Calling in the Boundary Commissioners may have fixed the political map of Croydon for years to come, as WALTER CRONXITE, our political editor, reports
Labour’s generally underwhelming result in the Croydon council election last week does not look so bad when seen in the context of other results in south London, where modest losses by Labour were typical.
Like Croydon Labour’s loss of one seat in Addiscombe East, other southern and outer London Labour councils saw minor setbacks.
Nearby Labour boroughs all saw adverse changes. Lambeth saw four seats lost to the Greens who become a five-strong opposition. Greenwich, like Croydon, saw a seat switch from Labour to the Conservatives. Merton had Labour lose two seats to the LibDems. Outer London borough Hillingdon also saw Labour losses, two seats to the Conservatives.
The Conservatives are pleased to have made a first small step forward in the Croydon Central parliamentary constituency which they lost so overwhelmingly to Labour’s Sarah Jones in last year’s General Election. By regaining a council seat in Addiscombe, the Tories may console themselves that they ran a good campaign and put out better material than the Labour campaign.
On the basis of last Thursday’s voting, the Tories trail Labour by a smaller margin in Croydon Central than that suffered by Gavin Barwell 11 months ago. Barwell’s losing margin of 9.9 per cent has tightened in to 6.1 per cent in the locals.
In the Croydon South parliamentary constituency, the Tories have regained their poise after a really strong Labour tide in the General Election gave Labour 35.8 per cent of the vote. In the locals, the Croydon South Labour vote was down to 30.5 per cent with the Tory vote share up just a little to 54.4 per cent (from 54.1 per cent in the General Election).
The Tories also feel that they targeted their resources better than Labour. Croydon Tories say that they cannot understand why Labour put so much effort into trying to win Shirley North where, in the end, the Conservatives enjoyed a very comfortable 17.4 per cent winning margin.
The notable difference between the 2017 parliamentary election and this year’s local campaign was the relative absence of Momentum activists. For many newcomers to the Labour Party since 2015, and those who have joined to support Jeremy Corbyn, this was the first opportunity to take part in a grassroots campaign. Few, it seemed, felt the same enthusiasm as they had last summer.
Much of Momentum’s effort in south London tended to be directed to Wandsworth, where Labour fell cruelly short of winning that council by a modest number of votes cast in now marginal wards.
The Conservatives say that compared to Shirley North, they felt more vulnerable in South Croydon ward. The Conservatives now have a modest 12.8 per cent lead in that ward, which confirms that view.
The Conservatives can think themselves very fortunate to have taken the one seat in Addiscombe East. A number of factors seem to be behind the fluke of Tory councillor Jeet Bains recovering from his party’s deselection in Coulsdon to go on to win in the ward where he lives. Bains’ eight-vote win matches, coincidentally, the winning margin in 2014 of eight votes for Labour’s Andrew Rendle in the Ashburton, the predecessor ward to Addiscombe East.
Rendle himself was deselected and it is quite possible that running Rendle as an incumbent would have held the seat for Labour. Maddie Henson’s four years as a councillor in Ashburton saw her Labour incumbency safely home. Perhaps the altered boundaries were not as helpful as Labour had expected.
Controversy over the one-way traffic system in Addiscombe West displacing high numbers of vehicles into roads of the East India Estate – roads that were transferred into the new Addiscombe East ward – will have lost a vital handful of votes.
There were other factors in play, too. Bains could display an address in the ward. Caragh Skipper, the losing Labour candidate, could not. Having the letter “B” at the start of his surname put him in second position on the ballot paper – a higher place on a ballot paper is an advantage for candidates.
Looking at Twitter, it appeared as if the two Labour Addiscombe East candidates gave generously of their time to canvass in other wards – just a bit more time in Addiscombe East might have made the difference. The effort in Shirley North did not work out but Labour expected a landslide, so they had to try there.
Based on the 2014 election results, but with the new boundaries, Labour were in effect defending a 42-28 majority. Three Labour seats were expected in the new Fairfield ward and two in Addiscombe East (replacing the three Labour seats in the predecessor Ashburton ward).
Labour tried to build further on that by trying to get Shirley North into the red column. The work there is not wasted, as Labour found the reception on the doorstep good because of what voters had to say about their positive impressions of Sarah Jones MP.
Fairfield had a low turnout at 30.46 per cent, but it did deliver on Labour’s ambitions for the altered boundaries of a low-population ward that is just the town centre, most of Old Town, a bit of South Croydon and West Croydon, to deliver Labour three seats. There is now a strong 20.6 per cent Labour lead here, at least until the expected flurry of bankers’ executive flats gets built. It should give the three new councillors, Mary Croos, Chris Clark and Niro Sirisena, something to build upon.
More than 20 per cent of the Fairfield electorate voted Green or Liberal Democrat. That LibDem/Green vote share was only bettered in Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood (28.8 per cent) and Old Coulsdon (24.6 per cent), the two wards where the LibDems bothered to do any campaigning.
The Upper Norwood and Crystal Palace Labour vote share looks depressed compared to other northern Labour wards – this will likely be due to the lively LibDem campaign there, which highlighted some of Brick by Brick’s house-building schemes, reflected gentrifying demographic change and an adverse boundary change that took Labour voters out of the ward. The fairly equal spilt of the three parties competing with Labour there keeps Labour safe. Only a Richmond-style LibDem/Green electoral pact offers a prospect of breaking Croydon’s political party duopoly, as the Greens did not pull far enough ahead of the LibDems to be the obvious third party choice in Croydon politics.
The boundary changes have had one other notable positive effect for Labour – seats like Waddon and Addiscombe West look easier to defend on their adjusted boundaries.
But in the main, the political make-up of the borough appears to be set for some time to come.
Whole swathes of council seats have unassailable leads for the Tories or Labour. Seven wards have cliff-like majorities of more than 50 per cent for the second-placed party to climb.
Only four wards seem to be genuinely in play for the 2022 local elections (as shown in the tables that rank wards by percentage margin between the first- and second-placed parties).
Waddon’s three Labour seats, the slightly more marginal New Addington South (two seats) and the remaining Labour seat in Addiscombe East will be the new decade’s targets for the Conservatives. The Tories would need to defend the South Croydon ward (three seats).
With only six seats in play for the Tories, it is hard to see how they can win back the council. Winning all those seats would tie them with Labour, but Labour could use the Mayor’s casting vote to retain control. The Tories could hope for Fairfield to be transformed by those Yuppie “luxury apartments” being built there.
Otherwise, their sole hope might be in Norbury Park, where Labour finished 22.8 per cent ahead.
Otherwise, the boundary changes have effectively slammed the door shut on future Conservative administrations in Katharine Street.
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