Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, crunches the numbers ahead of the next Croydon polling day
No, not the Christmas General Election which Prime Minister Boris Johnson may or may not get to call next week, but the Croydon Council local by-election in Fairfield ward on November 7.
It means that council leader Tony Newman will finally fulfil his long-held wish – some might say obsession – to get his much-favoured candidate Caragh Skipper on to the council, and provide himself with another nodding “Yes Woman” to shore-up his troubled and failing administration.
Which probably explains why Newman and his willing henchman, Jack Buck, the Labour Party’s local organiser, took such risks to fix the candidate selection after Skipper failed, yet again, to win over the ward membership. For Newman, such niceties as party democracy and the will of the members will be all shrugged off once Skipper is installed in the Town Hall.
For Fairfield – until 2018 a council seat held by three Tory councillors – is in fact now a safe Labour seat.
The town centre ward, much truncated in the 2017 boundary review, runs to West Croydon in the north, south past the Flyover to the end of Southbridge Road, and is bounded by the Brighton railway mainline to the east and the Roman Way urban motorway to the west, thus including much of Old Town.
The by-election has been called because of the controversial resignation of sitting Labour councillor Niro Sirisena, whose conduct is now subject to a police investigation. What Fairfield’s voters might make of all this seems unlikely to play a large part in their decision at the ballot box, not least because Newman and his clique have done their best to cover-up the scandal.
Not only is Fairfield now a safe Labour ward, it is also significantly smaller, in terms of electors, than many of Croydon’s electoral areas.
Three-member wards in Croydon typically have 12,000 electors or more. But as of July this year, Fairfield had just 8,863 eligible voters.
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England drew the new Croydon ward boundaries in such a way as to anticipate the thousands of additional skyscraper dwellers in the town centre. But growth in elector numbers has been slower than expected, up by just 392 since the 2018 local elections.
The executive skyscraper homes, mainly rented, are hard for political canvassers to reach, especially where the “luxury executive apartments” have attentive concierges who discourage canvassers.
Other properties in the ward include low-quality HMOs (homes of multiple occupation), housing association properties, flats above shops, Old Town terraced housing and a few larger homes in the conservation area to the south of Fairfield Halls. The HMOs often have confusing, disorganised, anonymous and, usually, unanswered doorbells.
The ward includes the Town Hall, the council-shuttered Allders department store and the increasingly run-down Whitgift Centre.
This means it also includes a significant amount of office blocks that have been converted to flats. The population has a younger demographic than much of the rest of the borough, with many sleeping in Croydon but working and socialising up the railway line from East Croydon Station in central London.
These residents tend to be detached from the frenzied tumult of local elections (we are being ironic here), which lowers voter turn-out. Just 30.5 per cent of voters even bothered to turn out in Fairfield in May 2018. The modest 1,226 votes for former councillor Sirisena was, therefore, more than enough to see off the best-placed Tory candidate, 434 votes behind on 792.
Sirisena lagged well behind the two other Labour candidates on 1,351 and 1,329 votes each.
Labour’s vote share was more than half of those who bothered to vote, 50.9 per cent. The Tories were on 29.9per cent, while the Liberal Democrats barely bothered the scorer with 8.8per cent in only fourth place, behind the Greens. So the chances of a LibDem winning challenge this time round are remote.
But Labour have not helped themselves. As well as Sirisena’s resignation after “a serious incident”, and the party chiefs’ subsequent attempts at a cover-up, they then stitched up the candidate selection process, dumping the democratically chosen Jose Joseph in favour of Newman’s choice, Skipper.
The stench of scandal upon scandal from the Town Hall’s ruling administration may not have had much impact with the voters, who have plenty of other things to complain about, such as the dirty streets and fly-tipping, and the hike in the cost of on-street parking permits, which is being introduced this month.
But it is national Brexit politics that is dominating voters’ concerns, which is where LibDem candidate Andrew Rendle is pinning his hopes as a committed Remainer. Both Labour’s Skipper and the Conservative candidate, Jayde Edwards, from the cult-like SPAC Nation church, want Brexit.
Indeed, on local issues, Skipper may appear a little vulnerable.
She launched her campaign outside the unfinished, incomplete and 15 months late Fairfield Halls, which finally re-opened last month having cost at least £11million over budget. The half-cocked campaign launch was attended by only a limited number of activists and councillors, as some party members have been discouraged by the selection controversy. One of the borough’s three CLPs, Croydon South, has even withheld any endorsement of Skipper as candidate.
Skipper has adopted a dog-eared and stale-looking campaign issue, of making East Croydon into a Zone 4 station with cheaper fares to London. She is making promises on which she has little influence, and which won’t be delivered.
The Zone 4 campaign was something Sarah Jones used when she first ran for parliament, although it is something that the now MP for Croydon Central has failed to achieve, despite having the help of a Labour Mayor at City Hall. Sources at the London Assembly suggest that Croydon has failed to make a business case for the re-zoning, which is likely to cost at least £30million a year if implemented.
The cost issue was made clear in a TfL letter to Steve Reed OBE in 2015. It is notable that Reed, the MP for Croydon North, has been quiet on re-zoning this time around, which makes it appear as if Jones has revived the issue as some kind of favour for her friend, Skipper.
Skipper, a Labour Party employee who lives in Shirley, says she wants that “every renter in Fairfield has a safe and affordable home”. Which is nice.
Pity, then, that she is running to be part of a Labour council administration which, since 2014, has failed to build a single council home, and has no plans to do so before 2022 at the earliest. Fairfield ward hosts the sales office of the council-owned Brick by Brick company, which is struggling to sell its over-priced homes on the private market.
Skipper also says that she would like to deliver the council’s Green New Deal, which to date amounts to sowing some wild flower seeds on road verges at some unspecified time in the future, and promising to set up a talking shop (another one), while using £250,000 a year of developers’ money for small scale projects in local parks. In the meantime, the Labour council continues to back an extra runway at Gatwick Airport, burns the borough’s rubbish at a polluting incinerator upwind of Fairfield ward, and acts as cheerleader for a 3,000-space car park for Westfield.
Still, at least anyone who does turn out to campaign for Skipper has the promise of a subsidised coffee or slice of cake at Matthew’s Yard, the somewhat bourgeois pathfinder for gentrification off Surrey Street market.
And to think that, not so long ago, the venue was happily staging local Conservative Party campaign events while the owner was railing angrily about the injustices of the Labour-run council’s licensing arrangements.
For the Tories, Edwards’ efforts very much have the look of a proxy campaign on behalf of Mario Creatura, the former bag-carrier for Gavin Barwell and Twitter monitor for Theresa May, who is relentless in his pursuit of his personal ambition to become an MP.
Edwards, through SPAC Nation, has provided him with a large number of new and enthusiastic leaflet deliverers.
Creatura’s social media background has been evident, with slick-looking tweets and mini-videos featuring the candidate and himself or, as was the case last night, the visiting Tory big-wig James Cleverly.
The common feature in these videos is that it is Creatura and Cleverly who do most of the talking, while their Fairfield candidate just stands there, grinning. The videos reinforce the notion that Edwards is a mere puppet in the process, with Creatura pulling the strings, the SPAC Nation link-up a convenience for one man’s political career ambitions.
Edwards has claimed that she will “deliver” Westfield – which Creatura will know was the misconceived brainchild of his former boss, Barwell, together with Boris Johnson.
Edwards fails to explain how, were she to be elected as a single councillor among a Tory minority opposition group, she would somehow force the multi-national company behind the scheme to deliver on the £1.4billion Tory-backed project that they have failed to build since 2012.
She also wants cleaner streets and, unlike Labour, has made an issue of the ward’s unenviable place in having the highest crime rate in Croydon.
Croydon LibDems are doing more than usual in this campaign. Though that is an easy thing to achieve when the usual is zero. Rendle offers himself to electors as an experienced local politician, though with typical local politician disingenuity, he fails to state that until 18 months ago he was a Labour councillor who loyally did the bidding of Tony Newman.
Skipper replaced Rendle as the Labour candidate in Addiscombe East in 2018, but then proceeded to lose the seat. This, then, is a bit of a grudge match for Rendle. But the Liberal Democrats – who have more voting strength in Upper Norwood and parts of Coulsdon – are not targeting the ward.
The Greens have Esther Sutton, the well-known landlady at the Oval Tavern. But there is hardly any Green campaigning despite this ward providing the second equal highest Green vote share in Croydon in 2018 at 10.4 per cent when they took third place. Extinction Rebellion’s profile and the Labour council’s weak response to the Climate Emergency may aid the Green vote share a bit.
Looking at 14 other council by-election results in Greater London this year, all but four have seen the Tory vote fall. Those four exceptions have seen only modest improvements in the Tory vote share.
So in Fairfield, the Tories should not be able to bridge the 21 per cent gap this time.
The huge, but ultimately unsuccessful, 26.2 per cent swing to the LibDems from Labour in April’s by-election in Lambeth’s Thornton ward would be enough to see Skipper beaten in Fairfield if replicated here. But Labour in Lambeth has an even worse reputation than Labour in Croydon, and Thornton’s electors were sick of going to the polls just to replace departing Labour councillors going to other jobs (this was a second by-election in short order). The LibDems in Lambeth campaigned hard over months to secure this swing. The Liberal Democrats are not doing this in Croydon.
A by-election in an Enfield ward (Bush Hill Park) on November 22 last year had a Labour to Conservative swing that would see, if applied in Croydon, a Tory gain, just. The swing was 11.15 per cent. The politics of that north London borough are different, though, with Joan Ryan and Kate Osamor’s son’s troubles there.
Fairfield will very likely see an even lower turnout on a wet November Thursday, with the LibDems getting closer to the Tories and overtaking the Greens, potentially getting the biggest percentage increase in the vote in the fevered Brexit environment. Labour will likely lose the most votes because of the LibDem improvement. But will still be very comfortably placed.
So the electoral crystal ball sees the following shares
Labour 42% (-8.9%)
Conservatives 23% (-6.9%)
Liberal Democrats 18% (+10.2%)
Greens 15% (+4.6%)
Others 2% (+2%)
Lab 930 votes
This would be a Labour majority of 420, which will look good on Newman’s Labour’s post-count tweets.
Sirisena trailed badly behind his Labour colleagues in May 2018, by 100 votes in this small electorate ward. His majority was 434. So it will be that comparable majority that will be used for boasting on November 8 by Newman, rather than the more substantial 601-vote margin that Councillor Mary Croos enjoyed over the sixth-placed Tory candidate in 2018.
That is, of course, provided Skipper does not make another of her ill-judged “jokes” on social media, as she did when she posted her “Shoot Trump” message, or out herself again with a selfie showing her breaking the law by fly-posting stickers around the town centre.
Such recklessness cost her, and Newman’s Labour Party, a council seat in Addiscombe in 2018. Perhaps, this time, she has learned her lesson.
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