Parliament will be dissolved in three weeks’ time, with the polls suggesting the borough’s one battleground seat, Croydon Central, will be a tighter contest than was previously predicted, reports WALTER CRONXITE
The result of the Selhurst ward by-election last week has underlined how there are now parts of Croydon where there is only a modicum of support for the Conservatives. But Selhurst is in Croydon North. In Croydon Central, the MP Gavin Barwell is praying that the demographics are different to a ward in the north of the borough where his party made virtually no effort to court the voters.
The 10 per cent swing of the votes from the Conservatives to Labour in Selhurst, from what was already a very good election result for Labour last year, was terrible news for Croydon’s ever-diminishing band of loyal Tories.
But there’s also need for a touch of realism: the turnout was just 18.6 per cent, very different from the 60+ per cent turnout expected at the General Election in May. So the Selhurst result only gives limited guidance for Barwell’s fate as an MP.
The 246 votes polled by the Tories last Thursday underlined that they are now an irrelevance in the northern part of Croydon. The selection by the Conservatives of Tirena Gunter, a black woman, for a ward seat they never seriously intended to contest, now appears to be the height of cynicism. The 30-strong Conservative group on the council, without a single Afro-Caribbean councillor in 2015, looks like the borough which they want to represent.
Fifteen years ago, Croydon Tories went out of their way to mentor and adopt BME candidates. But today in the council chamber, the contrast with Labour is stark. Croydon’s Labour group just looks much more like Croydon’s communities.
This issue of the councillors not being representative of modern Croydon is a matter of continuing concern to Gavin Barwell, although as only the seventh most powerful person in the borough, there may be little he is able to do about it. Our Tory mole outside the Croydon Conservative bunker in Purley tells us that Barwell is determined to secure a sea-change in councillor selections before the next local elections in 2018, to refresh what is regarded as a largely under-performing set of Conservative councillors.
Barwell can console himself, though, that while Labour directed some resources away from Croydon Central to win emphatically in the Selhurst local council by-election, the Conservatives were not similarly distracted.
The Tories are putting huge efforts into a massive programme of leaflet delivery in what they see as key areas, all to be completed before the “short campaign” begins on March 29, when election expenses – and therefore the printing of leaflets – becomes much more limited.
As the sitting MP, Barwell has a good deal of in-built advantage over his Labour challenger, Sarah Jones. This “incumbency factor” only begins with his state-funded office and six members of staff, all of whom will be formally out-of-work with the dissolution of parliament on March 30. Each of them could be redundant if Barwell loses on May 7, though at least three of them will be able to rely on their councillors’ “allowances” for an income.
Barwell is reported to be cultivating former members of the Andrew Pelling campaign team from the 2010 General Election for an endorsement, in an effort to try to capture the 6.5 per cent of the electorate who five years ago voted for the former Tory MP when he ran as an independent. With a close result in prospect, these votes are worth pursuing.
Morale in the Tory camp was on the floor when Inside Croydon set out its analysis of the Croydon Central campaign in October. At that time, Barwell was telling anyone who would listen that he was going to lose. We agreed, suggesting that Jones would win by 1,600 votes – a handsome margin in a seat where in 2005 Labour lost by just 75 votes.
This view was confirmed when Lord Ashcroft, Barwell’s former boss, polled a thousand Croydon Central voters, putting Jones 6per cent, or 3,000 votes, ahead.
Things were looking so grim that, with her husband’s parliamentary income of £93,000 at risk (the MP’s £67,000, plus 26 grand as a government junior whip), Mrs Barwell has reportedly taken the precaution of returning to work, while the family’s eldest son has been sent from their home in Sanderstead across the borough boundary to a Sutton grammar, rather than incur the cost of fees at any of the private schools in Croydon run by the Whitgift Foundation.
Barwell’s personal morale could not have been helped when his state-funded communications assistant, Mario Creatura, mouthed off about his boss’s limited abilities with social media. If that’s the view of someone who works closely with the MP, then what are voters supposed to think?
But more recent polls have suggested that Barwell has started to close the gap on Labour. The Evening Boris put Barwell just 1,000 votes behind while The Times, with a poll putting Labour 6per cent ahead in London, still had the Croydon Central contest down as “too close to call”.
Conservative canvassers have been paying up to three visits to voters’ homes in some parts of the constituency and Barwell reports signs of voters returning to the fold: “Six teams out today calling back on key voters. Encouraging response – clear swing to us from original canvass before Christmas,” he tweeted. Or someone on his team tweeted for him.
Such a move in sentiment would match national polls, which now see only about 15 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2010 switching to UKIP. In October, that figure was closer to 25 per cent. Such a change in voting intentions could be crucial for Barwell’s survival, and under special circumstances in Selhurst last week, UKIP did particularly badly.
Squeezing the UKIP vote and building on the MP’s incumbency appears to be putting Barwell back in contention. In his autumn poll, Ashcroft had UKIP on a surprisingly chunky 19 per cent share, the equivalent of 9,500 votes, clearly a very important group of voters for Barwell to chase.
This is not to say that Jones has lost her early advantage. If Barwell could take encouragement from UKIP’s travails, then Jones will surely have seen the latest collapse in LibDem support – polling just 65 votes in Selhurst – with some hope for her attracting disaffected voters from the coalition government’s junior partners.
Jones’s campaign is also much better resourced than the 2010 General Election, while the candidate is now working full-time on the election, having boldly left her job working in the communications team for Gatwick.
There is some disquiet in the Jones campaign, though, at the unnecessary own-goals being scored by her supposed colleagues at Croydon Town Hall. These include the plan to close Purley swimming pool, which although in Croydon South, is used by many Croydon Central constituents, another factor which failed to be considered by the Labour-run council when it announced the closure. Some on the Jones campaign even suspect that the careless incompetence is purposeful in undermining Jones, being driven by petty personal jealousies emanating from the Labour group.
What is noticeable is that, just as with the 2012 Labour North by-election and last year’s Town Hall election campaign in which Barwell had considerable influence on strategy, the Conservative literature in Croydon Central barely mentions the Tory Party at all. It is almost as if Barwell is embarrassed – or ashamed – to admit he is a Conservative. Or at least hopes that the electorate don’t notice what his lap-dog loyal voting record has been.
Looking at the national opinion polls, UKIP’s local weakness, Labour’s continuing strong performance in a London with dynamic demographic change and a Tory campaign emphasising their candidate’s incumbency, it looks like Jones’ advantage has been pegged back to about
or just 450 votes ahead, based on national polls.
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