CROYDON COMMENTARY: It is one year until the council elections, and for some, they have everything to lose, writes STEVEN DOWNES
Last night’s instalment of a new Mayor of Croydon, Sanderstead councillor Yvette Hopley, marked the firing of the starter’s gun for the long race to the council elections in a year’s time, most likely to be held on European voting day 12 months from tomorrow, on May 22, 2014.
The looming elections were acknowledged, by Mike Fisher, the Conservative leader of the council, and Tony Newman, his Labour opposite number, as well as by Hopley herself, as she delivered her acceptance speech.
The speech might easily have been shortened with a bit of judicious editing, which could have seen her and the eager councillors tucking into their Town Hall canapes at least five minutes sooner.
As it was, this “full” council meeting lasted what is believed to be a UK all-comers’ record of just 46 minutes before the councillors and council staff, many decked out in ludicrous Toy Town robes and wigs, were able to make a dash for the drinks reception, accompanied by their families and friends, happily all paid for by the Council Tax-payers.
Austerity? Trebles all-round!
But it is a relief to have a new municipal year, as it is very likely that the council meetings will be better for the replacement of the outgoing Mayor, Eddy Arram, a man so unpopular that even in his final minutes on the Mayoral throne he still attracted boos and cat-calls from a member of his own political party sitting in the public gallery.
Arram got off to bad start to his Mayoral year when he failed to attend the traditional civic service normally held at Croydon Minster. Was he really “too busy”, as the Mayor’s Office originally told Inside Croydon? Or was it, as Mayor Arram told us on another occasion, that he would not attend Christian services? Whatever, Croydon’s annual civic service was cancelled in 2012.
At council meetings in the Town Hall and at events with the public, Arram – who during his supposedly apolitical mayoralty continued to work as a gofer in Tory MP Gavin Barwell’s office – was often out of control with his political bias. Newman, in his remarks regarding the Mayor’s work in office, was well-measured when he said to Arram, “Looking back, you may well come to regret having been so partisan.”
Hopley, surely, cannot be any worse than her predecessor as Mayor, as she is supported by deputy mayor Badsha Quadir, whose donations of tens of thousands of pounds to the local Conservative party appear to have been rewarded rapidly, first by being given the very safe Purley ward in which to stand for election, and now this honour, coming just three years since first becoming a councillor.
Hopley’s ability to control the often unpleasantly confrontational council meetings in election year may be aided by the easy availability of an alternative for voters who have been turned off by the blind and childish arguments in Katharine Street – namely UKIP.
A national opinion poll published yesterday had the Conservatives down to just 24 per cent, with UKIP at a high of 22 per cent, something which may chill Hopley, Quadir and their fellow Tory councillors from the southern half of the borough.
Croydon’s Conservatives face a battle on two fronts
Labour may well escape from the unattractive blame-game politics by developing its ideas for a better value for money, co-op council. Such a new approach may dilute voter scepticism about the mainstream parties.
UKIP has very limited resources to apply to a local election campaign, not only to pay for leaflets, but even to find enough volunteers to deliver them. This leaves UKIP at a disadvantage compared to the long-standing Croydon duopoly of Conservatives and Labour.
Labour is already canvassing residents four days a week, often putting 20 canvassers out on the doorsteps. Despite falling membership, the Conservatives’ financial turnover in Croydon is more than four times that of Labour. The Tories are also already out canvassing for 2014.
The poor 16.8 per cent of the vote secured by the Conservatives in the Croydon North by-election last November shows the Tories to be a busted flush north of the West Croydon to London Bridge railway line. And with Croydon being such a socially divided borough, council elections are frequently decided in just a handful of wards – the swing ward of Addiscombe, the battlefront Waddon and, more recently, in New Addington.
Labour’s apparent strength in wards in the north of the borough reduces the campaigning burden that they face, a luxury which Croydon Tories will not enjoy in 2014 as they have to divert some effort to protect wards normally regarded as safe, but now subject to UKIP incursion. If Warlingham, just across the boundary, can dish up 31 per cent support for UKIP, maybe the same can happen down the road in Selsdon?
The London Labour party has Croydon as a target Town Hall and, unlike previous local elections, it has had a full-time professional agent in place for 30 months ahead of the election. Labour is active in six wards they are hoping to hold or gain in Croydon Central and Croydon South, a major step up in their usual activity.
With a battle on two extended fronts, the Tories could be stretched. UKIP will likely still not win any seats on the council, with their inability to secure the on-the-ground resources to target a specific ward. They also lack the numbers of candidates needed to fill the 70 councillor vacancies.
Croydon UKIP has a modest target of fielding 24 candidates – one per electoral ward. If recent weeks are anything to go by, though, UKIP will enjoy a lot of national media coverage, especially if the local elections are staged, as expected, alongside the European presidential election and the vote for the European parliament – a ballot in which UKIP has tended to out-perform (hence the party leader, Nigel Farage, being an MEP).
The shadow of Boris Johnson looms over Croydon
If eurosceptic voters turn-out at Croydon polling stations in greater numbers for the European elections, there’s a strong chance that they may choose to back the UKIP candidate in the Town Hall vote, too. But meltdown for the Tories in seats across the south of the borough, which they hold by huge margins, seems likely only if their party implodes at a national level, with MP defections to UKIP.
UKIP is targeting Coulsdon East, but will probably only distract the Conservative campaign sufficiently to let Labour secure a narrow overall win at the Town Hall.
An irony after all this political flux would be that a close result in the council elections would leave the people representing us at the Town Hall little changed, with only a handful of current Conservative councillors having said that they will retire at the next election. All Labour’s 33 Croydon councillors, including more than one who will be over 65 at the election, are looking to be selected to stand for re-election.
A possible game changer may come from the adoption of a Conservative candidate for the Croydon South parliamentary seat.The large shadow of Boris Johnson is being cast over the borough’s leafier suburbs.
The nomination is mysteriously being kept open, despite Richard Ottaway’s confirmation in October last year that he will not seek re-election in 2015. This delay is only adding to speculation that the seat is being reserved for Johnson’s return to parliament – ultimately to replace the hapless David Cameron as the Conservative party leader. If Johnson did opt for Croydon (instead of Kensington and Chelsea, which has also been mentioned), local Tory prospects might be galvanised, and not just in Croydon South.
Sources in the Conservative party suggest that Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell is still flirting with the idea of jumping to the safety of Croydon South for 2015’s general election. If that arse-saving move is permitted by his party, then it will surely signal that the Conservatives have surrendered Croydon Central to Labour, who will reasonably claim that the sitting MP thought his seat unwinnable (which, without such a silly political error, it most definitely is not).
Labour, which is running an all-women selection list, will receive a boost from July when its Croydon Central parliamentary candidate is named, with keen competition for the nomination expected between local councillors, including Thornton Heath’s Louisa Woodley and the deputy leader of the Labour group on the council, Alison Butler, as well as some strong outside candidates.
But the local council elections next May are still for the Conservatives to lose. They will boast of improved recycling and repeat Boris Johnson’s promise of extra police officers to restore previous cuts (which were instituted by the Conservatives).
As indicated in Mayor Hopley’s “apolitical” speech last night, the Tories will also rely on claiming all the credit for the £1.5billion Croydon facelift promised by Hammerson and Westfield.
But with construction work in North End unlikely to start earlier than 2015, Conservatives will need to use plenty of models of the development so that they can boast that they are restoring Croydon’s prospects following the 2011 riots.
Do not be surprised, either, if one or other of the developers also announce in the next 12 months some “socially aware” scheme to benefit residents, perhaps even in one of the battleground wards.
It is telling that a senior Westfield executive agreed to speak at the £19-a-head Croydon Conservatives’ manifesto meeting; Westfield, after all, was chosen for the re-development by the wealthy land-owner the Whitgift Foundation, which has Trinity School old boys Barwell and Dudley Mead, plus Councillor Margaret Mead, holding positions of influence.
Councils generally tend to try to avoid many new initiatives in the year before an election, but bringing substance to the Town Hall’s new role in public health, dealing with the desperate crisis with a lack of school places, and getting the modest £23million of Greater London Authority riot fund actually spent before election day will all be on this year’s Katharine Street agenda.
Ugly, brutish and graceless: Welcome to the Waddon election
The ugliest electoral contests look likely to be seen in New Addington and Waddon. The retreat of the BNP might put the Addington seat back firmly in the Labour column.
The Conservatives already regard Waddon as a brutish contest. In the 2009 Waddon by-election, graceless remarks by the gauche but ultimately successful Conservative candidate, Claire Hilley, were only an example of what was to come, as she whined that, “Labour really is the nasty party”, and added that Labour leader Newman was allowed “to dictate the campaign and as a result it has been completely negative”.
Following the decision at last week’s incinerator planning meeting in Sutton, that negativity seems certain to continue, with Hilley and her Conservative colleagues in Waddon, Simon “I’m not free but I’m cheap” Hoar and veteran youth worker Tony Harris certain to be accused on the hustings of being liars.
Conservative leaflets distributed before the 2010 elections said, “We have made it absolutely clear that Croydon Conservatives do not support incineration at all and will absolutely not have an incinerator in our borough or support one close to our borders.”
Hilley, Hoar and Harris promised to “…oppose any incinerator being built in Croydon or on the border of Sutton”, and accusing Labour of “scaremongering” by claiming that this promise would not be kept.
Within months of being re-elected, these three Waddon councillors followed their Tory Town Hall colleagues in voting in favour of Croydon supporting the Beddington Lane incinerator.
So it is that the council election may yet prove to be very close with just a couple of seats in it. If both parties are tied at 35 each, the Conservatives would continue to control the council through the use of Mayor Hopley’s casting vote, something she also alluded to in her remarks last night.
The Sanderstead antiques dealer may yet have a very major role to play in re-arranging the furniture in Croydon’s council chamber.
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