WALTER CRONXITE on rumblings of discontent within local Labour
The visit of Labour’s London Mayoral hopeful, Sadiq Khan, to Croydon on Saturday exposed again the north-south divide, not only within the borough’s red and blue areas, but also the growing rift within the Croydon Labour Party.
The split has seen officials in charge of the Croydon South Constituency Labour Party – or CLP – refuse to participate in fund-raisers and withhold contributions towards paying for a full-time staffer during the London election campaign, something which could fatally undermine any slight hopes of Marina Ahmad, Labour’s London Assembly candidate for Croydon and Sutton, of unseating the Tory incumbent, Steve O’Connell.
Khan’s visit, comprising canvassing residents on the doorstep and mugging for the now inevitable politicians’ self-congratulatory selfies wherever he went, began at the constituency office of Croydon North MP Steve Reed OBE in Thornton Heath. But it never ventured into the leafy suburbs to the south, where festering opposition towards the council, orchestrated by local Tories, is turning into outright hostility towards Labour’s council leader, Tony Newman.
It meant that Khan’s carefully managed visit was a case of his “preaching to the converted” in rock-solid Labour areas, rather than reaching out to the undecideds or even disenchanted Conservative, UKIP and LibDem voters in wards to the south, such as Purley, Shirley or Coulsdon – the people whose votes Ahmad needs to win over to make inroads to O’Connell’s 9,000 majority, and where the proposal to freeze fares for commuters could be very persuasive.
Croydon and Sutton has always elected a Conservative to City Hall since the first London Assembly elections 16 years ago. But in 2012, for the first time in history, more people voted for Labour in Croydon than Tory.
Despite winning the Town Hall elections in 2014 on a promise not to favour one part of the borough over others, since becoming council leader Newman has been accused of being a divisive figure, both for residents and within his own party. Poor delivery and a non-existent communications strategy have been cited against Newman. Local Labour Facebook pages even contain complaints from party members who run local businesses that they have been refused appointments for meetings with Newman.
Labour members based south of Purley even suggest that Newman and the Labour-run council have missed out on making political capital at the expense of local Tory MPs because of their mishandling of some key local issues, such as the closure of a public car park in Coulsdon.
The Lion Green Road car park was closed for six months for a building scheme which ultimately collapsed, but not before Coulsdon businesses and commuters had suffered downturn in trade and considerable inconvenience. The Labour-run council has taken the flak for this, losing any public goodwill it might have had, even though the scheme was initiated by the previous Tory administration under its property speculating CCURV partnership.
But Newman antagonised Coulsdon locals further when he effectively called them liars and told them to “get on their bikes” for their visits to the local centre.
“Sometimes I think in Coulsdon there’s an obsession with the motor car that rather takes us back to a bygone age,” Newman said. “In many other places people are walking and cycling and I would encourage local people to do that as well.”
Hardly intended to win friends and influence people.
Other measures, often regarded as petty swipes at Tory-held wards in the south, have also been blamed on Newman: the closure to Coulsdon CALAT adult education centre, the proposed sites of travellers camps, reducing the frequency of street cleaning and increasing parking charges, have all managed to estrange the southern parts of the borough from the Labour-run Town Hall.
And there’s even division within Croydon Labour Party in a long-running dispute over the handling of party finances.
Newman has been at odds with the couple who run Croydon South CLP since before the last local elections. But now Andy Bagnall, the chair of Croydon South CLP, and Jo Milligan, his partner and the CLP secretary, have effectively declared a form of UDI from the rest of Croydon Labour. The Croydon South officials, both members of the Blairite Progress group, took no part in last month’s Burns Night fund-raiser, and their CLP is refusing to contribute its share of the costs of a full-time organiser.
While Sadiq Khan was in Croydon campaigning to win back the London Mayoralty for Labour on Saturday, Milligan and Bagnall organised a separate Croydon South canvassing session in Selsdon. It is worth noting that the last article written for Progress magazine by Milligan was on the topic of party loyalty.
“Sadiq Khan’s fares freeze policy is almost custom-made for commuters in Purley and Coulsdon, but all we’re doing is alienating them,” a Labour Party member told Inside Croydon.
“The divisiveness won’t do us any favours, and Newman’s doing nothing to fix it. He seems to think that because there’s only one ward in Croydon South that is Labour – Waddon – he can survive at the Town Hall without the south of the borough.
“Not only is that short-sighted politically, it is also suicidal electorally: the spat over building plans in Shirley Oaks will impact Labour’s three council seats in Ashburton. If the Tories win back that ward in 2018, Newman will need all the help he can get from the rest of the borough.”
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