ELECTION COMMENTARY: As Croydon goes to the polls today, American politics professor DR BOB BEATTY takes a brief pause to reflect after a frantic week following the various campaigns
As a professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, I’ve been coming to the UK since 2001 to observe and study British elections, travelling along with parliamentary candidates as they make their cases to voters in their constituencies.
British national elections are so darn fascinating for an American teacher because the campaigning is so different. In the United States, national elections are often ruled by the 30-second TV commercials that all viable candidates have to air. In a competitive US House of Representatives campaign, at least $1million can be spent on TV ads by each candidate; in a Senate campaign, $20 to $30million; in a Presidential campaign: hundreds of millions.
Contrast that to the UK: Not only no candidate TV ads, but a £13,000 limit on total candidate spending.
In 2005, I stumbled upon Croydon Central and we (me, Washburn colleagues and Washburn students) have been returning ever since. Beyond the candidates and parties in Croydon being gracious enough to put up with Kansans peering over their shoulders and asking them silly questions (“Um, what exactly is fly-tipping?”), Croydon Central is always intense because of how close the results have been.
In 2005, I stayed up all night and watched recount after recount until Andrew Pelling was declared the winner by all of 75 votes. In 2015 Gavin Barwell defeated Sarah Jones by a mere 165 votes out of almost 53,000 cast. In this respect the constituency is going back to its roots since in 1974 Conservative John Moore won by only 164 votes over his Labour opponent Richard Rosser.
So how about today, June 8, and Croydon Central?
I have spent time with the two leading candidates – Gavin Barwell and Sarah Jones – and it’s not divulging any confidences to say that both are working their tails off to garner every single vote possible and taking nothing for granted. Both Barwell and Jones’s campaign leaflets feature a silhouette of two horses in a by-the-nose finish at the racetrack, with text saying, “Croydon Central is a two-horse race”. In Barwell’s leaflet, the blue horse is winning, in Jones’s it’s the red one winning.
Barwell is a seasoned campaigner, even writing an excellent book that is of much value to us politics teachers on his 2015 campaign called How To Win A Marginal Seat. One typical day of late for him included door-knocking, a hustings at a college and talking to parents as they picked up their children at a primary school. But Jones is no longer a newcomer to electoral politics. She says that she learned a lot from her narrow 2015 loss and the more aggressive tone of her campaign literature seems bears that out. She was chatting up potential voters left and right on the streets of Croydon like an old pro this week.
The dynamics of Croydon – even though there are a bevy of local issues that are on the minds of voters – do reflect the national narrative, which centres around an early, massive nationwide polling lead for the Conservatives and Theresa May (so a comfortable lead for Barwell) turning into a change in momentum toward Labour (meaning an “awakening” of Labour enthusiasm in Croydon Central and for Jones’s chances).
By Wednesday this week, betting shops put the race at nearly even odds. This change in the last stage of the campaign is easy to see on the ground. Jones’s campaign has a lot more volunteers than two years ago, with many of them of them young people canvassing for the first time. Their hope, of course, is that this is an indication of enthusiasm among the youth that will translate into very high turnout among young voters, a traditionally dicey group to count on come election day.
The other dynamic in evidence is, of course, the impact of the attacks of three madmen against innocents in the London Bridge area in the final days of the campaign. In America there’s a phenomena called the “Rally around the flag” effect, in which the incumbent is supported in a time of crisis as voters see supporting the government as an act of strength. If that occurs here, Barwell benefits. It certainly is an issue that he was hearing as he talked to voters at the doorstep.
The last, and maybe decisive question is, where do the 4,810 voters who voted for UKIP two years ago go in 2017? Given UKIP’s free-fall in the last year, it’s not likely UKIP will keep them. If they just stay home, and are replaced by young, motivated Labour voters, that red horse could pull it off. If they do show up and want to show their patriotism by supporting the government, then look for the blue horse to stand triumphant.
- Bob Beatty is professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, where he also does work as the political analyst for KSNT-TV and writes columns for The Topeka Capital Journal. Tomorrow, June 9, he is giveing a free talk for Inside Croydon readers about the 2017 General Election, and last year’s US Presidential Election. For details of how to book, click here
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