Political editor WALTER CRONXITE has found Croydon Town Hall’s political ‘elite’ on manoeuvres, hopeful of selection for bigger, better allowances. But is the local Labour leader going to back a complete outsider?
Despite any campaign groundwork being laid for a snap General Election in 2019, the next, guaranteed, election date in Croydon is May 2020, when an elected role which has until now delivered well below its potential for the borough is up for grabs.
Silent Steve O’Connell has been London Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton (salary: £56,270) since 2008. Not that anyone has noticed.
But at 62 years old, the Croydon Conservative (he’s on the Town Hall gravy train, too, as a Kenley councillor) has decided to step down at the London elections next May. “He might be retiring now, but some seriously believed he’d retired years ago,” was the rather sharp assessment from an Assembly colleague on O’Connell’s lack of impact at City Hall.
The Croydon and Sutton seat has been a Tory hold since the first London Assembly elections in 2000.
But based on current opinion polls it ought to be a certain Labour gain in 2020. So it is not surprising that a large number of Croydon Labour worthies, including several councillors, have been jostling for the candidacy.
In 2016, O’Connell increased his majority to 11,614, from the 9,418 margin he held in 2012.
But with the Conservatives choosing a very weak Mayoral candidate – some have even suggested a political liability – in Shaun Bailey, they trail in London polling by an unprecedented 2-to-1.
The parties’ choice of candidates for the Mayor election provide electoral coat tails on which London Assembly candidates can ride all the way to City Hall. Whoever is lucky enough to get picked to be Labour’s candidate in Croydon and Sutton can therefore enjoy what is, according to a recent opinion survey conducted by Queen Mary College at the University of London and YouGov, a 8.9 per cent swing to Labour, even from 2016’s London election results.
Sadiq Khan’s Mayoralty is in real difficulties, with massive Crossrail cost overruns, coupled to falling public transport fare receipts, plus politically motivated Tory cuts to his government grants, and still rising knife crime in the capital. Yet Bailey – a former deputy mayor under Boris Johnson – has such a low profile and is so ill-adept that he is attracting barely half the level of support in polls of the London Mayor.
If the whole of that “coat tail effect” spills over into the local Assembly seat, then O’Connell’s advantage in Croydon and Sutton could be wiped out and transformed into a Labour majority of more than 20,000 votes.
There is plenty of room in that margin to allow for a few slip ups and still to win the seat for Labour.
Yet Croydon Council’s Labour leader, Tony Newman, is understood to have suggested giving his backing to a novice candidate, one who managed to lose a council seat to the Tories in last May’s Town Hall elections, someone who abruptly abandoned her local party responsibilities once she was selected as a council election candidate last year, and who has had a virtually subterranean profile since the spring, after she was exposed as having used social media to call for the assassination of US President Donald Trump.
Caragh Skipper fell eight votes short in Addiscombe East at the council elections in May, when defending a ward which was previously Labour-held Ashburton.
Katharine Street sources suggest that, earlier this year, Newman gave serious thought to backing Skipper to be his party’s London Assembly candidate if she wanted to run, as some notion of “compensation” for her losing in her first attempt to seek public office.
So strong is Blairite Newman’s faith in Momentum-supporting Skipper that insiders report that he had even pencilled her in for an immediate Town Hall promotion, leap-frogging several other, more established and better-qualified councillors, to become Alison Butler’s cabinet deputy on housing, if she had actually managed to win a council seat.
Like so many of Newman’s “ambitious” plans, however, this patronage of Skipper, the oh-so-brief chair of Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party, then came to nothing.
Even were she to decide to run, and even with the backing of Newman, it is unlikely that Skipper will be selected unopposed, however.
Some have already made their interest clear and others may enter the fray before a selection decision is made, which is expected by Easter. So far, the declared candidates are from the left of the Labour Party.
Former teacher, professional campaigner, Corbynomics proponent, self-declared “democratic socialist” (Honecker GDR version, presumably) and Bensham Manor councillor, Jamie Audsley, has made the most obvious signals of intent.
Patsy Cummings, the former staffer in Corbyn’s office, now a South Norwood councillor, is also expected to be a runner.
Many in Croydon Labour feel that a black woman would be the most effective and inclusive offer for the party. They point to Louisa Woodley’s candidacy in 2012 as proof of that, when her well-managed campaign took more than 30,000 off O’Connell’s majority on a huge 13 per cent swing.
Sutton Momentum are keen to see a candidate from their borough get the nod, as they feel that it is in their LibDem-dominated part of the Assembly constituency that Labour have the most votes to chase to be sure of taking the seat. They also feel that a candidate closer to the trades union movement would be a better representative.
Who is interested in the seat will become clearer when Labour’s ruling NEC decides whether selection should be made from an all-women’s shortlist, as was the case in 2012 and 2016.
Other possibilities include Croydon resident Fiona Twycross, already a London Assembly Member. Twycross is a former Labour Party staffer who has a PhD in contemporary Scandinavian literature.
She was first elected to the Assembly when placed third on Labour’s list of London-wide candidates in 2012. She is now Khan’s deputy mayor responsible for the fire service.
Twycross’s decision on whether, for the first time, to seek election in a constituency may depend on how Labour runs its candidate selection process. Previously, sitting members have been given some security to be chosen in the top ranks of the list system, but press reports say that this might change in a Corbybites v Centrists deselection fight.
An open selection may see Momentum candidates placed at the top of Labour’s London list, which would be to Twycross’ disadvantage.
The peculiar mix and match method under which Assembly Members are elected, under the Additional Member System of proportional representation, may also disadvantage Labour candidates who are on the London-wide list, exactly because of Labour’s expected success at the polls in 2020.
Of the 25 London Assembly Members elected every four years, 14 come from geographical constituencies, such as Croydon and Sutton. The other 11 come from a party list to make the total members from each party proportional to the votes cast for that party across the whole of London using what is known as a modified D’Hondt allocation.
Based on the latest polling by QMC/YouGov, with 13 of the constituencies in 2020 likely to return Labour Assembly Members – all, in fact, but the Bromley and Bexley seat – it is entirely possible that Labour will not have any AMs from the party list.
Certainly, if Twycross were to put her name forward for the local seat, it is very likely that she would be chosen.
There remains, though, the possibility that slugging it out for the Croydon and Sutton Assembly seat in May 2020 could be two losing council election candidates from Addiscombe East ward in 2018. Because if Skipper does get selected by Labour, the Conservative among those likely to be chosen as their candidate is Joseph Lee.
Lee, who in the past stood for parliamentary election for the LibDems, has been very busy in putting himself forward in local Tory circles as candidate material.
His track record, for whatever party, in whatever constituency, so far has been that of a political loser.
Conservative selection in Croydon and Sutton for what appears to be the unenviable task of being on the same ballot paper as Shaun Bailey is expected to take place in the new year, when another aspirant is likely to be the Tory councillor for Purley Oaks and Riddlesdown, Simon Hoar.
Hoar is a former City Hall researcher, where he used to work for Andrew Pelling when he was the Conservative Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton.
Pelling, of course, later joined Labour and went on in 2014 to unseat Hoar as a councillor in Waddon ward. Might Hoar, now a professional lobbyist, and sufficiently white, middle-class, middle-aged and, let’s be fair, dull, to be a popular choice among Croydon Tories, be just the person to carry the ignominy of being the first Conservative to lose the Croydon and Sutton Assembly seat?
- Yesterday: Croydon Tories are getting ready for a snap General Election, by selecting a Barwell Mini-Me as their parliamentary candidate
- Tomorrow: Where might it all go wrong?
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