It is just 229 days until the May morning when the winners, and losers, will be declared of local elections that will determine who runs Croydon Town Hall until 2018 – potentially to reap all the political benefits of the £1 billion Hammersfield development and the gradually, belatedly – and too-slowly – recovering national and global economies following the Wall Street and City of London banking collapse.
There is much on the line, not least the political careers of those in charge of the two political parties in Katharine Street, Mike Fisher, of the Conservatives, and Labour opposition chief Tony Newman.
Florid-faced Fisher, the councillor for Shirley ward, has been the leader of Croydon Council since 2006, in which time he has overseen the council running up a £1 billion debt yet still authorised the spending of £140 million on new offices, “Fisher’s Folly”, while cutting services to residents across the borough.
He will surely lose the leadership if the Tories were to lose control of the council. That Fisher is now actively seeking selection as the Tories’ parliamentary candidate for the ultra-safe Croydon South seat reflects poorly on his political career planning, with what many see as demonstrating a lack of commitment to his local duties.
And yet, despite Fisher’s Tories’ appallingly bad record since regaining control of Croydon, and the poor outlook of their party nationally after four years of ConDem coalition, recent opinion poll results suggest that they might still hang on to control in Katharine Street, if only by their finger nails. For Newman, a third successive defeat for Labour in elections to Croydon Town Hall would surely have terminal impact on his position as leader of his group.
Thus he and a hand-picked coterie of Labour councillors, ward candidates and supporters have spent the weekend at a trades union-owned hotel in Eastbourne, enjoying some autumn seaside sunshine in between discussing local policies and election strategy ahead of their own D-Day, May 22 next year.
In between their strolls along the prom, Newman and his team might do well to take a look at some past voting data, which sets out what the two parties should be aiming to score based on past correlations between individual ward voting shares and national opinion polls.
Labour will have been encouraged by the uptick in poll standings for Labour after Ed Miliband’s well-received Brighton conference speech last month and his domination of the Tories’ conference, thanks to the efforts of the Daily Mail.
The low, single-figure lead for Labour in the national polls before the party conference season had pointed to the Conservatives holding on to power in Croydon, whatever the controversies over the new council HQ, the Beddington Lane incinerator and the ballooning council debt.
But even with UK Polling Report’s Poll of Polls 7 per cent lead for Labour representing a fair guide, Croydon Labour faces a significant challenge if they are to take control of power and enjoy the best of the new comfy chairs among the £3.1 million invested in new furniture in Fisher’s Folly.
History teaches us that Labour has only won Croydon local council elections when their party have held very large leads in the national opinion polls.
In 2002, Labour enjoyed a 15 per cent lead in the opinion polls nationally and yet won control of Croydon Council with a narrow four-seat margin; a mere 135 more Conservative votes in Waddon ward on that election day would have seen a Conservative-controlled council just five years after Tony Blair’s landslide General Election victory.
Labour council victories in 1994 and 1998 had been underpinned by massive national opinion poll leads of 19.6 per cent and 26 per cent respectively. At all three elections where Labour have won control of Croydon Council, the Conservatives’ national poll standing was less than 30 per cent: 1994 – 26.4 per cent; 1998 – 27.8 per cent; and 2002 – 29.7 per cent.
Labour’s national opinion poll leads these days are much smaller, and Tory support rarely dropped below 30 per cent last month. Pundits decry Labour as having a national policy of targeting winning 35 per cent of the electorate, a paltry share but enough to win power nationally in a British first-past-the-post electoral system that dams up much Tory support wasted in large majorities in seats in the south of England. But that 35 per cent strategy is no good for Labour in Croydon when victories locally were achieved when, nationally, the party stood at between 44.7 and 55.3 per cent in the polls.
Newman’s Croydon Labour group needs to come back from Eastbourne with some “Croydon can do better than this” policies, while Fisher’s Conservatives need to come up with some candidates.
The Tories are struggling to find candidates willing to join the bi-monthly abusive shouting matches in the Town Hall chamber, never mind willing to put in the hard yards of going door-to-door campaigning or holding the regular ward surgeries for residents’ issues.
The Conservatives are deliberately delaying their selections of candidates for wards across the borough for next May until there is less than six months to election day, just in case any of Fisher’s councillors get the hump at not being re-selected and decide to resign and cause an awkward by-election. Once November 23 has been and gone, any vacancies arising on the council will not be filled until the election day fixed for May 22.
The Conservatives have a past experience of having someone deliberately resign to create embarrassment, when a Fairfield ward councillor stood down in 2005 just before the six months’ deadline was due, following a dispute over the selection process amid allegations of a bullying culture within the group. With the spectre of defections to UKIP ever-present for Fisher’s tired-looking troop, using whatever means are available to maintain a semblance of party discipline has become a priority.
This delay in selecting candidates is a handicap for the Conservatives, leaving little time for new candidates to familiarise themselves with the electorate and local opinion-formers.
The Conservative conference saw the idea mooted by Toby Young and UKIP leader Nigel Farage of informal local election deals between UKIP and the Tories. An alliance in Addiscombe and New Addington, where the Tories are struggling to find candidates and where, in Addiscombe’s case, UKIP already have a candidate declared in the form of their local chairman, Peter Staveley, has the potential to sink Labour. It is a measure of just how damaging UKIP is to the Conservatives that the combined Tory/UKIP national opinion poll standings are the equivalent of the Tories’ national standing in 2006, when they romped home in Croydon by 43 seats to 27.
Of course, that would need all UKIP voters crossing over to the Conservatives in such a stitch up. Pride alone would seem likely to halt such an alliance, and the need for Fisher to shoo-in two UKIP councillors to the Town Hall makes the possibility appear all the more remote.
But there seems to be no other way UKIP could manage to get two seats on Croydon Council. In the 2012 London Assembly elections, UKIP’s strongest showings in Croydon in terms of vote share (excluding postal votes) were in New Addington at 12.1 per cent (the third best result for the party in London), 10.1 per cent in Fieldway, Coulsdon East 8.2 per cent, Ashburton 7.8 per cent and Shirley 7.7 per cent. These are not winning scores.
As it is, UKIP is struggling even more than the Conservatives to find candidates. UKIP will do well if it finds candidates for the majority of Croydon’s excessive 70 council seats.
Nevertheless the Conservatives are not taking the threat lightly after very big UKIP polling shares in council seats just across the Surrey boundary last May, like in Warlingham, where UKIP secured 31.5 per cent of the vote.
Conservatives are already telling voters in their local literature that a vote for UKIP will let in Labour. Such “accidents” are most unlikely to happen, though, as Tory majorities over Labour are huge in the borough’s southernmost wards. However, the Conservatives do fear that the European elections, also being held on May 22, will see voters put their crosses almost unthinkingly for UKIP candidates in the council elections, on a day when they are predicted to put UKIP in first place in the Euro elections.
This UKIP damage is already present in the national opinion polls which consistently show 20 per cent of 2010 Tory General Election voters as having departed for the charms of Nigel Farage.
In this respect, Inside Croydon’s analysis (as shown in the panel above) looks at what the parties should be aiming to secure at the polls in 2014 based, not on the simple Conservative to Labour swing but instead on past average correlations of polling shares in each local ward for a party compared to its national opinion poll standing in what are normally low turnout local elections.
The analysis shows what the parties should be aiming for as a result based on past performance; it is not a prediction.
The 2010 data has been excluded, as the unusually high turnout for a General Election, when many voters were denied their democratic rights because Croydon’s polling stations could not cope with the late demand, masks the usual turnout advantage that Conservatives have among their supporters in local elections. The higher turnout in 2010 helped Labour to gain local election seats in Croydon despite the dreadful standing of their party nationally. This poor turnout among Labour voters is a challenge for Newman’s group in places like Addiscombe, which they will not have regained in 2010 if it had been a lower turnout election.
And again, the outcome of the Town Hall election may pivot on Waddon, where our projections suggest that Labour could take back the three councillors’ seats, but only just.
Inside Croydon’s current projections are based on UK Polling Report’s Poll of Polls which give Labour 39 per cent to the Conservatives’ 32 per cent, and the assumption that the difference between the top and bottom of the three (or two) candidates from a party in a ward will be the equivalent of 1 per cent of the votes cast; for example 120 votes within each party’s slate in an election where 12,000 votes are cast.
The actual result will be influenced by factors such as the voters’ judgement on the performance of the Conservative council, whether voters still recoil or indeed even recall the 27 per cent Council Tax increase by Labour when Newman was previously deputy leader, and how well the parties organise their campaign resources and messages.
Our analysis shows Labour should be hoping to gain four seats to hold the council with a majority of four, but that the result is extraordinarily close in Waddon.
Waddon has been a battlefield between Labour and the Conservatives and between Labour and the Residents’ Association candidates since the late 1920s. Unlike most wards, the boundaries of the ward have only seen modest change since the 1970s. At times, the Conservative performance versus national standings has been modest but at other times the out-performance has been spectacular. Mainly under the guidance of Phil Thomas, the Selsdon and Ballards councillor and the local Tories’ campaign organiser, in the late 1990s two seats were gained against the national swing when Labour had built a 26 per cent lead in the national polls.
The suggestions that Thomas has had enough of Croydon and wants to move to the United States to take up a position working with the Tea Party persist. Fisher must hope fervently that his electoral Welsh wizard hangs around long enough to play a full part in blocking Labour’s efforts in Waddon just one more time.
Coming to Croydon
- Rent at the Secombe Theatre: Oct 9-12
- Debate the future of arts in Croydon: Oct 10
- Croydon and Sutton Real Ale Festival, Oct 10-12
- Stanley Lives – open day in South Norwood: Oct 12
- Trafficked – slavery on the screen: Oct 14
- Crystal Palace Concerts – “I have a dream”: Thu Oct 17
- Lakes Playground group’s fundraising Zumba-ween: Oct 26
- PJ’s enterprising look at Black History Month: Oct 29
- Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough – 262,183 page views (Jan-Jun 2013)
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- The poll findings which should encourage (some) Lib Dems and worry Labour (libdemvoice.org)
- It’s not just the Tories who ought to fear Ukip – Labour and the Lib Dems should too (blogs.spectator.co.uk)