With the General Election campaigning getting underway once more, political editor WALTER CRONXITE finds that the Tory incumbent is right to be behaving as if he faces a real threat to his political career
The larger political parties are getting their campaigns under way again today, officially at least, following the respectful pause after the Manchester bombing outrage.
Tory Gavin Barwell is contesting the Croydon Central seat on June 8 as if he is genuinely under threat from a Labour Party seeking to overturn his ultra-thin 165 vote majority from two years ago.
Barwell has good reason to be worried for five specific reasons. Labour’s good poll standings in London, demographic changes in the constituency that hurts the local Tories, Labour’s City Hall and now more embedded Town Hall incumbency, the dangers of his ministerial “achievements” in housing being so limited as to leave hard pressed Croydon Central renters unimpressed and, finally, something which was not a factor in 2015, the number of Labour and Momentum supporters coming to aid the cause of Sarah Jones.
1. The Croydon Central election is one where Labour is riding a strong showing for the party in the capital, entirely different from the troubles apparent in national polling outside London, and the south-east.
Labour are 5 per cent ahead of the Tories in Greater London in the most recent Evening Standard poll, published on May 10. In 2015, Labour polled 8.8 per cent higher than the Tories in London, leading to a good night for Labour in this city despite the poor result nationally.
Labour gained seven seats in London then, with special successes in outer London with Enfield North and Ilford North coming Labour’s way and Barwell only surviving the night and morning of counting by those 165 votes.
Since May 10 this year, Labour’s national standing has improved greatly, narrowing the gap to the Tories by 4 per cent, so it is quite possible that Labour’s standing in London as measured by their lead over the Tories will be the same as in 2015. That puts the Croydon Central seat into play.
2. Croydon’s demographic change over the decades has transformed the north of Croydon from having two Tory MPs to the seat being Labour’s 51st safest seat nationally. Those same demographic changes are having their impact upon Croydon Central’s politics as well, and the change over the last two years to Labour’s advantage will clearly be greater than that 165 majority.
3. Labour this time around have an incumbency advantage in having a popular Labour Mayor in Sadiq Khan, who has already visited the seat to boost the campaign. It also has a Labour council that has accumulated some merits over its three years in office.
Controversies over the Croydon Local Plan and its ambitions for intensification of housing will motivate Conservative voters to get out to the polling stations in Ashburton, Heathfield and Shirley wards again, as was seen in the 2016 London Aseembly elections.
4. Barwell’s ministerial role and the baubles of office as a Privy Counsellor may well give him personal satisfaction, but as the housing minister in a seat with so many hard pressed renters his government role may stymie some of his vote. Renters’ lobby groups Generation Rent and ACORN see Croydon Central as one of the key 93 renter marginal seats where private renters will swing the result.
5. Much of the 2017 campaign in Croydon Central is a re-run of the 2015 campaign, with the same candidates from Labour and Conservative parties (and UKIP, for what that’s worth).
But one huge difference since 2015 is that Labour’s party membership has boomed under Jeremy Corbyn, and this is reflected in the huge numbers of activists who are coming to Croydon to canvass for Labour. Labour activists boasted before the suspension of the campaign that they were talking to 2,000 electors every day on the doorstep in Croydon Central.
The two days taken off the campaign trail will be time lost that Croydon’s Labour party will be keen to make up as soon as possible as they recommence local campaign activity today. The national campaigns for Labour and Tories begin again tomorrow, though UKIP has opted to begin today.
In Croydon Central,Labour’s campaign has to catch up on two years of inactivity by their candidate, who has had both to earn a living and to overcome the unnerving trauma of losing by such a small margin in 2015.
A comment by Tory activist Patrick Ratnaraja on Barwell’s literature is thus a sharp and telling one: “Gavin is the local politician who campaigns day in, day out for Croydon people’s interests, unlike others who just become active at election time.”
Barwell’s career before being elected to Parliament was dedicated to working as a professional election campaigner for the Tory Party and then for Lord Cashcroft.
Having been the MP since 2010, he started this election race with several advantages – Barwell’s Tories had delivered two leaflet rounds before Jones had even agreed to be Labour’s candidate. And for the past two years, Barwell has had six staff, all paid for by the tax-payer, working in his office on Wickham Road and at Westminster, ostensibly on constituency work, but invariably polishing up the halo of Croydon Central’s only living saint.
Those first two leaflets were distributed before election expenses restrictions kicked in for the so-called “short campaign”. There can be little doubt that the Conservatives had prepared for a short, no-notice campaign after Easter. Labour were caught cold, unable to put out any literature in Croydon Central with the candidate’s name on it, as no candidate selections had been made and as she awaited confirmation for a whole fortnight that the party’s National Executive endorsed her desire to run again.
Barwell has fewer people out on the doorsteps canvassing for him and this will be a problem on election day when voters get cajoled to get to the polls. Barwell can though still get a decent number of helpers out. Labour and Momentum activists drawn by polling apps are on average younger, fitter and more IT savvy than the Tory doorstep army.
So Labour’s aim in a seat changing to their advantage must be to be one of the upsets of the election and to be an exceptional gain for Labour.
As in 2015, neither UKIP nor the LibDems appear to be running much of a campaign in Croydon Central, with their votes from two years ago. And the Greens’ candidate, Tracey Hague, after insisting on standing as a candidate in the constituency, spent last weekend not lobbying for votes, but fulfilling all the cliches about the Green Party by attending a vegetarian festival.
Key to the outcome has to be Labour identifying previous UKIP voters who are looking to move their preference, while keeping a firm squeeze on the Liberal Democrat vote with the party’s more realistic approach to the national position on Brexit.
In 2015, UKIP’s Peter Staveley campaign epitomised Blukip, when he barely bothered at all, in order to help Remainer Barwell win and get a Tory government elected to deliver an EU referendum. In 2017, Staveley is again doing very little on his home patch.
Staveley’s been off to Essex and more fertile territory for UKIP in Dagenham and Rainham. His party has occasionally visited New Addington, presumably a target for them in next year’s local council elections.
Likewise, the LibDems’ Gill Hickson appears to have her priorities in other seats. “Out and about in Richmond, Sutton and Southwark to hold or get back seats for the Lib Dems,” she has announced on social media. Leafleting Beddington for the hard-pressed Tom Brake has also been a key task of the Croydon Central LibDem candidate.
Hickson could struggle to save her £500 deposit on June 8. Last time the Liberal Democrats secured a risible 2.2 per cent vote share; a candidate must get 5 per cent of the vote to get their money back.
Any pro-EU voters in Croydon Central, abandoned by the Tories, present Labour’s army of canvassers with the task of directing them towards Keir Starmer’s tests for a beneficial Brexit or otherwise no Brexit at all. Gavin’s mate Lord Ashcroft reckons 30 per cent of the Croydon Central electorate wants to see Brexit reversed.
UKIP polled 9.1 per cent in Croydon Central last time, and any fall in that vote is more likely to move to Barwell.
Meanwhile, Hague, along with the Christian People’s Alliance John Boadu and independent candidate Don Locke all look likely to be contributing £1,500 to public funds from their deposits.
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