WALTER CRONXITE, political editor, on the near-total absence of any real third-party challenge for the local elections, now just five weeks away
However unseemly the sight of Labour and Tories slugging it out in the Town Hall Chamber on Monday night, like a couple of under-prepared, punch-drunk old heavyweights from the very bottom of an unappealling under-card, Croydon voters unconvinced by the record or the promises of the two major parties might struggle to find any convincing alternatives on their ballot papers come the local elections on May 3.
While Croydon Conservatives’ leader Tim Pollard was able to goad his Labour opposite number, Tony Newman, about Labour’s still incomplete list of candidates for the borough’s 28 wards and the absence of any manifesto from the party in control of the council (Croydon Labour’s manifesto launch has been held back until after Easter, on April 7, in the hope of having greater impact), the state of preparedness for the two biggest parties is light-years ahead of anything on offer from other political groups.
There is an in-built imbalance in local democracy caused by the council allowances system.
Around £1.4million is paid out by Croydon Council every year in “allowances” to the borough’s 70 councillors. And while there have been cut-backs in every other aspect of civic spending in the borough since 2010, there has never been a proposal, from Tory or from Labour, to reduce the amounts that the councillors pay themselves.
That’s probably because around 10 per cent of Croydon’s councillors’ allowances, or more than £500,000 over the course of the past four years, gets paid by the councillors to their respective party groups towards the costs of their own political campaigning, and thus helping to maintain the cosy duopoly at the Town Hall.
Allowances help to freeze out minor parties and independents, who are denied access to the same public cash unless they get elected, and they rarely get elected because they lack the money to finance their campaigns.
You probably won’t have heard this practice much mentioned in public.
It is the political classes’ unspoken consensus, with millions of pounds of public money “laundered” through councillor allowances, with a proportion of it paid by councillors straight into their party funds. Both Labour and the Conservatives do it, in Croydon and in every local authority across the land.
And in Croydon, we are about to see the anti-democratic effect that has on perpetuating the grasp on power of the established parties.
The LibDems – remember, that lot who were in government with the Tories until three years ago? – are so enfeebled in this borough that they have, to date, managed to get round to announcing just five candidates across two wards.
Apart from Claire Bonham, Chris Jordan and Guy Burchatt campaigning for “Crystal clean air for Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood” (with not a jot of irony, downwind from Sutton LibDems’ own waste incinerator at Beddington), and Gill Hickson and Richard Howard in Old Coulsdon, the nation’s “third party” have no other candidates announced to put their names forward and campaign as yet.
“More candidates to be announced soon,” they state, cheerily, hopefully, on their own website. “If you don’t see your area on this list check back soon.” Only another 65 candidates to go, then, and only three working weekdays after the long Easter weekend in which to rustle them up (candidates must be nominated by 4pm on Friday April 6).
Neither UKIP nor the Greens are in any better position. UKIP, a party which in 2014 managed to poll at least 20 per cent of the vote in six Croydon wards, have no candidates named on their website, though they appear to have been focusing their attention on New Addington. An anticipated post-Brexit collapse of the UKIP vote share around the borough could prove very helpful to Pollard’s Tories.
The ever-earnest Greens, meanwhile, have also been less-than-forthcoming about candidates, though they have recently produced a generic election leaflet which features three regulars – Peter Underwood, Esther Sutton and Catherine Graham – without stating which wards they might be nominated to stand in.
But it is a barely concealed reality for all three minority parties that they simply lack the resources – both in terms of cash and volunteer leaflet-deliverers – to make a real impact at the Town Hall elections.
The lack of a strong, and represented, third party voice in the Town Hall chamber is seen by some Katharine Street figures as a weakness in Croydon’s local politics. And it is a weakness that is unlikely to be resolved on May 3.
Indeed, one respected group, London Communications Agency, has reported this week that, for the Liberal Democrats, their party organisation is close to breaking point and facing the possible loss of their last remaining council in London: Sutton.
“While the Liberal Democrats have quietly set their sights on gaining Kingston or even Richmond on a good night, a party insider has suggested that members of Sir Vince Cable’s team are approaching ‘breaking point’, posing ominous questions for how the party will fare in London on May 3,” LCA’s latest newsletter reports.
“While the Liberal Democrats have quietly set their sights on gaining Kingston or even Richmond on a good night, a party insider has suggested that members of Sir Vince Cable’s team are approaching ‘breaking point’, posing ominous questions for how the party will fare in London on May 3,” LCA’s regular newsletter reports.
“The party recorded its lowest vote share since its formation at last year’s General Election and some feel there is a possibility this could translate locally into the party losing Sutton, its only London council.
“According to The Times, one source has said, ‘There will be absolute consternation if we lose Sutton’, adding ‘if [Cable] can’t win in south London, where can he win?’
“If this view is widely held, and the ailing party machine cannot rally, Cable’s number could be up no matter the party’s fortunes in London come May.”
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LibDems have just announced, for the first time ever, a full slate of candidates in Merton.
And will they win there?