Political editor WALTER CRONXITE takes a look ahead into the uncertain territory of the next few months for the borough’s MPs
Here’s the bad news for any Croydon residents who might hope that their local councillors would do more than, for weeks on end, act as public-funded leaflet deliverers for their parties: Croydon’s political duopoly is already gearing up for 2019 being yet another election year.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have been out on the doorsteps cultivating the voters in recent weeks, in a precautionary move ahead of a possible snap General Election, as Theresa Mayhem’s government teeters on a Brexit brink.
There was a time when the voters of Croydon thought that they might get a break in 2019 from what has become – since 2014 – at least an annual trip to the polling station. At the time of publication, the next polling date definitely arranged is May 7, 2020, when the London Assembly and Mayor elections are to be held.
Croydon’s Tories, with exceptionally well-placed contacts in the Prime Minister’s office, are taking no chances. They are in their starting blocks for a 2019 General Election, having put their candidate in place for Croydon Central.
Mario Creatura, a ward councillor for Coulsdon Town, is also the former parliamentary assistant to Gavin Barwell, from the time when Barwell was MP for Croydon Central. Barwell lost his seat at the 2017 General Election, and now works as Prime Minister Mayhem’s chief of staff at No10, where he managed to get a Creatura a very well-paid job as Downing Street’s Twitterer-in-chief.
After his selection meeting last month, Creatura was pictured with a rather sad looking group of mainly white, elderly and middle-aged, men.
The picture revealed how unrepresentative of most of Croydon the Croydon Conservatives have become. Perhaps worse, the picture betrayed just how few activists the Tories now have to deliver their leaflets and knock on doors, the on-the-ground campaigners that conventionally political parties maintain are required to win elections. And that’s even when you happen to have a professional Twit as your candidate.
In 2017, Barwell lost his seat by 5,652 votes, handing Labour their biggest ever majority in Croydon Central. Given that, it is far from obvious how offering the electorate in that constituency someone who worked for Barwell is in any way an attractive option.
Barwell’s absence from the short-list for selection communicated a clear message that their former MP does not see himself making his political comeback in Croydon. If the best alternative that Croydon Tories can offer, therefore, is “Vote for Barwell’s Mini-Me”, it is hard to see how this might win over any floating voters.
Sarah Jones, now the increasingly high-profile Labour MP, will have an incumbency value that she did not enjoy when she won the seat last year. She is being seen as an effective MP who has impressed both locally and nationally, and where on national media she is seen as the go-to spokesperson on how to tackle knife crime.
The Tories’ main calling card in Croydon these days is to be opponents of development, which is an odd position to take with voters in a growing town.
The Conservatives have not had a modern offer for Croydon since Barwell came on to the parliamentary scene a decade ago. It was on housing, where Barwell was the housing minister without solutions at a time of acute housing shortages, that the Tory Croydon offer came dreadfully a cropper by last year.
It is to Croydon South’s MP Chris Philp, then, that the Conservatives nationally have now turned to find a saviour.
Just before Christmas, Philp was appointed a party vice chairman responsible for policy.
Will Philp be a Rab Butler-type, who will help the Tories to emerge from their seemingly perpetual in-party squabbling over Europe, back to offer some modern-day relevance?
On his track record, that seems unlikely. Philp’s business experience is in lending large sums of money for property development. So, it is in housing that he could answer that question that Barwell and his staff failed on so badly.
Looking at what Philp has written for the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies on housing implies that he is still a free market liberaliser, with nothing to add on social housing need. He favours the liberalisation of the planning system in a way that is similar to the permitted development relaxation that is delivering the slums of tomorrow in Croydon’s converted older office buildings.
Since being made a parliamentary private secretary – PPS – to the housing minister at the start of 2018, Philp has failed to persuade civil servants to implement his ideas, such as planning “Pink Zones” where there will be limited checks and no requirement to deliver social housing.
Philp also wants to remove all requirements on developers to provide “affordable” housing for developments of fewer than 20 units. The current rules let property speculators off the hook for providing any affordable housing if their scheme is for nine homes or fewer. At a stroke, Philp’s proposal, if it became planning law, would enable developers to double the size of their small private housing schemes, without any of the nasty, profit-reducing costs of providing affordable housing.
Philp’s policy ideas on housing so far have also included a hint of Thatcherite right-to-buy, but over an extended period of many years for private renters, and a requirement that half of new developments can only being allowed to be sold to British people.
None of which would do much to solve the Tories’ irrelevance problem in Croydon.
But there are nevertheless some reasons for the Tories to be hopeful.
There are signs that Labour are falling back a little from the very high tide that they reached in London in the 2017 General Election. The Tories could get closer to Jones if there was a snap election.
Maybe that’s down to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s determination to respect the 2016 Brexit referendum result. While Corbyn sees that result as unchangeable and while he protects Labour’s Leave-voting seats outside London, his position may well be going down poorly with younger or more bourgeois Londoners.
If an election is called by the Tories, you have to assume that it would be on the back of Brexit being delivered in a way less calamitous than recent gloomy predictions. Any success in that respect might reflect well on Downing Street employee Creatura.
It is also notable that Labour struggled to motivate activists in the local elections last May, as was apparent from their social media posts with selfies which often seemed to show canvassing sessions dominated just by election candidates.
Against the London-wide trends, in Croydon, Labour ended up effectively losing a council seat to the Tories in the Town Hall elections. Labour went from 40 to 41 seats at the Town Hall only thanks to what proved to be helpful boundary changes.
On General Election day in 2017, Labour boasted more than a thousand party members coming to Croydon Central to call on voters. This level of support would not be repeated at any snap 2019 election, as the party centrally would probably redirect its man-and-womanpower to other target seats in an effort to gain a majority in the Commons.
In 2017, Labour won a spectacular 54.5 per cent share of the vote in London.
But it is hard to judge how Labour will do in London seats in 2019, as the capital performed so differently from the rest of the country in the 2017 elections. Thus, it is always useful when Queen Mary College, at the University of London, and YouGov do a London-based poll.
Their December opinion survey puts the Labour vote share among Londoners back to 49per cent. That’s still impressive, but a sign that other than through any personal vote that Jones has developed, the poll results would see the Tories close the gap on Labour in Croydon Central.
Labour are losing some of their pro-European Union vote to the Liberal Democrats, which could see the LibDems at least saving their deposit in two of Croydon’s three parliamentary seats if there is a General Election in the next 12 months.
So all other things being equal, under the QMC/YouGov poll, Jones’ Labour majority would sink from 5,652 to about 2,500. That’s as close as Croydon gets to having a “battleground” seat.
Phlip’s Croydon South majority would go up from 11,408 to around 14,700.
And in Lambeth South, Progress MP Steve Reed OBE’s humongous majority would drift back to around 29,000, from 32,365 who voted Labour last time.
Philp, it is fair to say, like Jones is gaining plaudits for his coverage nationally, as well as his more local campaign against Labour councillor Paul Scott’s unnecessarily aggressive Alpha male approach to planning.
The moderately performing Labour council in Croydon doesn’t much care about the south of the borough, which returns only three Labour councillors to the Town Hall. Thanks to Scott’s gratuitous macho antagonism in the planning committee, Philp has managed to gain 11,000 contacts to add to his email list when he declared victory in seeing off the so-called “Purley Skyscraper”.
And if a General Election is called in the coming months, those 11,000 contacts are the kind of numbers which can be useful across the borough to help sway the outcome of a vote.
- Tomorrow: How Croydon’s local councillors are busy on manoeuvres to get themselves selected for London elections
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