KEN LEE, our Town Hall reporter, on how voters in Croydon seem likely to have another ballot paper when they go to the polls in 2021
Tony Newman, the council leader, made it clear to a meeting of Labour Party Town Hall colleagues last night that he expects there to be a borough-wide referendum on May 6 next year to determine whether the people of Croydon want a democratically-elected Mayor.
Newman has been leader of the Labour group at Croydon Town Hall for 15 years, and therefore leader of the council since the party took back control of the council in 2014. He owes his position entirely to a behind-the-scenes annual vote of his fellow Labour councillors, the majority of whom receive generous, public-funded allowances awarded to them by … Newman.
At last night’s monthly Labour group meeting, staged remotely because of the coronavirus lockdown, Newman grudgingly conceded a first-phase defeat over moves for Croydon having a directly elected mayor.
The DEMOC campaign, run by residents’ associations and supported by Croydon Tories and the Croydon South Labour party, has collected around 14,000 petition signatures, enough to trigger a borough-wide referendum. The lockdown brought a suspension of their campaigning and signature-collecting, and some suspect that the delay in submitting their petition to the council may yet be used by council CEO Jo Negrini, on Newman’s behalf, to try to block the referendum.
But Newman suggested last night that the referendum is likely to be held on May 6, 2021, which is thought to be the most likely date for the London Assembly and Mayor elections which were postponed this month because of covid-19.
Newman told the meeting that Labour in Croydon will campaign to maintain the status quo, the so-called “strong leader” model of governance, and that he will use the party employee, Jack Buck, to organise the campaign.
That’s the same Jack Buck who, as a councillor in Southwark, has publicly campaigned for a more democratic system of electing borough party leaders.
And that’s the same Labour Party which introduced democratically elected mayors in the Blair years and which, in its 2019 General Election manifesto, maintained support for the system and said it would “make directly elected mayors more accountable to local councillors and elected representatives”.
A sample of the contortions that Newman is prepared to inflict on the Labour Party locally in order to preserve his own powerbase, and his £55,000 per year allowances, is that he even risks going head-to-head against the national party’s position on democratically-elected mayors.
Recently, the parliamentary party’s Westminster spokesperson on local government said that he is in favour of greater devolution to local government – including, potentially, rolling out the mayoral model in rural as well as urban areas. This “should not be imposed on communities” because “that is the antithesis of devolution”.
Labour’s local government spokesperson is none other than Steve Reed OBE, the MP for Croydon North.
It is in the use of the Labour group’s professional staffer, Buck, where Newman appears prepared to take the biggest liberties to save his own arse.
Labour-run Southwark Council has, in Peter John, the longest-standing council leader in London. John is someone – much like Newman – who does little to disguise his Blairite, neocon sympathies.
Much of this has been going on around the Elephant and Castle and along the Walworth Road, where Corbynista Buck represents Faraday ward. While not advocating that his borough should have a democratically-elected mayor (as neighbouring Lewisham and other Labour-run London boroughs have), Buck has called for a different system to elect group leaders – letting the members choose.
“As a Labour councillor,” Buck tweeted from his personal account in February, “… I also think we should allow our members to elect our group leaders. We trust them to select us to run, but not who should lead us?”
In Southwark, Buck has even led a petition of his own, lobbying the all-powerful Labour National Executive Committee to try to have Peter John’s replacement elected by all party members in the borough – a system which no doubt would fill the unaccountable Newman with as much dread as the thought of allowing residents to vote for a democratically-elected mayor.
The obvious contradictions, therefore, in Buck’s worthy efforts to make his party more democratic while leading a campaign intended to frustrate the wishes of the 14,000 Croydon residents who are calling for a democratically-elected mayor, could cause the Momentum member some sleepless nights in the months to come.
Whether, however, Newman will lose any sleep over his flagrant abuse of Labour funds and a party employee’s time to run a campaign which goes against the spirit of his own party’s policies, seems much less likely.
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