Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, on one of the more intriguing twists to emerge from the nominations for next month’s council by-election
It is often said that the Liberal Democrats in Croydon stage their meetings in a phone box.
To see their candidate for the Fairfield council by-election, Andrew Rendle, out on his own in the autumn rain, dutifully delivering his leaflets door-to-door, you can understand why.
The by-election has been called in Fairfield ward following the sudden resignation of Labour councillor Niroshan Sirisena for what his local party has described as “a serious incident”, and which the council leader, Tony Newman, has admitted is a matter subject to a police investigation.
There’s been no further explanation for why Sirisena, a leading figure in the local Momentum group, felt compelled to resign his council seat barely 18 months after being elected, although it is understood that the now ex-councillor has been, to borrow an oft-used phrase, helping the police with their enquiries.
Rendle is one of six candidates declared by Friday’s deadline as seeking to replace Sirisena.
Until last May, Rendle was himself a Labour councillor, and one very loyal to council leader Tony Newman, too.
Loyal, that is, until he failed to get re-selected for the 2018 local elections, when he was de-selected in the new Addiscombe East ward to make way for… Caragh Skipper.
Skipper, of course, managed to lose Labour’s seat in that ward to the Tories – the only council seat Labour has lost in Croydon since 2010.
Having been rejected by the Fairfield Labour membership at a selection meeting last Thursday, Skipper is nonetheless on the ballot paper for Labour, where she finds herself going head-to-head with LibDem re-tread Rendle.
Given that Skipper has been suggested to support Brexit – to the shock and dismay of some Croydon Labour members – this head-to-head re-match with Remainer Rendle might offer some added interest.
But such is the enfeebled state of the Liberal Democrats in Croydon, they are not expected to put up much of a fight, even in a by-election being staged on November 7, within a week of “Brexit Day” (the latest one), on October 31.
If the LibDem campaign machine that exists in neighbouring Sutton could get mobilised for this little local political scuffle, Rendle might be expected to make more inroads into the Labour vote. For now, though, he’s left to trudge on alone, like a door-to-door salesman with no products anyone wants to buy.
As well as including their usual, dodgy bar charts in their leaflets, the LibDems are expected to try to avoid mentioning former councillor Rendle’s record when at the Town Hall, where he never once opposed Labour leader Newman, and where his role as the borough’s “Autism Champion” earned him the nickname “Wonder Horse” among families of children with SEND.
For most of his last year as a Labour councillor, Rendle failed to organise any meetings of the borough’s autism board, largely because he was too busy, scurrying between Labour ward meetings trying to get selected to stand for the council again.
“We felt deserted by our so-called ‘Champion’,” one mother of an autistic child told Inside Croydon. “That’s why we called him ‘Wonder Horse’, because it felt like we were flogging a dead one.”
Rendle not only failed the borough’s autistic children in that period, he also failed to be selected as a Labour candidate in any other ward. Having worked hard to win what was then called Ashburton ward for Labour in 2014, helping Newman’s Labour win back control of the council, it would be understandable if he had felt let down by his erstwhile leader’s lack of support.
And while, without a larger network of willing party activists to support him, it seems unlikely he will emerge as Croydon’s first Liberal Democrat councillor to be elected since 2002, the Brexit question and the controversy over Sirisena’s unexplained resignation could cost Skipper a significant number of votes in what her Labour colleagues have taken to describing as “a marginal seat” – which is very much looking like a groupleadership getting its excuses in early.
The other candidates for the Fairfield by-election on November 7 are Jayde Edwards, for the Conservatives, independent Mark Samuel, Heather Twidle of the Women’s Equality Party, and the Greens’ Esther Sutton.
With Skipper and Edwards both backing Brexit, it is Sutton, rather than Rendle, who probably offers a stronger case for Remain in a local election that will inevitably be dominated by national and international news.
The Greens finished third in last year’s council elections in Croydon, ahead of the LibDems, and the party has benefited from the increased publicity in environmental issues created by the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations.
Sutton is a mother and successful business owner, being the landlady of the popular Oval Tavern and having previously run The Ship and The Green Dragon pubs in the town centre.
Uniquely among local political types, Sutton is also brave enough to consider openly that one of the biggest issues affecting Fairfield ward – Westfield’s £1.4billion redevelopment of the town centre – may never happen.
In a statement issued by Croydon Greens this week, they say, “The Westfield development has still not happened, and may never will, and the redevelopment of the Fairfield Halls has had a series of delays and still isn’t complete.
“Croydon Council has been far too focused on large scale projects to the detriment of local small businesses and we need to redress the balance.
“We see plenty of shiny new residential blocks going up around us but our streets and neighbourhoods are full of people who can’t afford to live in them. There also seems little interest in providing the services that are needed alongside the new homes. We need more investment in truly affordable housing, schools, public transport and health services to meet the needs of both Croydon’s new and existing residents.”
Sutton said, “I am so proud of the resilience, diversity and creativity of Croydon. My work in the borough, whether through community pubs, local festivals or supporting small businesses, celebrates Croydon’s many strengths and aims to bring people together to make our town a success.”
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