WALTER CRONXITE reports on the growing disgust among the council’s ruling Labour group at the conduct of a former colleague, but also discomfort at the way their leadership handled the councillor’s shock resignation
The majority of Croydon’s 40 remaining Labour councillors expect to discover tonight what the “serious incident” was that prompted their erstwhile colleague Niro Sirisena to resign last week, less than 18 months after being elected as a councillor for Fairfield ward.
The borough’s Labour councillors spent much of the weekend canvassing in the ward ahead of what the local MP Sarah Jones called an “imminent by-election”.
But the majority of Labour’s council-funded leaflet-distributors were denied any explanation on the circumstances surrounding Sirisena’s disappearing act.
“We were told nothing,” one disgruntled activist told Inside Croydon.
The senior figure in the local Labour Party said that they felt they had been treated like “a mushroom: kept in the dark and fed bullshit”.
They said: “We were given no briefing, no script of what line to take on the doorstep. We were just sent out there, in ignorance, unable to explain to any Fairfield residents – and Labour voters – why their recently elected representative had resigned so suddenly.”
Tonight at the Town Hall, at the monthly Labour group meeting, council leader Tony Newman and chief whip Clive Fraser are expected to provide some background to the Sirisena resignation.
Newman and Fraser are expected to try to withhold some details, hiding behind some imagined sub-judice line that the matter might be subject to legal action. This was used as a device for avoiding any questions last week when, in their hurried and ill-considered “serious incident” statement, Croydon Labour’s leadership said they would make no further comment “so as not to prejudice any possible legal proceedings in relation to this matter”.
Yet the very act of resigning as a councillor, and Croydon Labour publicising this act, would appear to prejudice fundamentally the position of Sirisena, who has since cut off all contact with the local Labour Party and his Momentum colleagues and deleted his social media accounts.
Inside Croydon understands from reliable sources that Sirisena’s resignation came after an incident involving his partner, who the day after his resignation spent four hours at a local police station making a statement.
But shutting down all information about the circumstances of the resignation, Newman and Fraser appear to have acted to minimise the immediate potential political damage to Croydon Labour, and themselves, caused by the conduct of one of their deputy cabinet members. Under Newman’s Labour, Croydon Council has declared itself to be a “white ribbon borough”, part of the global movement to end male violence against women.
In a council statement issued nearly four years ago, when the then newish Labour administration was championing the white ribbon cause through the work of its Family Justice Centre, they said, “As a council, we’ve nailed our colours to the mast and are leading the fight against what is, after all, a criminal offence.”
This week, Croydon Labour failed to respond to questions about whether they had reported any concerns involving Sirisena to the police over what they themselves had, after all, described as a “serious incident”.
Some former colleagues on the council who have learned what happened have told Inside Croydon that they are “furious” at the way Sirisena has behaved, and the way that they have been handled by their own group leadership.
“I am devastated,” said one.
“I am mindful of her vulnerability. She has been incredibly brave to go to the police. But I am furious with him, really angry for how he has behaved.”
Sirisena was the somewhat self-congratulatory and self-declared “founder of Croydon Momentum”, a local branch of the private company set up in 2016 to help organise the army of Jeremy Corbyn enthusiasts who discovered the Labour Party following his election as leader four years ago.
Sirisena immodestly laid claim to the title of “JC’s DJ”, because he may have played a few records at a couple of Labour conference fringe meetings at which Corbyn might have been in attendance.
He had only joined the Labour Party in late 2015, but by May 2018 he was an elected councillor in Croydon and promoted by Newman to the £22,000 role as council deputy cabinet member for butt plugs and shit shows. That is looking like another example of Newman’s poor judgement, by using patronage – and Council Tax-payers’ cash – to buy-off potential opponents from the left of the party.
That was something which he failed to include in his council declarations of interest, itself a prima facie breach of the law and the council code of conduct, although neither Newman nor the council chief executive, Jo Negrini, had bothered to take any action over this.
There was little hesitation to act by those eager to jump on the Town Hall allowances gravy train, though, with the council leadership known to have been putting in calls to potential replacement candidates less than 24 hours after announcing Sirisena’s resignation.
Among those thought to be considering seeking selection is Abu Khan, “the new members engagement officer” in Croydon Central, whose first instinct last week on seeing Inside Croydon’s report of the gathering scandal was to issue threats to this website in an effort to have a photograph of his friend, Sirisena, removed from the site.
Others who might be considering seeking selection include Rachel Krengel, the women’s officer in Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party, and inevitably – since Fairfield has all the appearance at present of being a safe-ish Labour ward – Caragh Skipper.
Skipper, who briefly worked in the Civil Service, was once a close colleague of Sirisena. Skipper is known to be a particular favourite of Blairite Newman, and of Jones, despite her sometime Momentum activism and managing to lose a council seat in Addiscombe East at the local elections in May 2018.
“So there’s a by-election coming, and suddenly, as if by magic, Caragh appears for a canvassing session in the ward,” another sceptical Labour activist told Inside Croydon today.
“I think most of the group have got wise to her by now – she’s overrated, only pops up at election time, might even be a bit lazy, that sort of thing. All of which makes her the perfect candidate for Tony, because she’d be no threat to him.”
Until 2018, and following some boundary changes which removed some predominantly Tory-voting areas from the town centre ward, Fairfield had been a Conservative-held ward. In May 2018, Labour won the ward for the first time, electing three councillors: Sirisena, the near-silent Mary Croos, and union rep and part-time football pundit Chris Clark.
A Fairfield by-election would be just for the one seat vacated by Sirisena, but no date has yet been announced for the vote: although Labour has started campaigning in the ward, they have not put in the two requests to the council’s returning officer, Jo Negrini, to trigger the by-election. This is seen as them taking their lead from events at Westminster, in an effort to hold the by-election on the same day as any General Election.
Negrini would need to call a by-election within 35 working days of receiving requests from two electors living within the borough of Croydon.
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