Still ‘Ambitious’ four years on: Labour’s thin offering

ELECTION COUNTDOWN: Our political editor WALTER CRONXITE thumbs through another manifesto, so that you don’t have to

Is Tony Newman an avid reader of the works of Gavin Barwell’s old mentor, Lord Cashcroft?

You might think so on reading Labour’s slimline manifesto for the May 3 local elections, with its “personal message” from Newman, the council leader, telling voters that after four years in charge of the Town Hall, Labour’s is “A job to be completed”.

As inspiring messages go, it is hardly up there with “I have a dream”, or 1945 manifesto material. It’s barely 1983 manifesto material.

Ambitious: Tony Newman’s best ideas for the next four years

Four years ago, Newman and Croydon Labour strode into the Town Hall having won 40 of the 70 seats up for grabs on the back of their detailed and extensive manifesto which proclaimed that they were “Ambitious for Croydon”.

That Labour motto was soon adopted for use on all the council’s communications, only to be replaced – at some cost in public money – a couple of years ago with “Delivering for Croydon”.

But that newer slogan is oddly missing from the 12 pages of Croydon Labour’s manifesto (it’s more of a small booklet really) that was “launched” last week in four under-publicised and sparsely attended events at target wards around the borough.

Labour’s booklet does have an entire page-full of achievements. But these are relegated to the back of the book, in a small type face, suggesting that they are not much to crow about or put on prominent display.

If the suggestion is that Newman and his cronies Alison Butler and Paul Scott have cause to be embarrassed by the “Achievements since 2014” list, you might be right.

Judge for yourself.

The first listed is “£1.4bn Croydon Partnership redevelopment of Whitgift Centre”. Really?

Ambitious: This is one of the pictures chosen by Labour to help to promote the launch of their manifesto

Among the other achievements listed are “Established development company Brick by Brick”. That’ll be the housing company which has yet to lay a single brick, and which has no plans to build a single council home.

“Regeneration of Surrey Street”. You’re having a laugh now, ain’t you?

Then there’s Fairness Commission. Yeah, that was £200,000 of public money we’ll never see again.

“Boxpark Croydon opened in October 2016 creating 50 jobs for Croydon people”. Off the back of a £3million loan and £500,000 (so far) in council grants, but which did not have the London Living Wage enforced on its traders, and where the outlets are reporting difficult trading conditions.

The rest of the achievements are offered without any explanation for what are, in some cases, quite laudable efforts, but which will be meaningless to  most voters.

That Newman fronts up his manifesto admitting that another four years is needed is, in reality, a crass admission that so many of Labour’s tasks have not even been started yet.

So how can you tell though that Newman reads Cashcroft?

Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll of London voters shows their top three concerns as crime, housing and the NHS.

The top three promises in the Labour slimline booklet? Crime, the NHS and housing.

That, at least, shows Croydon Labour to be savvy and focused.

If we are to be honest, the council has only modest roles in policing and health. But there are good reasons for putting these three issues up front and central.

1. It talks about issues that most concern voters. Compare this to the introverted Town Hall-centred manifesto from the Tories, where the first three promises were “Listening to you”; “Walking, Cycling, Driving” and “Construction in Croydon”. Labour’s offer is going to get more interest from voters.
2. It distracts from talking about the dire performance of the council under Newman and his Gang of Four of Watson, Butler and Scott.
3. It means that there are no big spending promises.

The latter is a good idea when grant from the Tory government will be cut further before 2022. It’s all very different from the uncosted £83,780,000-worth of Tory promises.

Maybe there is a longer, more detailed manifesto to come. Perhaps it will be ready after the election on May 3, a reflection of the shambolic selection process and disorganised campaign staged by Newman’s hand-picked team until now.

So far, the partly uncosted promises from Labour are:
A. Working with partners on mental health, obesity and domestic violence (though these are likely, in part, already within current spends on public health and safety).
B. Increasing recycling rates to 50 per cent – though this will be within a new recycling contract already agreed, and at a time when Croydon will be sending more rubbish for incineration than at any time in the borough’s history.
C. Devolution of services to local hubs.
D. Anti-gang, knife crime initiatives. “More is needed” is a sentence used, probably meaning not much money is there for that unless more comes City Hall or government.
E. To introduce a town centre London Living Wage Zone.

And that’s it.

That’s all the spending promises. Clever, perhaps, to court the many with the fewest possible promises, especially when it’s all dressed up well under the headline in each section of “What we’re going to do next”.

Ambitious: Newman’s admission of failure, the opening message of his manifesto

Instead of really promising anything, it’s a manifesto of eccentric use of capital and lower-case letters, odd grammar and misplaced full stops, jargon and empty rhetoric, unusual ambitions and an offer to make the council into a campaign body against Tory cuts. Much of it is really poorly written.

Newman’s very first incoherent words say of his “Ambitious Plan” – “We want to make Croydon a centre, not a stop off: a growing hub for south London”.

Is that so opaque and peculiar a concept as to bar any clear vision of what Croydon aspires to be?

A Labour council will “resist Tory police cuts”. But how? It neglects to say. Like the Tories, Labour promises an unrealistic demand for zero tolerance policing from a force that struggles to cope with the demands on it now.

Under Labour, the manifesto says Croydon Council will “protect our NHS”. The NHS will be dismantled in Croydon if the Tories get in locally, it is claimed.

Positives, like the slowly progressing £10million sprinkler programme in the borough’s high-rise flats, with no government funding, the Good Employer Charter, fly-tip prosecutions (Labour 200, Conservatives 2), are in there.

Elsewhere in London, Labour-run local authorities have settled with the “For The Many, Not The Few” national party slogan which worked so successfully with the public last year. The principle of good marketing, and campaigning, of constant repetition of a catchphrase until the public cannot get it out of their heads is obvious to most, though apparently not to Tony Newman and Croydon Labour.

Re-using the same local slogan from four years ago betrays the limited progress made since 2014. Maybe Newman and his Blairite clique had trouble embracing Corbynmania to give “For The Many…” too much prominence.

It’s fair to say that #Ambitious4Croydon is safer than the risible “Delivering for Croydon”. But if Croydon Labour can’t decide what their most important message is to communicate to the electorate, how do they expect any message to stick with the voters on polling day?

The manifesto is very north-of-the-borough orientated, the Tory-voting southern parts of the borough getting barely a mention. Emblematic of this is the selection of pictures on the cover, where the Croydon Parish border marker shows the extent of where Labour’s ambitions lie.

Elsewhere, in a section of the manifesto which will surely be unread by most residents, there is political doublespeak from an unaccountable, non-transparent, officer-dominated council. Newman has the sheer cheek to claim, “We now want to become London’s most democratic borough”, and this from the same political leadership which four years ago was promising that Croydon Council would be “more open and transparent”.

“We’ll have a detailed review of the borough’s constitution”, it is promised, perhaps recognising that something is seriously amiss at Fisher’s Folly. Or perhaps it is more of a message aimed at the gathering disquiet among Newman’s own councillors, many of them much troubled by the manner in which the scandalous failures of the Children’s Services department were hidden from them by council officials.

Overall, and in a poor field, it looks like Labour have won the Croydon manifesto contest.

Labour locally are lucky that Corbyn’s popularity in London is covering for all their political short-comings.

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