“Oh no,” said one senior local Labour political figure when Inside Croydon informed them that the Hon Emily Benn would be the Labour parliamentary candidate in Croydon South at next May’s General Election. “What a pity. Why’s she putting herself forward for that?
“She could have waited for a winnable seat. She clearly wants it. Who talked her into standing?”
The answer to that question is undoubtedly the same as the answer to, “How did Labour manage to have such a weak short-list?”
For the past couple of years, Labour’s Croydon South constituency party has been almost semi-detached from the rest of the local Labour party in the borough by partners Andy Bagnall and Jo Milligan. They have impressed by staging energetic fund-raisers, running impressive programmes of guest speakers, and having a separate local election campaign and agent.
Bagnall and Milligan are steeped in Labour politics. Milligan, the branch secretary, works in public affairs but was previously a policy advisor to an MP, while Bagnall has worked as a Special Advisor and has campaign experience within the Labour Party, having held senior positions on Hazel Blears’ campaign to become deputy leader, and on the leadership campaign of David Miliband.
That’s David Miliband. Remember him?
Bagnall and Milligan’s campaign organisation in Croydon South did much to help Labour win Waddon ward, and therefore the council, in May’s local elections.
But it would be very difficult for Bagnall and Milligan to make their marks on national politics when their constituency has a near-16,000 Tory majority to overcome (in 2010, Labour’s paper candidate finished a distant third behind “Sir” Tricky Dicky Ottaway and a LibDem).
They might have boosted their profile by staging their party’s first ever open primary – where residents from across the constituency would get to select the candidate, whether or not they are Labour members. It was widely understood in local Labour circles that that was the reason behind Bagnall and Milligan’s assiduous fund-raising efforts.
Another way to draw attention to Labour’s doomed campaign in Croydon South was to have a “name”. Step forward the Hon Emily Benn, granddaughter of Tony Benn.
Last week, a short-list was revealed to branch members of the People’s Front of Croydon South (not to be confused with the South Croydon Popular Front). The list is notably lacking any senior local councillors or national figures, such as the Tories had when they selected Chris Philp last year. Admittedly, Tory selection in Croydon South offers a different prospect entirely for candidates.
But the People’s Front of Croydon South couldn’t even rustle up a short-list as plentiful as the five candidates offered to UKIP members last weekend, with just three to choose from when Labour stages its own selection meeting this Saturday.
The Hon Emily Benn (Wallington Girls’ Grammar and New College, Oxford), as the sole female applicant, was automatically on the short-list. All that the new councillor for West Thornton ward now has to do is to attract more support from members than either Tareq Chowdhury (a solicitor from Redbridge, which apparently is somewhere north of the river), or Professor Prem Pal Sharma (who says that he lives in a county called Middlesex, which is also not in Surrey). For football fan Benn, her task appears to be a tap-in at an open goal.
Thus, before her 26th birthday – her famous grandfather was 25 when he entered parliament for the first time – the Hon Emily Benn will have fought and lost two unwinnable Tory seats; she has already made the “futile sacrifice” in Worthing and Shoreham in 2010 when she was Labour’s youngest candidate.
“I just hope she turns up for the selection meeting this time,” one local Labour party member told Inside Croydon, pointing out that Benn was a no-show when short-listed for selection as a council election candidate in at least one ward last year.
In fact Benn, who works in The City for international bank UBS, managed to apply for selection in every ward in the borough of Croydon, ultimately opting for the suitably safe West Thornton. She made her maiden speech at last night’s council meeting.
“She must have been poorly advised to decide to stand in Croydon South,” said another Town Hall figure. For not only will Benn have to contend with the built-in Tory majority, she will also need to deal with Labour’s local strategy which will undoubtedly see the majority of campaign resources targeted in Croydon Central, where Sarah Jones will be bidding to unseat Conservative MP Gavin Barwell.
“I will throw my all into this campaign,” Benn has promised local Labour members, “and run the innovative, active and passionate Labour party effort that the constituency deserves.” Free concerts, conducted by the candidate, are among the innovations promised by Benn.
If she ever does find a winnable seat, the Hon Emily will be the fifth generation of her family to have entered parliament. Her father is Stephen Benn, Tony Benn’s eldest son. On the death of the former Labour cabinet member earlier this year, Stephen Benn opted to take up the hereditary peerage of Viscount Stansgate which his father had fought long and hard to disown in order to remain a “commoner” and an MP.
The Hon Emily’s mother is Nita Clarke, a former press officer for Ken Livingstone and advisor to Tony Bliar when he was Prime Minister. Clarke is a governor on the board of the property-owning private school charity, the Whitgift Foundation, which is behind the £1billion Hammersfield development in the centre of Croydon.
Like her uncle, former cabinet member Hilary Benn, the Hon Emily Benn describes herself as “a Benn, not a Bennite”. Which could be interpreted as being the remark of someone rightly proud of her family name, but not of all her grandfather’s policies and principles. That won’t stop the name “BENN” appearing prominently on placards and posters in some parts of Croydon South next spring, though.
Coming to Croydon
- South Norwood Arts Festival, July 5-20
- David Lean Cinema: Half of a Yellow Sun, July 17
- Love Norbury launch event, July 19
- Boom Band plays the Half Moon Putney, July 19
- Summer butterfly walk, Farthing Down, July 20
- Picnic in Grangewood Park, July 20
- David Lean Cinema: Pantani: Accidental Death of a Cyclist, July 21
- David Lean Cinema: Tracks, July 24
- Lives Not Knives beer fund-raiser, July 24
- Fragile, Spread Eagle Theatre, July 24-26
- CODA’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at Wandle Park, Jul 30-Aug 2
- David Lean Cinema: Locke, July 31
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, Aug 10
- Warlingham rugby dinner with international Richard Hill, Sep 12
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Streatham Common 6M race, Sep 27
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough: 407,847 page views (Jan-Jun 2014)
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