If you’re interested in seeing how local democracy is run, then you had best get along to the Town Hall this evening to see the latest meeting of Croydon Council. The next such assembly of Croydon’s 70 councillors – all being paid between £11,000 and £53,000 a year in allowances; totalling £1.45 million of public dosh per year – will not be held for another 121 days.
Not that you will witness much tonight that has any real importance for the people of Croydon, because the Tories who control our council have chosen to spend valuable time at the meeting discussing the “vital” issue of a referendum on EU membership.
A month ago, at the previous council meeting, our councillors spent no time at all on trying to fix the real issues facing Croydon, such as the £1 billion debt that Croydon Conservatives have managed to run-up, or the borough’s triple crises of homelessness, the school places shortage and unemployment. Instead, senior officers put on silly wigs and councillors spent less than an hour going through the pomp and ceremony of installing a new Mayor, before hurrying to the “Mayor’s Parlour” for drinks and nibbles. All paid for out of our Council Tax, of course.
This time around, they are going to spend their valuable time discussing an issue over which Croydon Council has absolutely no powers – the European Union – and something over which the councillors have little or no influence – the holding of a referendum. For the Conservative majority group on the council, it seems far more important to conduct a glorified sixth form debating society at public expense than actually try to deal with issues that truly matter to the people in our borough.
The proposer of the motion at tonight’s meeting is Waddon Conservative councillor Clare Hilley, a woman who thinks nothing of applying for jobs from her official council email address.
Of course, the real reason that elusive council leader Mike Fisher has encouraged one of his more zealous, but otherwise under-employed, back-benchers to raise the topic of Europe is the utter fear and trepidation in which the local Conservatives hold their potential rivals, UKIP, for the right of centre vote in next year’s council elections.
Week by week, Inside Croydon hears fresh suggestions of Croydon Conservative party members defecting to UKIP. Across London, in Hounslow and closer to home in Merton, Tory councillors have resigned from the Conservative party to join UKIP.
Last week, the local Tories’ worst fears regarding the timing of 2014 local elections were realised when, slipped out while Gideon Osbourne was kicking local government in the goolies with another 10 per cent funding cut, was the news that the Town Hall vote will be held on the same day, May 22, as the European parliamentary and presidential elections.
UKIP’s Croydon chairman Peter Staveley describes the announcement as being “hardly a surprise”, but he well knows, as does Fisher and his colleagues, that the coincidence of local and European elections will serve to bolster UKIP’s performance.
This will be especially damaging for Croydon Conservatives but it may also slow Labour’s progress.
The prospect of former Conservative voters coming to the polls to back Nigel Farage’s party will certainly distress Katharine Street Tories. Previous joint election days have aided UKIP’s performance. In 2004 when the London and European elections were combined, UKIP gained two of the 25 London Assembly seats. In 2008, when there was no such Euro poll to motivate UKIP’s London voters to cast their vote, UKIP representation fell back to zero on the Assembly.
Staveley recognises that joint elections help his party. “In 2004 UKIP came third in the European elections and benefited from having combined elections by electing members to the London Assembly,” he told Inside Croydon.
“In 2009, UKIP came second in the European elections (ahead of the then UK Government) and again benefited by doing well in the county election elections that were held on the same day.”
With YouGov showing 18 per cent of those who voted Conservative at the 2010 General Election now backing UKIP, and with 4 per cent of 2010 Labour supporters doing the same, it is clear that next May’s “Super Thursday” double election is more dangerous for the Conservatives than Labour.
With the Croydon Conservatives losing their reputation for value for money with their £140 million new council HQ, built under a secret contract with a private equity partner, they are particularly vulnerable to a UKIP surge in south London – which is, after all, Farage’s home patch.
UKIP has been showing strongly in recent English local council by-elections, winning many second places against Conservatives and Labour.
Local council gains for UKIP remain limited though. In Croydon, the party is struggling to find candidates. Where it does run in Croydon seats, UKIP looks set to put the demoralised LibDems down at least into fourth place, and they may emerge in second place in some wards in the north of the borough if their eccentric and potentially embarrassing member Winston McKenzie is kept in the background.
The Eurosceptic party certainly looks like to hamper Tory progress in some key Conservative versus Labour contests in Addiscombe, Ashburton, Fairfield, New Addington, Croham and Waddon.
For the best chance of a ward victory, and with it a prized seat on the council, UKIP may have to look to areas of the borough where the Conservatives have either no obvious challenger, such as Selsdon and Ballards, which is just over a borough boundary from Warlingham in Surrey, where UKIP polled 31 per cent in May this year.
Alternatively, they might seek to exploit an area where there was once a strong LibDem challenger, but where the protest vote may well shift to the UKIP, such as in Coulsdon East, the last ward in Croydon to elect someone from a party other than Tory or Labour.
Staveley concedes that UKIP will not field a full slate of 70 candidates across the borough’s 24 wards, but he is very optimistic. “In 2014, most people are expecting UKIP to come first in the European elections. In Croydon UKIP, we have for several years expected that the next European elections would almost certainly coincide with the London local elections and we have been working towards next year’s local elections on that basis.
“UKIP will be standing candidates in every ward in Croydon,” Staveley said. “Nationally UKIP is taking votes from the Conservatives, Labour and LibDems. Indeed, we are picking up votes from people who are so disillusioned with politicians from all the major parties that they have not voted for years. So in Croydon we are expecting to gain enough votes to win council seats right across the borough.”
Even if Staveley’s prediction proves optimistic and UKIP does not win its first seat on Croydon council, his party is certain to influence the outcome of the Town Hall election. Indeed, they are already impacting on the subjects for debate at the Town Hall, when councillors bother to have a meeting.
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- Today’s News: UKIP aren’t going away… and they’re looking to our region (journallive.co.uk)
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- EXCLUSIVE: Councillors quit, calling David Cameron ‘reed in the wind’ (standard.co.uk)
- Poll: UKIP Heading For 2014 Victory (order-order.com)