Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, on how candidates standing in ward by-elections next month have to shake off the stigma of replacing discredited Tony Newman and Simon Hall
Kola Agboola and Mike Bonello have been named by Labour as their candidates in the New Addington North and Woodside council ward by-elections on May 6 – with the daunting task of trying somehow to repair the deep reputational damage caused by the men they are seeking to replace as councillors.
Agboola, a New Addington resident, is standing for election in the ward previously represented at the Town Hall by Simon Hall, the cabinet member who presided over the council’s financial collapse.
Bonello will be standing in the ward that has been represented since 1994 by Tony Newman, the former leader of the council who in a recent government-commissioned review was said to have operated “an inner circle of a small number of cabinet members who have been very controlling in their management of the council and its finances”.
That “controlling small circle” included Hall, as well as Paul Scott and Hamida Ali, the new leader of the council. Scott and Ali remain as councillors for Woodside ward.
Sources within Croydon Labour suggest that Bonello was selected by ward members with the approval of Scott, as well as with the backing of Croydon North MP Steve Reed OBE. In a virtual selection meeting staged last night, party members in the ward, part of the Croydon Central constituency, were given a choice between just two candidates.
“The reputational damage done to Labour and to this borough by Newman, Hall and their little group cannot be over-estimated,” a source said. “The new candidates won’t be able to escape that.”
Woodside ought to be a rock-solid Labour ward: in 2018, Newman, Ali and Scott all had at least 1,623 votes more than their nearest, Tory, challengers.
But the by-elections are ill-timed for Labour, as they come barely a month since a 5 per cent hike in Council Tax bills for residents across the borough.
And many think that the toxic influence of Newman, the borough-wide suspicion of planning chief Scott, and the recent scandal over council flats in South Norwood could persuade many traditional Labour voters, and party and union members, not to vote at all, or even support rival candidates.
Certainly, there’s unlikely to be much enthusiasm when it comes to leafleting and canvassing from Corbyn-supporting Momentum members, who did much to secure Croydon Central’s parliamentary seat for Sarah Jones in 2017 and helped re-elect Newman’s Blairite cabal to the Town Hall in 2018.
One reaction to Croydon Labour’s announcement of Bonello’s selection came from a Twitter account run by a council worker, one among hundreds who face losing their jobs because of the financial collapse under Newman and Hall.
“Never good to make assumptions about voters,” they tweeted ominously.
Even past officials of the local Labour Party and union workers, with their council jobs under threat, have aired their anger over Newman and Hall’s conduct. “It is a disgrace that the council is in this position and yet no one has been held accountable for bringing the council to its knees. Why should we pay the price?” said one.
In an Inside Croydon poll, 97 per cent of respondents said that Newman should never be allowed to stand for election again.
Hall and Newman resigned from their council leadership positions in October, just days before the council auditors, Grant Thornton, published the damning Report In The Public Interest which was hugely critical of the way in which the council, and its finances, had been managed while the pair had been in charge.
Newman was found to have authorised £100million-worth of council borrowing towards the purchase of the Croydon Park Hotel and other commercial properties, without going through the proper Town Hall processes.
Bonello, who is a social worker for another London local authority, is widely respected in his local community.
Croydon Labour described him as “a local resident focussed [sic] on improving Portland rd [sic], better accessibility at Norwood Junction and protecting council services from Tory austerity.” No mention was made of protecting council workers’ jobs and services from incompetence and self-serving misjudgements of the likes of Newman, Hall and Scott.
Like Bonello, Agboola just happens to be an official in the local Labour branch party, but for him, retaining Hall’s former seat in what used to be known as Fieldway ward could prove an even tougher than that in Woodside.
Labour won both seats in New Addington North ward at the 2018 local elections with a margin of a little more than 700 votes. Given the local Conservatives held a council seat in New Addington until as recently as 2014, they will surely be targeting it this time.
Agboola, who works as a lab technician at Kingston University, has lived in New Addington for about 10 years. He says, “I am a believer in community values, enabling everyone’s voice to be heard and justice for all, no matter your background or where you live.”
Interestingly, in his pitch for selection, he also said, “I have experienced how our community has been ignored and neglected. I am determined to see that change, to be an advocate for our community to make New Addington a place we can all be proud of.”
Agboola featured recently on a slate of potential council election candidates drawn together by Jamie Audsley, a current councillor and one who on occasion fell foul of the Newman regime – although that did not prevent him from voting in favour of the council leader when facing a vote of no-confidence just weeks before Newman was forced to resign.
Audsley’s slate has been tagged “Revive”, and Agboola said this week, “I want to see our community revived through truth, transparency and kindness, and believe I have the skills to make this happen.”
Labour selections for two other ward by-elections – in South Norwood (caused by the resignation of their councillor Jane Avis) and the single-seat Park Hill and Whitgift ward (where the Tory Vidhi Mohan has stood down) are due to take place tomorrow.
Sources within the party suggest that – in typical Croydon Labour style – the South Norwood slot is already stitched up, with a member of Steve Reed’s parliamentary staff, Loizos Carserides, poised to be waved through on to the ballot papers.
Meanwhile, in the fifth ward needing a by-election on May 6, the process is proving to be less than straightforward. The Labour “selection” in true blue Kenley ward (following Steve O’Connell’s retirement) is only a token gesture, but finding anyone willing even to be a paper candidate is not easy.
The Croydon South Constituency Labour Party has not held any official meetings of its members, virtually or otherwise, since February 2020.
And now Jack Buck, Labour’s supposedly full-time, professional borough organiser (his wages are paid out of deductions from Labour councillor allowances), has reportedly refused to act as the election agent in Kenley.
Given Buck’s part in the fixing of candidate selection to favour one of his friends in Fairfield ward in 2019, there are many Labour members in Croydon who firmly believe that he ought never to have anything to do with a candidate selection again, and question why he has not been dismissed from his job.
But following the collapse of Tony Newman’s regime, the situation over Kenley demonstrates that Labour in Croydon is in disarray across the borough, and not only in the Town Hall.
Read more: Newman and Hall are ‘administratively suspended’ by Labour
Read more: Ex-leader Newman wants to seek election again in 2022
Read more: Council forced to declare itself bankrupt
Read more: Officials to investigate possible wrong-doing at council
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