With a referendum for a democratically-elected mayor now inevitable, Croydon’s council leader is behaving increasingly like a small-town Donald Trump. Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, reports
In a remarkable piece of transatlantic coincidence, just as the President of the United States was making moves to delay November’s election in a desperate bid to cling on to power for just a little bit longer, so in Croydon, our very own Tammany Hall Trump was also working hard to defer democracy and the termination of his own political career.
Council leader Tony Newman yesterday morning announced to his Labour councillor colleagues that any borough-wide referendum on the issue of Croydon having a democratically-elected mayor would “not even be looked at before May 2021”.
Newman cited coronavirus legislation. “Therefore no referendum in May, or any time soon after that,” Croydon’s increasingly Trump-like leader wrote to the Labour councillors’ WhatsApp group.
DEMOC, the campaign for a democratically-elected mayor of Croydon, had been expected to deliver their petition, with tens of thousands of signatures, to the Town Hall yesterday.
The petition would have triggered the process for a borough-wide referendum on the issue of whether to have a mayor elected by all 250,000 eligible voters in Croydon, or stick with the current system of a “strong leader”, under which Newman has been in charge of the Labour group at the Town Hall for more than 15 years, having been chosen in secret meetings held behind closed doors by fewer than 40 people, most of whom he has on his council-funded pay-roll.
As recently as the end of May, having accepted that DEMOC would gather enough signatures to trigger the referendum, Newman was boldly telling anyone who would listen to “Bring it on!”
There were even suggestions that Newman was seriously considering putting himself up for selection as Labour’s candidate for elected mayor.
Yesterday, Newman was describing those campaigning for a democratically-elected mayor – which includes at least seven large residents’ associations, and the Croydon South Constituency Labour Party – as “reprobates”.
The DEMOC campaigners had 12 months to collect at least 13,000 signatures, enough to force the staging of a referendum. Other Labour-run London boroughs, including Lewisham and Tower Hamlets, have gone through the same process in the past 20 years. DEMOC hoped to submit their petition in May, with the possibility of the referendum being held in October and then a mayoral election in spring 2021.
The coronavirus pandemic wrecked that timetable, but there had been a suggestion that the petition could be submitted and the Croydon referendum held on May 6, 2021 – the same date as the London elections which have been postponed from this year.
Rules that were drafted quickly and rushed through with the Coronavirus Act in April are, it is widely agreed, often ambiguous and open to interpretation. DEMOC have taken legal advice from senior counsel which suggests that a May 2021 referendum is still possible.
But Newman’s self-interested about-turn yesterday suggests he intends to use the council’s legal department to block that. By his own estimates, an additional polling day could cost his cash-strapped council an extra £1million to organise the polling stations and stage the referendum separately from the London vote in May.
Gerry Meredith-Smith is the chair of the Whitgift Estate Residents’ Association, and chair the DEMOC campaign committee. Today he said, “We have collected more than 20,000 signatures and so far we have verified more than 17,000 as being on the most recent electoral roll. Verification continues.
“We have taken legal advice and believe that a petition handed in now is valid and should trigger a referendum on May 6, 2021.
“We, therefore, intend to hand in the petition signatures in the first week of September.
“It will save the council money to hold the referendum on May 6, the same day as the 2021 London Mayoral election.
“If the council leadership refuses to hold the referendum on May 6 and insist on clinging to office and running scared of the electorate, they will be insulting the 20,000 Croydon residents who have signed the petition.”
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