Officials working for Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, backed by his party’s two Croydon MPs, pressured a pair of directly-elected mayors from other London boroughs to pull out of a public meeting held in Croydon last night.
“We were lent on heavily,” according to Phil Glanville, the Labour mayor in Hackney, who accused LOTO – the Leader of the Opposition’s office – and Steve Reed OBE and Sarah Jones of applying pressure on him and Lewisham mayor Damien Egan to pull out of an event organised by their own party.
Directly elected mayors were a policy introduced at the start of this century by the Labour government under Tony Blair. It remains an agreed Labour Party national policy. Labour holds a number of significant mayoral positions around the country, including Andy Burnham in Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London.
Last night’s event was a “virtual community hall” meeting for party members and supporters to launch the Croydon Labour for a Mayor campaign.
Glanville and Egan were due to give talks about their own local experiences on such potentially seditious topics as “the mayoral model” and “mayors listening to communities”.
Jamie Audsley, a councillor for Bensham Manor ward who organised the event, began proceedings by reading a note from Glanville.
“We have been lent on heavily by people in LOTO, Steve Reed MP and Sarah Jones MP,” it said.
“Both of us don’t feel that this is the right approach and we have resisted, but they have left us with no alternative and after discussions we have to withdraw.”
Several participants among the 40-strong audience expressed their disquiet at what one described as “an attack on freedom of speech”. Another called it “undemocratic”.
One member said, “Disappointing about our invited guests being forbidden to attend tonight. It does not help the spirit of openness and debate in the party.”
Croydon councillor Andrew Pelling, also described the move by the MPs and Starmer’s office as “disappointing”.
He told the meeting, “Trying to close down debate says something about the culture of the Labour Party.”
Audsley – who has had a series of run-ins with Newman and his cabal over the last six years – was clearly very unhappy with the way in which his work to launch the local mayoral campaign had been undermined by people supposedly in his own party. “We should embrace free speech,” Audsley said.
Starmer’s leadership has been in crisis since losing the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election a fortnight ago.
Starmer and his officials have several strong connections to the Blairites in Croydon: his choice of party general secretary, David Evans, a former senior aide to Blair, established a consultancy business in the borough which benefited significantly from a series of generous council contracts when Tony Newman was Town Hall leader. Alison Butler, Newman’s former deputy leader, is the mother of one of Evans’s children.
Newman was suspended by the Labour Party earlier this year and forced to quit as a councillor because of his part in the financial collapse of the council. He had strongly opposed any suggestion of an alternative system of governance which would have stripped him of his powers of patronage – using council money through allowances to buy the loyalty of fellow councillors.
In essence, what the referendum on October 7 will offer the voters of Croydon is a choice between allowing just 40 Labour councillors to select the council leader in a behind-closed-doors meeting, or instead allowing every elector a vote over who should be the borough’s executive mayor.
Audsley and the other organisers behind last night’s meeting were fortunate, at least, that another Labour Party mayoral candidate was not influenced to withdraw from the event. Jessie Joe Jacobs was the losing Labour candidate in the Tees Valley mayoral election tw weeks ago.
She spoke to the well-attended meeting about Tory attacks on Labour in the north of England, and the kind of achievements mayors like Burnham have been able to deliver.
Without directly referring to the absence from the meeting of her two Labour colleagues, Jacobs said, “Top-down isn’t working.”
Judged on recent borough-wide voting, a good Labour candidate for Croydon mayor should win any election if one is held in May 2022. At the December 2019 General Election, 82,265 Croydon residents voted for Labour, 63,982 for the Tories.
Yet while the Newman-dominated Croydon Labour has remained curmudgeonly about the prospect of a directly-elected mayor, local Tories have tended to embrace the idea, even providing significant funding towards the largely residents’ association-led DEMOC, the Democratically Elected Mayor for Croydon campaign.
Some Labour members at last night’s meeting raised the spectre of the Conservatives winning control of Croydon Council “by the back door”, by putting up a credible and charismatic candidate and campaigning effectively, while Labour drags its heels. This is what has been referred to at Inside Croydon Towers for the past couple of years as “the Barwell Conundrum”.
Even Audsley, who has ambitions to be Labour’s mayoral candidate in Croydon, conceded that such a prospect is “a clear risk”.
“I don’t think we can box ourselves in,” Audsley said, “and if the referendum passes in October, we need to embrace it.”
Jacob made a strong case for why Labour in Croydon needs to use any mayoral election as a means for change. “It’s absolutely vital that you use that platform to show true Labour values,” she said.
Meanwhile, at the House of Commons last night, Reed delivered a lecture to his fellow MPs about how new Tory planning laws would give developers “the right to bulldoze and concrete over neighbourhoods almost at will while local people will be gagged from having their say”.
Reed failed to comment about the gagging of party colleagues and elected mayors. Nor did he appraise the House about planning policy in the borough he represents, where developers and the Blairites on the council have been concreting over neighbourhoods for the past seven years.
And Reed and Jones have remained completely silent on how the Labour council in the borough that they represent, which until recently was under the vice-like grip of their chums Newman and Butler, has been found to be in serious breach of social housing regulations. Which seems odd: as well as supposedly representing the people of Croydon North and Central, Jones is a former Labour spokesperson on housing, while Reed is Starmer’s shadow minister for local government.
Read more: MP Reed promoted to Labour’s front bench in Starmer reshuffle
Read more: Newman returns… to vote down motion in support of Corbyn
Read more: Big Bother in Sutton, as no-confidence vote in Evans is blocked
Read more: Croydon Labour meeting bans the use of the word ‘Blairite’
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