Political editor WALTER CRONXITE on the far-reaching consequences for Croydon’s Town Hall leadership of yesterday’s deferral of May’s local elections
According to some Town Hall sources, several of the borough’s elected councillors were in a state of shock this morning at the realisation that they might have to start to go through their casework correspondence from residents and actually do some checking on the work of council officials, instead of spending the next six weeks on their usual, favourite activity: delivering leaflets for their political party.
The news last night that the government is to pass legislation to postpone this May’s London Mayor and London Assembly elections was soon followed by the major political parties announcing a complete suspension of canvassing and meetings, in order to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
It means that the country’s most over-paid leaflet delivery teams – Croydon’s 70 elected Conservative and Labour councillors – have been stood down and can instead focus on doing something far more useful.
It means Sadiq Khan will continue as Mayor of London until May 2021, at least.
It means Steve O’Connell, the Kenley councillor who is also the Conservative Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton, will get to bank another £54,000 from City Hall before he can slink off, unnoticed and unmissed, to retirement in dozy Dorset.
It also means that Patsy Cummings, Labour’s candidate to take over as Assembly Member for this south London super-constituency, will now have a full year to prepare and campaign to try to win the seat from the Tories for the first time in history, despite the efforts of Labour’s regional party to undermine her and other City Hall candidates with its long-delayed selection process.
And it also turns to dust the threats made by Tony Newman of making £1million-worth of cuts over the threat to his leadership of Croydon Council.
Newman and his clique made the ill-conceived and petulant threat of cuts to the council’s adult social care, libraries and children’s services when they claimed it would be necessary to meet the costs of staging a referendum and election for a democratically elected mayor of Croydon.
Now, with London elections likely to take place on May 6, 2021, it seems likely that Croydon’s election for a democratically elected mayor could be staged on the same polling day, at no additional, unbudgeted cost to the council, and therefore no need for further cuts.
DEMOC, the Democratically Elected Mayor of Croydon Campaign, is thought now to hold the 13,000-plus signatures required to trigger a borough-wide referendum.
This would put to the public whether they want an elected mayor, or to continue with Newman’s preferred system, with Newman maintaining his position through patronage, effectively bunging council allowance bribes to members of the Labour group in return for keeping him in power.
What is not certain is when DEMOC will be submitting its petition to council chief exec Jo Negrini, with the prospect of triggering the referendum.
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Yesterday’s announcement of the indefinite suspension of campaigning and elections has caused senior figures behind DEMOC – who include Tory MP Chris Philp and the Croydon South Constituency Labour Party – to seek advice urgently on the potential timetable. They may be seeking a referendum day held after the coronavirus crisis has abated – perhaps in October – so that if they win the referendum, Croydon might have the opportunity to vote for a directly elected mayor the following May.
Newman is London’s longest lasting Labour council leader. He has been Croydon Labour group leader since 2005, though he managed to lose his party’s control of the Town Hall in 2006 after inflicting a 27 per cent Council Tax increase on the borough in his first year in charge.
He is now under the biggest threat to his position ever, following the collapse on his watch of the Westfield regeneration of the town centre. With residents’ associations from Crystal Palace to Coulsdon mobilising over their disenchantment with the council’s planning policies and Brick by Brick schemes, the calls for a more accountable system of governance have been getting louder by the day.
Newman has been getting increasingly desperate as he has tried to portray the campaigners as being to the right of Genghis Khan.
Last week, he issued an email to party supporters in which he claimed that DEMOC’s “… stated aim is to abolish the current council model of 70 representative ward councillors and replace them with a single elected mayor with sole executive power over every decision taken in the council”.
Which is untrue. Under an elected mayor, the borough would still have its elected councillors. The only council position which would be abolished is that of the “strong leader”: Newman.
Newman also played fast and loose with the truth over the costs of staging a referendum.
He wrote: “Independent council officials…” meaning council staff like Negrini who, to a great extent, owe their position to their unerring ability to tell Newman what he wants to hear, “… have confirmed the cost of any such mayoral referendum would be over £1million, a staggering amount of money that due to austerity could only be found by cutting vital public services.”
Newman offered no explanation for why a borough-wide ballot, which in the past has cost the council coffers little more than £250,000, should suddenly cost four times as much – other than to provide him with a chunky number with which to threaten less-well-informed or more gullible Labour Party members.
What Newman failed to advise his fellow party members was that, if a Croydon mayoral election were to be held this week, then Labour would probably win it. Just not with Newman as their candidate.
With even the borough’s paid Labour Party organiser, Jack Buck, recently advocating publicly that the council group leader ought to be elected at least by the members of the party, and not just a small cabal in a secret meeting, Newman’s time in charge appears to be running out.
But what has got Newman hotter under the collar than a dose coronavirus has been whispers that members of his own council cabinet, possibly including former parliamentary candidate Stuart King and London Assembly hopeful Cummings, are already “on manoeuvres”, in the hope of being selected by Labour to run for elected mayor.
It is no longer a matter of “if” Newman loses his position as leader of Croydon Council, but more a case of “when”.
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