Amid all the fuss this time last week about the withdrawal from the Labour leadership contest of the only south London candidate, Chuka Umunna, the news of another leading figure from the same party standing down from the political fray got almost overlooked.
Valerie Shawcross is probably the best Labour council leader that Croydon never (really) had.
The Norwood resident was Croydon Council leader, but only for a couple of years – not enough time to make a lasting impact – before she was elected in 2000 in the inaugural City Hall elections as the Assembly Member for Lambeth and Southwark. Last week, she announced that she would not be seeking a further term at the 2016 London elections.
Her decision drew compliments from politicians from across London and all political parties. “Val Shawcross has been a byword for integrity, decency and competence for many years,” was the view expressed by Dame Tessa Jowell.
But Shawcross, who was a Croydon Councillor for six years in the 1990s, never managed to secure herself the next step up the political ladder, to become an MP. In 2012, she lost very narrowly to Steve Reed OBE when Labour selected its candidate for ultra-safe Croydon North; when Croydon Central selected from a women-only short-list the following summer, Shawcross took no part.
And now, after 16 years at City Hall, Shawcross has decided she will not be standing for election for a fifth time – prompting immediate speculation that a leading contender to become her replacement might be one of the closest colleagues of her nemesis Reed.
Matthew Bennett already has three jobs: one as Steve Reed’s “head of office”, running the Croydon North MP’s parliamentary office; one as councillor for Lambeth’s Gipsy Hill ward, which borders Croydon at Crystal Palace; and another as Lambeth’s cabinet member responsible for that borough’s controversial housing policies, which were introduced when Reed was Lambeth council leader.
Now, it is being suggested that Bennett might be keen to secure what amounts to another political sinecure, with selection to be the Labour candidate for Lambeth and Southwark at City Hall, with the backing of Reed, who has just been appointed as Labour’s shadow spokesman on local government in the Commons, and is an influential figure within Progress, the Blairite party-within-a-party.
For self-evident reasons, any Bennett candidature for Lambeth and Southwark would depend on the selection not being based on a women-only shortlist. With equalities being so important to Labour, this might have been the expected course of action, to ensure that a woman replaces Shawcross. But that does not seem to be the case.
Instead, it seems, Labour may have a women-only shortlist in Croydon and Sutton. This has always been a Conservative seat at the Assembly, and is currently held by Steve “Three Jobs” O’Connell. In 2012, Louisa Woodley stood for Labour and, for the first time in election history, Labour polled more votes in Croydon than the Tories. It still wasn’t enough to win them the seat though.
If Labour does decide to make the eminently lose-able Croydon and Sutton an all-women selection, it will thwart – once again – the ambitions of Andrew Pelling. Now a Labour councillor in Waddon ward, Pelling held the City Hall seat for the Tories from 2000 to 2008. The former Conservative MP has become an increasingly marginalised figure at Croydon Town Hall, and now may be denied the Assembly as an outlet for his energies.
Shawcross’s decision to stand down – “part of the generational change in the party”, as one source close to her said this week – will deprive London of the sort of politician of which there are far too few: decent, a competent adminstrator, and with integrity, as described by Jowell.
“I am very proud of the work my colleagues and I have done at City Hall, holding two Mayors to account and standing up for the interests of our great city and its people,” Shawcross told MayorWatch last week.
“When I was first elected in 2000 I couldn’t have imagined how I would see the Assembly and the Mayoralty develop and the positive impact they would have on London.
“While there are many memories I will take away with me I am particularly proud of my time spent chairing the London Fire Brigade, modernising the service, introducing a focus on prevention and significantly cutting the number of fire deaths.”
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