VOTE 2014: Newly elected Waddon councillor ANDREW PELLING provides his analysis of how the council elections were won, and lost
Political pundits sometimes belittle council elections as being just barometers for the national standings of political parties. They see Town Hall election candidates as nothing more than boats in the harbour, which merely rise and fall only on the national tide.
National media definitely play their part. UKIP in Croydon admit that they knocked on very few doors at election time, relying on leaflets and the wall-to-wall television and radio coverage afforded to Nigel Farage, and of course those comic efforts at running a “carnival” in North End.
Nevertheless, the Croydon council election proves that local politicians and their local campaigns can make a very real difference.
This can be seen in the campaigns run by both Labour and Conservatives in Croydon over the past month or so.
Tony Newman, the Labour leader, aided by private polling and professional focus group work, was able to hold sceptics in his own party at bay who thought that Ashburton ward was a no hope prospect for Labour. Demographic changes helping Labour and many Tory voters on the eastern side of the ward opting for UKIP were risks that the Conservatives only woke up to far too late.
A long-running campaign by young enthusiastic candidates pulled off a spectacular result, with the third Labour candidate across the line securing victory by just eight votes. The result is an achievement for Tony Newman, showing a perseverance on the long road to bring the Labour group back to power after eight years in opposition.
In Addiscombe ward there was a community-based Conservative campaign very different from that run elsewhere by Croydon Tories.
That Addiscombe campaign was initiated and directed by Gavin Barwell MP. Before becoming MP for Croydon Central in 2010, Barwell had spent virtually his entire post-university career as a campaigner for the Conservatives. His campaign magic is clear to see in a swing to Labour that almost stopped in its tracks in that one ward.
Addiscombe is a message for the Conservatives that, with the right campaign elsewhere, they might have held on to Croydon Council.
Of course, that is not what senior Croydon Conservative figures, including Barwell, have been saying publicly since their bruising defeat. Almost as soon as the overall result had become clear – with the Tories effectively conceding defeat on Friday morning after barely half-a-dozen wards had been declared – Mike Fisher, the leader of Croydon Conservatives, was putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of Croydon voters who had had the temerity to vote UKIP. Others, such as the former Waddon councillor and Conservative Future leader, Clare Hilley, was publicly describing the borough’s residents as “dumb” for failing to vote for her erstwhile colleagues.
That reflects an attitude that ran to the very heart of the problems with the Conservatives’ campaign. Instead of offering policies, they shouted at voters instructing them not to vote for another party. And voters resent being told what not to do by politicians.
Screaming on about a 27 per cent council tax increase by Labour from 11 years ago just did not cut the mustard, either.
Of course, it was a very good day for Labour in Greater London. With Tooting MP Sadiq Khan heading the London election campaign, his prospects for securing Labour’s nomination to stand as London Mayor have been given a major boost. A south London-based Mayor who knows the difference between East Dulwich and East Croydon without being told where to get off a train by a special adviser would be good news for our borough.
Labour’s cost of living crisis message in a capital struggling to deliver public infrastructure, including affordable housing, struck a chord with young professionals. The London-wide result is an implied criticism of Mayor Boris Johnson’s lassitude in tackling these public provision bottlenecks in a booming global city.
In 2010, the last time local council elections were staged, Labour was helped by the concurrent General Election, as normally stay-at-home supporters were prompted to visit the polling stations. To improve on that result is a major achievement for Khan, with the party’s best results in the capital since 1971, with 203 council seat gains across London’s 32 boroughs.
Of course, this time the concurrence of the election with the European parliamentary vote was distortive of the result in favour of UKIP, but that was hardly unforeseen. The strong results for UKIP over the county border in Surrey ought to have been a warning. Whoever was advising the local Conservatives to ignore Inside Croydon ought to take the responsibility in this particular case.
There were, in any case, Labour voters who also went off to UKIP to register their protest with the political class. A key message from the voters of Croydon was their abject disillusionment with the political process, a loss of confidence in the system that the incoming Labour administration needs to solve.
On Friday evening, what was left of the Conservative group on the council, reduced to 30 councillors from 37, met to select their Town Hall leader and re-selected Fisher. “I’m going nowhere,” he said.
“There was no point in throwing the baby out with the bath water,” was the slightly different slant put on the matter by another senior Conservative councillor.
One of the problems with rushing to hold a party meeting just eight hours after the last election result was announced was that with many councillors having had no sleep for the previous 36 hours, they were in no condition to reflect properly on who should lead them for the next four years. All those Conservative cabinet members who survived election day were reappointed into the opposing shadow positions. That’s hardly a message to the voters that Conservatives have heard their concerns and are working to address them.
The Conservatives do need to ask what was it that Gavin Barwell MP was doing well in Addiscombe ward that they were not doing elsewhere.
UKIP was an important element in the Conservatives losing, but there are other factors, too. The differing swings in key wards sends the message that winning was possible for the Conservatives. The percentage swings Conservative to Labour (using the LRC/GLA dataset method for party shares) in four key wards were:
- New Addington 9.85%
- Ashburton 7.25%
- Waddon 7.1%
- Addiscombe 0.65%
Barwell’s campaign in the ward may account for the smaller swing to Labour in Addiscombe. The swings in the other wards were above the average for the Conservative to Labour swing in the borough (calculated using the top vote method). The cross-borough swing was 4.08 per cent, so strong performances by Labour in the key wards won the council for them convincingly, again emphasising that local party campaign efforts did affect who won the council. A swing at the average Croydon rate would have delivered only four seat gains, instead of seven.
Perhaps as important as the impact of UKIP on the Croydon result was the utter collapse of support for the Liberal-Democrats from their national highwater mark of 2010. It is fair to assume that many of the LibDems went over to Labour this time. The LibDem vote share crashed from 18.40 per cent to 5.67 per cent. For a party that has elected councillors to Croydon Council and which in 2010 came second in the Croydon South parliamentary election, it was a dreadful election night and morning as the count dragged on inefficiently. The Liberal-Democrats failed to come second in any seat and were pushed overall into fifth place in Croydon behind UKIP (third with 14.84 per cent share) and the Greens (8.63 per cent).
UKIP were second in all but two of the Conservative-held wards, as well as in New Addington and Fieldway, where Labour won out.
Tony Pearson, the Conservative councillor in New Addington, saw his share of the vote collapse by more than one-third, putting him into fourth place in a two-seated ward contest. The disastrous showing undoes 16 years of effort to make the Conservatives a credible choice in what was once a deep red Labour council estate seat.
The vote of sixth-placed Conservative candidate Lara Fish was the worst Tory score in New Addington since May 1974. The damage done to the Conservatives by the now former Councillor Pearson’s unforgivingly confrontational attitude is a serious concern for the forthcoming General Election, as Conservatives do normally poll well in New Addington in the national contest. Another task for Barwell on which to do some emergency repair work.
And while the Conservatives’ sole message to the electorate seemed to be about a 2003 Council Tax increase (imagine if in the 1964 local elections a party had gone on about what had happened in 1953: it was like talking about Gracie Fields when the Beatles were top of the hit parade), Labour was offering a vision and positive message, “Ambitious for Croydon”.
There was no Tory manifesto and no real message about what would be done in the future. Sort of “Hammersfield or bust”. Some local Conservatives came across as arrogant, boorish and dismissive of people’s concerns. They didn’t bother to show up for resident-organised hustings. They missed out an entire ward in an expensively booked advert. That casual sense of entitlement becomes clear to voters eventually. Were Croydon’s Tory leadership really incapable of constructing a narrative around recovery from the riots and recession?
Of course, there were inherent weaknesses in the potential Tory story. The broken promises over the incinerator, the riots themselves, and the ugly juxtaposition of an extravagant new Council HQ while cutting services did not help.
The Conservatives, who had controlled the Town Hall since 2006, should never have allowed senior council officials to persuade them to allow the £140 million council offices to be built, as it undermined the old Tory narrative of being good “value for money”. Without offering any policy for the future, the Conservatives opted to run on their record, which turned out to be a product with some significant flaws.
Other considerations for any post-election Tory review are the borough’s continuing demographic change and a poor approach to recruiting from minority groups, African-Caribbeans in particular (four of the Tories’ 30 councillors have Asian heritage; none have a Caribbean or African background). There has been a steady fall generally in the Conservative party’s membership and therefore the number of activists available to contest the local elections. Labour’s decision to open up a new target ward helped to spread the Conservative workers too widely in defence, as Inside Croydon noted on the morning of the election. Text messages sent by Fisher to Steve O’Connell on Thursday evening, hurriedly co-ordinating last-gasp canvassing, underlined the sense of their difficulties.
Meanwhile, Labour activists were actually speaking to voters on the doorstep; some estimate Labour supporters out and about in Waddon ward outnumbered Conservatives by 7 to 1. It was a similar story in Ashburton.
“Four years ago, Labour abandoned any notion of campaigning in Waddon, and therefore any real chance of winning the council, because they diverted resources into trying to win the Croydon Central parliamentary seat,” one supporter told me on the doorstep. “This time round, it has really felt like you are making an effort to win over voters.”
On election day, the Conservatives claimed on Twitter that Labour had “given up” on Waddon – a serious misjudgement. Indeed, being disparaging about opponents on Twitter was an ill-disciplined Conservative activity that distracted throughout from other efforts, and served merely to irritate undecided voters so much it became the subject of critical correspondence to local newspapers.
For tactical reasons, to maintain party discipline in the Town Hall chamber for the final few months of his administration, Mike Fisher’s Conservatives selected their candidates just weeks ahead of elections, leaving new candidates no time to establish themselves with the voters. Labour, by contrast, selected a year in advance and had been campaigning since 2011 – something which definitely worked in favour of their “Ashburton Action Team”.
But as much as Labour’s Ashburton land-grab raised some eyebrows, their poll-busting success overall was the real headline. Previously, when Labour won control of Croydon Town Hall, the party nationally held opinion poll leads of between 15 per cent and 26 per cent. On Thursday morning, Tony Newman’s team was standing for election when Labour’s national poll lead over the Tories was a mere 2 per cent. Yet they delivered the party’s best ever result in Croydon, the 40 seats to 30 result having only previously been achieved when the ward boundaries were more favourable.
And after never having managed to win the popular vote in Croydon before 2012, Labour has now done so on three successive occasions: they had the most votes in the borough in the London Assembly elections two years ago, then in Thursday’s borough elections and, as was eventually revealed on Sunday, in the European elections.
Gavin Barwell is already trying to cast himself as an underdog, worthy of sympathy, after the council election results saw Labour leading in his Croydon Central seat by 35.3 per cent to 33.5 per cent. Between now and next May’s General Election, that modest difference will be eroded as the right-wing media demonise Ed Miliband. That must give Barwell a great sense of satisfaction; he has proved through his Addiscombe campaign that he can impact on the political weather. But he may yet find himself to be up against what amounts to the political equivalent of climate change in Croydon.
In 1994, after the Conservatives lost Croydon for the first time, the Tories locally thought it was an aberration and just waited for the town to come back to them. It didn’t. Twenty years later, if the Conservatives of 2014 start to believe their own spin that they were “stabbed in the back” by UKIP and by voters whom they patronisingly deride as “dumb”, they could yet help history repeat itself.
Coming to Croydon
- Howard Marks: Scholar, Smuggler, Prisoner, Scribe, May 29
- David Lean Cinema: Dallas Buyers Club, May 29
- Tales from Ancient Greece, Upper Norwood Library, May 29
- Upper Norwood Library Book Club, May 31
- Junction Road Big Lunch, June 1
- Stitch Pitch quilting workshop, Upper Norwood Library, June 2
- Croydon Tech City “summit”, June 6
- An Improvised Murder, Spread Eagle Theatre, June 7
- Old Town residents’ meeting, June 7
- Crystal Palace Transition Town annual meeting, June 11
- Old Town residents’ meeting, June 11
- Lakes Playground Action Group fun day, June 14
- Croydon Green Fair, North End, June 14
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, June 15
- Norwood Society Talk: The Concrete Church, June 19
- Airport House swing dance free event, June 21
- Classic Car Show at Purley Rotary Fields, June 22
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
- Warnings to the Curious, Spread Eagle Theatre, June 27
- South Norwood Allotments open day, June 28
- Fragile, Spread Eagle Theatre, July 24-26
- CODA’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at Wandle Park, Jul 30-Aug 2
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, Aug 10
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
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