STEVEN DOWNES reports on the latest shift of power at the Town Hall
Addiscombe councillor Mark Watson, an influential member of the council cabinet, last night stunned Labour Party members in his ward by announcing his withdrawal from the selection process for candidates for next year’s local elections just hours before a crucial short-listing meeting.
It means that Labour-lite council leader Tony Newman’s “Gang of Four”, which exercises complete control of the Labour group at the Town Hall, is set to become, at best, a Troika.
Watson announced his decision in an email sent to councillors and ward members, citing the pressures of work, as he has continued in his job as a director of an international tourism charity while drawing down more than £40,000 per year in council allowances.
But the reality – as ever – is somewhat different. And it was predicted correctly by Inside Croydon nearly a year ago.
Watson faced a challenge to his re-selection from angry Labour members, including some of his own neighbours, following the shambles of the one-way roads scheme which favoured Lebanon Road. Watson is a resident of Lebanon Road.
“It’s clear that this is a late decision,” one senior local Labour Party official told Inside Croydon. “He even admits it. Mark’s done the numbers, and he knew he was not going to be re-selected. So he’s jumped before he got the shove.”
Some Addiscombe residents were talking openly of staging a party to celebrate Watson’s decision. “It might have to be a street party,” one said. “A one-way street party, for a councillor whose personal agenda has taken his political career into a cul de sac.”
In 2014, Watson polled the fewest votes of the three Labour candidates in Tory target ward Addiscombe, retaining his seat on the council by just 239 votes from a leading figure in a local residents’ association who was standing for the Conservatives.
Watson, who has served a prison sentence for committing fraud, made himself even more of a political liability when he attracted the fury of many Addiscombe residents when the newly elected Labour council carried out changes to the one-way system in the ladder of roads near his home which adversely affected traffic on other streets, but miraculously managed to reduce the number of vehicles driving past Watson’s own front door.
Last night, Blairite Watson turned up for the short-listing meeting of the reconfigured Addiscombe West ward, where he nominated Jerry Fitzpatrick, his likely biggest challenger.
Watson’s Addiscombe councillor colleagues Sean Fitzsimons and Patricia Hay-Justice were both automatically re-selected, subject to ratification at a branch meeting next Friday.
There, a third council candidate will be selected from an all-male, pale and (with one exception) somewhat stale shortlist of four: Fitzpatrick (a trained barrister and former Addiscombe councillor), Andrew Rendle, Stephen Mann (both current Ashburton councillors who had been de-selected in the re-shaped Addiscombe East ward earlier in the process), and Paul Smith, who was de-selected in West Thornton four years ago and has not been very active in local politics since, but does just happen to be a close mate of Tony Newman.
Although Hay-Justice’s selection fulfils the requirements to have at least one woman candidate for a three-seat ward, there is some question as to whether having an all-male short-list goes against Labour Party rules.
Watson becomes the ninth councillor elected for Labour in 2014 who has either “retired” or been de-selected under the current process. He is the second cabinet member to quit ahead of next May’s elections.
“That’s a quarter of the local politicians who won control of the council less than four years ago,” the Labour Party official said. “I don’t think you get such a high churn rate unless there’s some deep-seated unhappiness with the way things have been going, or the way things are being run.”
In his lengthy letter to ward members and councillors announcing his decision, Watson cited the strain of juggling his council responsibilities and “the pressures of running a charity”, saying he had been working 15-hour days.
Watson is the executive director of Tourism Concern, what he describes as “a unique independent charity dedicated to campaigning for ethical and fairly traded tourism”. His Linked In profile says that Watson “has travelled widely in Africa, Asia and South America”, something he continued to do while a cabinet member at Croydon Council.
Tourism Concern’s income has halved since 2013 and in 2016-2017 it made a £16,500 loss. According to its latest annual report, Watson is employed part-time.
“I don’t remember seeing him working 15-hour days at the Town Hall,” one colleague said. Another suggested that Watson had used a council-owned office in the Clocktower from which to conduct charity business.
“And I don’t remember him doing much council work when he was jetting off to tourist spots around the world, presumably on trips that he had authorised for himself, and were being paid for as part of his charity job.”
Watson proved to be a lightning rod for controversy at the Town Hall, especially after Newman made the misjudgement of handing someone with a (albeit spent) conviction for fraud the key job of cabinet member for safety, justice and communities.
While working for the Home Office in Croydon, Watson had forged immigration documents so that his Brazilian partner could stay in Britain. He did this twice. Watson pleaded guilty to fraud and was sentenced to six months in prison in 1994. He was elected to Croydon Council in 2002.
The political ineptitude and inappropriateness of appointing Watson to the cabinet justice brief in 2014 (whatever Watson’s “inside” experience) was highlighted by this website. Later, Watson was quietly reshuffled into another cabinet position, that of jobs and economy.
There, Watson presided over a £1.2million council spend on resurfacing Surrey Street, which saw the borough’s ancient street market closed for four months, costing shopkeepers tens of thousands of pounds in lost trade, saw some driven out of business altogether, and which eventually re-opened with only around half the number of stalls.
Watson also spent approaching £100,000 on some mediocre and questionable “street art”, with little public consultation and an opaque process of checks and balances over the management of public money.
In yesterday’s email, Watson gushed with praise for his fellow Croydon clique members, Newman and one of his deputies, Alison Butler (Butler’s husband, planning committee chair Paul Scott, completes the Gang of Four).
“We should all be very proud off [sic] what a Labour administration has achieved in power over the last four years,” Watson wrote.
“Croydon has been transformed by the hard work of party members, Councillors, Cabinet colleagues and especially the dedication, leadership and vision from Tony and Alison.”
Unmentioned in the email is the Labour group’s other deputy leader, the popular Stuart Collins.
“That’s because Mark has become so arrogant that he thinks that he’s the group’s other deputy leader,” a Katharine Street source said.
Newman had tried a soft coup within the Labour group to replace Collins with Watson as his deputy. But the leader’s preferred candidate proved too toxic, even for the normally pliant Labour council back benchers who depend so much on Newman’s patronage.
When the numbers didn’t add up, Newman and Watson quietly dropped that idea.
Lesson learned, it appears that Watson did the same thing over his candidate selection yesterday.
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