WALTER CRONXITE on a revisited proposal which gives the strongest indication yet of how one Croydon MP sees his own career prospects
It’s beginning to look a lot like Gavin Barwell is lining up his next job.
The idea of a directly elected mayor for Croydon has been put back on the agenda by the local MP, ostensibly as a populist proposal to reform the running of the local council.
But just as likely, the reason could be that Gav, himself a former local councillor, has an eye on his own career following the next General Election in 2020.
It is an easy calculation to make: after his 165-vote margin “triumph” in Croydon Central last May, Barwell probably thinks that he won’t get so lucky again after five years of a Conservative Government, with unfavourable boundary changes and demographic change in his constituency being less than favourable to his prospects. Barwell’s always had an eye on the main chance.
And anyway, flying a political kite that suggests stripping power from Croydon’s Labour council leader, Tony Newman, is likely to be warmly received more widely than you might first imagine.
Newman, a councillor for the Labour safe ward of Woodside, derives his power from the indirect election of a “strong” leader of the council. The “strong” leader is chosen (more than elected) every four years, just after the councillors are voted in by the public in the Town Hall elections. The leader gets chosen by his (or her) mates, the other councillors from their own political party. It is a system which reeks of patronage, through the selecting councilors’ dependency on the leader for jobs and promotion.
There’s more democracy in action whenever they get round to picking a Pope. In May 2014, it only took a majority from an electoral college formed of Labour’s 40 councilors to hand over all executive power in the borough to one man, with no one else prepared to/brave enough (delete depending on your level of cynicism/realism) to stand against their group leader, after Gerry Ryan, the late councillor for Selhurst, and the former Tory MP Andrew Pelling both withdrew.
Barwell is not alone in suggesting that the borough’s civic leader should be chosen by the residents, instead of using a sort of Buggin’s Turn, with someone picked in a secret meeting behind closed doors by a gaggle of a few political colleagues. There are Labour backbench councillors at Croydon Town Hall with some sympathy for having a directly elected mayor, just as they already have in other London boroughs: Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Newham. All are Labour-run local authorities.
In Croydon, where the borough council is spending more than £1 billion per year, with so much power already in the hands of one man there is growing support for the idea that a mandate from the Croydon public is essential.
And Barwell clearly believes he’s the man for the job.
He’s even had a conversation about the idea with the council’s chief executive, Nathan Elvery, the person who is really in charge of Croydon.
And the directly elected mayor idea has been reported in the Croydon Guardian and the Redhill Sadvertiser, the latter endorsing Barwell’s proposition saying that Croydon residents need, “a directly elected leader to make sure the whole borough is treated fairly”. Which sort of implies that the whole borough isn’t being treated fairly at present.
Barwell reckons that a directly elected mayor would be more sensitive to residents in areas not typically supportive of the political party of that mayor. An elected mayor, dependent on support from across all 24 wards of Croydon would be more cautious than a “strong” leader, who can appear to be vindictive against those areas which didn’t give him (or her) party their votes.
In a borough-wide mayoral system, out-of-work politicians need to protect their vote everywhere. It was a lesson learned the hard way by Ken Livingstone, who took a delight in antagonising suburban voters, and was made to rue his approach in 2008. Notice the change in approach by the 2016 London Mayoral candidates in today’s Guardian article by Dave Hill – Zac and Sadiq fight for suburban doughnut.
While the city has its inner and outer rings of red and blue, our borough has its very own north-south divide. No directly elected mayor in Croydon could ever risk ignoring the north in the almost callous manner which #WadGate Mike Fisher did for eight years, nor can they be as clumsy in their approach to the south as Newman has been in their first two years as our “strong” leader.
Asked about the idea, Newman has given contradictory responses, in one paper exhibiting bravado saying that he was thinking of it himself, while in another saying that he prefers the current system. Neither, of course, are mutually exclusive, but the idea of Newman emerging as a Labour candidate for Croydon Mayor, or ever winning a popularity contest in the borough does seem remote.
And the thing is, Croydon’s electors could force the directly elected mayor issue on to a ballot paper. With Barwell and Croydon Tories’ recently acquired penchant for petitions, what happens next could become the biggest challenge yet to the authority of the borough’s “wrong leader”.
Changes in local democracy legislation in the 2000 Local Government Act, passed under a Labour Government, means that Croydon Council could be forced to hold a referendum on whether it should have a directly elected mayor if a petition is handed in to Elvery at Fisher’s Folly with the signatures of around 12,500 electors – equivalent to 5 per cent of the electorate. This actual number, the Verification Number, will be published by Croydon Council by February 29.
If the Tories launched such a petition – probably under another “astroturfing” exercise, passed off as apolitical, and possibly fronted by someone without obvious connections to any party, least of all the Conservatives – and it got the required number of signatures, the council would then have six months in which to hold a referendum to decide whether we should have a directly elected mayor.
For Barwell to be so public about the idea, he must be convinced that he can easily secure the signatories needed. His cause will have been assisted ably by the Labour council, which seems to have gone out of its way to motivate electors to sign such a petition.
- There’s the proposal to build 651 homes by the Shirley Oaks estate, without the council realising that the land belongs to the objecting residents, which persuaded more than 200 locals from a clutch of well-organised residents’ associations to turn up for a rowdy Town Hall meeting last month.
- Another Local Plan gaffe, of three proposed sites for travelllers all being in Tory wards, has also drawn the ire of the south of the borough.
- As has the mishandling of the issue of car parking in Coulsdon, when Newman told residents to get on their bikes up the steep slopes of the valley above that town centre.
- And only, it seems, can a council under “wrong leader” Tony Newman manage to announce a scheme to spend £30 million on a local arts centre, the Fairfield Halls, and yet still manage to alienate so many people over the badly presented scheme that a petition objecting to the proposal can attract nearly 7,000 signatures.
The case to voters will be an easy one – the current “strong” leader system incentivises Labour to be mean to you, so sign up to change the system. Local Conservatives have form when it comes to getting people to sign on the dotted line: they secured a petition of more than 22,000 signatories against Labour’s 27 per cent increase in Council Tax.
It looks like it could be Vote! Vote! Vote! for Croydon in 2016. June 23, the date of the European referendum as announced at the weekend, might be a tad too soon for Croydon to stage its own mayoral referendum, so voters may be facing the prospect of three polling days in 2016, with the London Mayoral and London Assembly elections to be held as well (on May 5) and the borough’s mayoral referendum coming later in the year. Another nice little earner in his role as returning officer for Nathan Elvery.
There’s every chance that, by 2018 when the next Town Hall elections are due, we could have two voting forms that day, being asked for our choice of Croydon Mayor as well as ward councillors.
Barwell and Pelling – a former leader of the local Tories, but now with Labour and on the Town Hall back benches – tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the local Conservatives to force a directly elected Mayor on Croydon at a time when their party lost three council elections whilst polling more votes overall. Until 2014, the Conservatives had always won most votes in borough elections. Some Tories believe that they could motivate more voters in Conservative-held wards to come out to vote in a borough-wide Mayoral election than Labour.
There is another pressing reason for Barwell and the Conservatives to go for the power that directly elected mayor might offer.
There is a boundary review coming up that could put the Conservatives two seats further behind Labour on Croydon Council, where the 70 seats are currently divvied up 40-30.
Sixteen councils have directly elected mayors. Cities outside London have been encouraged by Chancellor Gideon Osborne to adopt this direct relationship and accountability between who runs local government and who votes for them. Osborne smooths the way for that by offering a lot of cash. What’s not to like?
In Croydon, most people’s votes don’t count for much in the town’s two-party politics. There is little prospect of Kenley turning Labour or Thornton Heath voting Tory, so there’s not much point going to the polls in those wards if you, as a voter, are in the minority.
That would be different in an election for the Mayor for the whole of Croydon – every vote would count.
It’s not just Croydon’s voters who are marginalised by the “strong” leader model. Under Newman, there are 10 Labour cabinet members. But the other 60 councillors spend their four years after election with hardly any meaningful influence.
And even the majority of cabinet members do not know what is going on. Labour councillors who call in to confide at Inside Croydon Towers say that the real power is in fact held by one of Newman’s two deputies, Alison Butler, her husband, Paul Scott, who is the chair of the planning committee, and the council’s two competing senior staffers, Elvery and Westfield’s favourite planning director, Jo Negrini.
Newman is said to be affable and willing, but his promises to colleagues go unfulfilled unless Butler gives her support. “Mrs Scott”, as she is known among many on Katharine Street, was rejected by Labour members in Croydon Central in 2013 when she put herself forward on the women-only list to challenge Barwell in the parliamentary election, when Sarah Jones was selected.
But within the tighter dynamics of the Labour group at the Town Hall, Butler is quite a force to be reckoned with. Few Labour councillors have been able to meet with Newman without Butler being present since Labour won control of the council in May 2014.
A directly elected mayoral role might attract people of a calibre who could impose their will on senior officials and on council deputies, especially when they are backed by a popular mandate.
At present, Croydon goes all Trumptonesque once a year, with a ceremony to make an honorary appointment as mayor of a suitably pliant councillor, who gets to chair a year’s-worth of council meetings and open a few school fetes, but who has little political influence and no power.
A directly elected mayor would be able to get through their policies so long as that person maintained the support of one-third of the councillors, much as the Mayor of London needs only maintain the support of one-third of the London Assembly.
Croydon’s first directly elected mayor might even be able to save money by cutting out a large number of councillors, so saving on a good part of the £6 million spent over the course of a four-year term in “allowances” for so many of them to turn up and shout “aye” or “nay” on cue.
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