.
Labour insiders measure Malcolm Wicks’ incumbency as being so strong as to have stood at an additional 8.4 per cent of the vote – the difference between Wicks’ share of the vote on election day in 2010 and Labour’s share of the vote in local council elections in Croydon North on the same day. If that was the value of Wicks, then Reed’s result is all the more impressive. Conversely, such success may also be an adverse commentary on an underperformance of Croydon’s Labour councillors and their comparative support with the electorate.
Labour certainly left nothing to chance in the by-election, applying overwhelming force in terms of the number of experienced campaign and media professional staff delivered on to the patch.
A good part of Reed’s campaign was focused on Croydon Council’s failures, especially rubbish on the streets.
Fly-tipping and a road-cleaning contract that has minimalist council supervision is not a Westminster issue, yet Reed focused a great deal of his social media element of his campaign on this aspect of the neglect of Croydon North. He seemed genuinely shocked by the shabby streets scene in his now, new constituency.
As an outsider with extensive experience of local government as the Lambeth Council leader, Reed’s perceptions of the council as being out of touch threw a new light on Croydon affairs, with the prospect of some interesting debates to come between the now ex-Lambeth leader and Croydon Council leader Mike Fisher. Reed, though, will likely avoid the childish partisanship spats that Barwell engages in, as he needs to work co-operatively with the local authority to deliver on his jobs for Croydon promise made during the campaign.
The low turnout by-election result acts as a good guide to the prospects for the council elections in 2014, when a similarly low turnout can be expected. The swing secured by Labour between 2010 and 2012, if repeated in 2014, would see Labour winning both seats in New Addington, plus Waddon, Ashburton and Fairfield wards, securing power in Katharine Street by 43 to 27 seats. Former mayors Arram and Avril Slipper, Tory cabinet members Vidhi Mohan and Simon Hoar and Castaway TV “star” Clare Hilley would all be unseated.
The swing against the 2010 local election results in Croydon North is even more dramatic at 11.8 per cent. Such a swing, if replicated, would see Croham ward and a couple of the three Shirley seats potentially adding to Labour’s score, and a final result of 48 seats to 22 and even council leader Mike Fisher losing his seat. The list of prospective casualties shows how bad this morning’s result really was for the Conservatives.
All but one of the minor parties polled very poorly on Thursday, all losing their deposits. Respect’s performance was so weak at 2.9 per cent that Lee Jasper’s expression of intent to stay campaigning in north Croydon looks likely to be a forlorn prospect for him and his party, who have other fish to fry elsewhere in the country.
The Liberal Democrats, who must also be described as a minor party in Croydon these days, will not recover from this result in time to make any impact in the 2014 local elections.
UKIP did just save their deposit, but Winston McKenzie has left a trail of destruction behind him with his party locally. McKenzie’s loose cannon eccentricity seems to have put off voters. His 5.7 per cent share was very modest indeed compared to the 11.8 per cent UKIP share in Middlesbrough, 14.2 per cent in Crosby and 21.8 per cent in Rotherham. A better candidate might have run the Conservatives closer.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage today backed what he sees as McKenzie’s Christian stand on gay adoption and expressed concern about the treatment of Catholic adoption agencies opposed to gay adoption. But Farage has disassociated himself from the way McKenzie expressed himself, criticising McKenzie’s use of “language and pejorative terms that upset other people”.
It will help UKIP if McKenzie moves on to his ninth political re-incarnation with another political party. The third placing might allow UKIP to craft some kind of challenge to the Croydon two-party duopoly in the 2014 local council elections that likely will, helpfully from their point of view, coincide with the European elections. UKIP have been carefully targeting their efforts on one ward in the south of the borough, Coulsdon East, with the intention to secure an elected foothold on the council.
Personally I am pleased at how close the predictions we made were to the final result.
Steve Reed is much admired by senior Labour politicians and looks likely to make the same progress to ministerial office as his predecessor. A keen supporter of the moderate progressive “Progress” grouping in the Labour party, Reed will support a pragmatic progressive agenda in Parliament.
If he is able to deliver on his promises of highlighting the plight of London Road and on securing jobs for Croydon through his own leadership and a jobs forum, Croydon North’s faith in him will have proved to be well-placed.
The dynamics of Croydon Labour politics will be altered by the new conceptions and experience he brings from outside Croydon. Croydon Labour politics has a strong Co-operative party element and it will be interesting to see how this intertwines with the Lambeth co-operative council project in the formation of an agenda for the possible new Labour council in 2014.
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