STEVEN DOWNES reports as the General Election campaign starts on a high street in south London
It was just a couple of hours after the House of Commons vote which enabled the Tories to ignore their own Fixed Term Parliament Act and set things in motion towards the June 8 General Election when Jeremy Corbyn arrived outside the Alms Houses on North End in Croydon and was handed a microphone.
But before a word had been uttered by the Labour Party leader, his message was clear: we’re coming for you, Gavin Barwell.
Standing full-square in the Croydon Central constituency of the Nimby housing minister, Corbyn began his campaigning keen to show his determination that a seat which was lost so narrowly to the Tories in 2015 could be won in 2017.
At Corbyn’s side throughout the carefully managed visit was Patsy Cummings, the former chair of the Croydon North Constituency Labour Party and a past council election candidate who is a key member of her party leader’s inner circle.
For her and Corbyn’s policy adviser, Andrew Fisher, another Croydon resident, the choice of their home town for the party’s campaign launch was both practical – just a short drive from Westminster – and symbolic of how one part of their borough would be an election battleground over the next six weeks.
And while Tory Prime Minister Theresa May was flying by helicopter into boos from the people of Bolton, then to visit a golf club and to be locked away in a church with some hand-picked supporters, Corbyn was happy to meet and speak with the public on a south London high street.
“I’m convinced that if every voter could meet Jeremy Corbyn, or hear him speak at a meeting, we’d have a Labour landslide,” said David White, the veteran campaigner and secretary of the Croydon Central CLP who had shared such disappointment on election night two years ago when his party’s candidate, Sarah Jones, had come up just 165 votes short.
Word of Corbyn’s visit to Croydon had been circulating for hours.
Curious Croydon Conservative activists, such as Robert Ward, turned up in what he may have thought was a suitable disguise (that CCCP sweatshirt is just soooo last century), to see what was going on.
Ward’s party’s campaign strategist, Aussie pit-bull Lynton Crosby, has already determined that the unelected Prime Minister won’t be doing any television debates with Corbyn (cries of “Frit!” had rung out around the House of Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions earlier in the day), and “Sir” Lynton seems unlikely to expose Theresa Maybe to the sort of public exposure Labour’s leader enjoyed with the crowds yesterday at what was a good, old-fashioned political rally.
Quite how well briefed Corbyn was is questionable.
“We want a Labour MP that is going to stand up for the people of Croydon,” Corbyn said. Has he not heard of Steve Reed OBE? Perhaps he has.
Corbyn clearly had Barwell in mind.
Just behind Corbyn was the old Allders building and Whitgift Centre, a sad reminder of how a multi-million-pound property speculation scheme, in which Barwell and Boris Johnson when Mayor of London had intervened on behalf of the land-owners, had left the town centre victim of development blight for the past five years, costing the area business, jobs and security.
“The Labour council in Croydon is building council housing,” Corbyn said. “I want a Labour government that builds council housing.
“I want a Labour government that makes sure that £10 an hour is the Living Wage and is paid to all workers,” Corbyn said. Just behind him was Croydon council leader Tony Newman, looking as if he’s been enjoying the burgers at Boozepark rather too often – for Newman had failed to insist that Boxpark should pay the Living Wage when he handed the company a £3million loan of public money, surely a lesson for other Labour local authorities.
“I want a Labour government that ensures that carers are properly supported when they are caring for loved ones,” Corbyn said, speaking without notes or any prompting device.
This was conviction politics – Corbyn was saying what he really believes in, not just spouting sound bytes which had been honed after hours of testing with focus groups.
“I want a Labour government that ensures that people don’t wait for hours in A&E departments to get treatment,” Corbyn said, mindful, perhaps, that Mayday Hospital up the road had not managed to achieve its waiting times targets.
“I want a Labour government that isn’t closing hospitals, that isn’t so under-funding schools that when the parents take the children back in at the start of the summer term they say goodbye to the children and in return they get a letter saying, ‘Please help us fund the school because the government isn’t providing us with the money for the books and the things the children need’,” Corbyn said.
“That is the difference between Labour and the Tories.”
Corbyn was speaking in the knowledge that the pollsters have Labour 20 percentage points behind the Tories at the start of the election campaign. But he also knows that in 2015, he started as the 100/1 outsider to become Labour leader.
As was shown in Croydon yesterday, Labour’s strategy looks to be to harness the “Corbynmania” which attracted tens of thousands of new supporters and members to the party, and roll it out across the country to win over millions of voters. The man painted by much of the mainstream media as Labour’s biggest liability could yet prove to be a real asset.
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