Political editor WALTER CRONXITE reports on what Mrs Merton might have called ‘a heated debate’
The simmering internal conflict within the Labour Party in Croydon seems unlikely to cool off during the Town Hall’s summer recess, after members in Croydon South voted overwhelmingly in support of “the concept of a directly elected leader” for the council.
This is likely to be interpreted as an attack on Tony “Soprano” Newman, the leader of the Labour-run council, who owes his £56,657 per year position in a borough of 300,000 people to the votes of fewer than 40 other councillors in a secret meeting held in May last year.
Croydon South Constituency Labour Party, at its latest meeting, voted 36-12 in favour of a motion, with a handful of worthy abstentions, as the local party aligned themselves with residents’ associations in the south of the borough who have been meeting to put together a legal petition that would oblige the council to hold a referendum on having a directly elected leader of the council.
Notable among the abstentions, at least by not voting against the proposition, was council cabinet member Stuart King.
In an opinion poll conducted by Survation in Croydon on local council election day last year, 55 per cent of voters said that they backed having a directly elected mayor.
Croydon South CLP is hardly reckoned to be a hotbed of Corbynista radicalism. Indeed, at their last annual meeting – which, oddly, was well over a year ago – they managed to elect a slate of officers more closely associated with the Progress wing of the party, as Corbyn-supporting Momentum members struggled to get themselves organised.
But the CLP vote puts the Croydon South Labour Party at loggerheads with the Blairite Troika who control the council: Newman, his deputy Alison “Lying Cow” Butler (£48,660), and her husband, the de facto planning chair Paul Scott (£38,427), all with the backing of the £220,000 per year chief exec, Jo Negrini.
Newman was re-appointed leader in May 2018 for a four-year term by a behind-closed-doors meeting of the Labour group at the Town Hall, a majority of whom will have just been allocated their generous cabinet or deputy allowances by… Newman.
Under Croydon’s chosen form of governance, all decisions of the council are vested in the “strong leader”.
Unsurprisingly, Newman is opposed to having a system under which a mayor is directly elected by the public. Newman has said publicly that electing mayors leads to the election of men, and is thus inherently discriminatory.
There was already ill-feeling between Newman and the Croydon South CLP, Newman having declared war against the then officials of Croydon South Labour Party the day after the 2018 local elections, threatening that “we will act”.
The debate over directly elected mayors at the CLP reflected badly on councillors on both sides of the argument who were obsessed either with not causing offence to their “strong leader”, or with taking offence.
Grassroots members at the meeting suggest that those councillors who abstained in the vote came out of the episode looking best.
Newman had a couple of loyal emissaries from the Town Hall at the meeting: Hamida Ali and Jane Avis, both cabinet members who were appointed by Newman.
Ali claimed that the matter of Croydon Labour’s position on directly elected mayors had already been resolved when a committee working on the local elections manifesto rejected the idea. Ali added that the long-forgotten Croydon Fairness Commission had decided that a directly elected mayor was unfair.
One of the CLP members told of how his neighbours had told him that “the council was not listening” and of the growing perception of how the patronage given by Newman to office-holders kept him in power.
At this, Avis – who is paid more than £45,000 per year thanks to Newman’s patronage – launched into a tirade, shouting “This is an offence!”, while waving and pointing.
The proposal had been moved by Waddon councillor Andrew Pelling, with Momentum’s Paul Ainscough seconding. In his efforts to avoid causing any offence, Pelling weakened the motion by removing that part which praised the successes of directly elected Labour mayors elsewhere in London. He said that this part of his motion had been interpreted as being critical, by implication, of the Labour leadership at Croydon Town Hall and that he had been asked to withdraw that section.
They are sensitive souls at the Town Hall, clearly. An amended motion was circulated.
Pelling said that he had been asked to withdraw the whole motion after “kind personal advice that it was not in his best interests” to make the proposal.
Pelling, who at Newman’s behest has spent the past five years firmly stuck on the Labour backbenches, clearly wanted not to jeopardise his position as chair of the pension committee chair (pay: £9,029 a year), as he spoke of the £380million that happened to have been added to the council’s pension fund on his watch.
Pelling told the meeting he wanted to stand up for Croydon South. Labour would be able to galvanise Labour voters in the south of the borough in places like Kenley, he predicted, as every vote would count in a directly elected mayor election, unlike currently, where all but four of Croydon’s 28 wards have large majorities for one party or the other. “A directly elected leader would need to listen equally to every voter from Kenley to Upper Norwood,” Pelling said.
Judged to have spoken most sense was Pelling’s ward council colleague, Robert Canning, who conceded that Croydon council’s governance was “dysfunctional” but, in a reference to the election of football mascot “H’Angus the Monkey” as Mayor of Hartlepool, warned party members enthusiastic for a directly elected mayor to “be careful of what you wish for”.
Canning joined councillor King and a few other wise souls in abstaining.
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