CROYDON IN CRISIS: Some of the borough’s politicians have again placed their own self-interests ahead of the public and come up with another dodgy decision, writes WALTER CRONXITE, political editor
Not content with having crashed the council’s finances, the Labour group of councillors now seems intent on a piece of political self-harm on an epic scale.
Labour councillors are to lobby party members in Croydon to get them to back the “strong leader” governance model which got the borough in this mess in the first place.
Croydon is to hold a governance referendum in October, offering the borough’s voters a choice between the current system of running the Town Hall, or replacing it with a directly-elected mayor. Despite their financial crisis and other shortcomings, such as the children’s services failure and the scandal of slum-like council homes, in the latest extraordinary display of poor judgement, most of Labour’s craven councillors want to campaign for “more of the same”.
And they have chosen one of the main beneficiaries of the discredited regime of Tony Newman to try to indoctrinate Croydon Labour supporters to oppose change.
Under “wrong leader” Newman, Croydon lurched into bankruptcy last year, unable to balance its budget and with debts of £1.5billion, dragged down by the incompetence and out-of-control house-builders Brick by Brick. Newman and one of his closest aides, Simon Hall, were forced to resign their council positions and were then suspended by the Labour Party.
Wrong leader Newman was handed his position – and his £56,656 a year sinecure – by just 40 councillor colleagues in behind-closed-doors Town Hall meetings. By the use of patronage – allocating thousands of pounds in allowances to his favourites – Newman bought loyalty and retained his position of power in the local party for 15 years.
Newman was found to have abused his position as leader to authorise £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.
Indeed, according to a government-commissioned report, Croydon Council was dominated by “…an inner circle of a small number of cabinet members who have been very controlling in their management of the council and its finances”.
Auditors Grant Thornton’s Report In The Public Interest also criticised the feeble scrutiny of the council’s leadership. The scrutiny chair remains Addiscombe councillor Sean Fitzsimons, who had his publicly-funded allowances generously doubled by Newman to £41,798 per year.
It is Fitzsimons who has been hand-picked to lecture Labour’s 3,500 party members about the merits of the preferred “wrong leader” model for running the council. Just as Newman was an implacable opponent of a directly-elected mayor, so has been Fitzsimons.
“We’re less than a year from the local elections, and Labour councillors are now saying that they would prefer to keep the gift of who runs the council in their own control,” a Katharine Street source said today. “It is a terrible message to give the public.”
In a document sent to local party members yesterday, it was made clear that the final say on the party’s position on the mayoral referendum will be made by the borough’s 41 Labour councillors, and not by the membership.
“How much more anti-democratic can you show yourself to be, by consulting the membership and then denying them any say?” one Labour member said today.
“Regardless of the merits of the two systems on offer in the referendum, this is just really terrible politics by a Labour group that just a few months ago was accused of being ‘very controlling’. Clearly, old habits die hard.”
Croydon Labour is struggling to shake off the reputational damage caused by Newman and his closest allies. Husband and wife duo Alison Butler and Paul Scott still collect their allowances as councillors, while other Newman supporters, such as “Thirsty” Clive Fraser and Fitzsimons, continue to be granted a say in the running of the council and the Labour group.
The anti-democratic influence of Newman’s opposition to a directly-elected mayor remains profound, too.
The Croydon Labour for Mayor Campaign had its launch event earlier this month deliberately sabotaged when two of London’s existing elected borough mayors were pressured to pull out of even discussing the proposition. Phil Glanville (Hackney) and Damien Egan (Lewisham) said they were “leant on” by Croydon’s Labour MPs, Steve Reed OBE and Sarah Jones, as well as Keir Starmer’s office.
The reach of the Croydon Labour for Mayor Campaign is limited. Their Twitter account, with the unhelpfully vague handle of @4Croydon, has attracted a mere 99 followers in a year.
Only two Labour councillors have been openly supportive of a directly-elected mayor – the communitarian Jamie Audsley and the former Tory MP, Andrew Pelling.
One of the borough’s three constituency Labour parties, Croydon South, has backed the campaign for a directly-elected mayor from the start, the members there twice voting for change.
Yesterday’s Croydon Labour email – resplendent with the suitably ridiculous and meaningless slogan “Keeping Croydon Safe” (safe from what? Tony Newman? Niro Sirisena? Some other, unspecified bogeyman?) – says that councillors have been given only temporary release from the party whip to express their views over the referendum. Pelling was actually sacked once before by Newman and Fraser for speaking in favour of the mayoral system.
Biased Fitzsimons’ “death by PowerPoint” presentation to party members, ahead of a remote meeting arranged for next Saturday, only further serves to convince Audsley and his “Revive” group of potential council candidates that their party’s process is an unfair one.
Fitzsimon’s error-strewn and self-serving document claims that Labour councillors have moved on from the Newman era and tries to suggest that the councillors have mended their ways. He also holds out a vague hope that at some point in the future a sort of committee system might be reintroduced at the Town Hall.
Disingenuosly, Fitzsimons fails to admit that, three years ago when a group of Croydon Labour members on the Local Campaign Forum recommended a return to the committee system at the council, he together with Newman and the rest of his cabal firmly rejected it.
Fitzsimons says that the anti-democratic wrong leader system “has been the foundation of local government since Victorian times”. It’s a curious basis for opposing change: women were denied a vote in Victorian times and young children were sent up chimneys and down the pit, too, but no one is arguing that they are things worth preserving in the 21st Century.
The members’ online vote over the democratically-elected mayor finishes on June 20, after which Fitzsimons and others who profited so handsomely from their loyalty to Newman are expected to continue trying to preserve the anti-democratic status quo.
Croydon Labour members include two political strategists of national reputation, from different wings of the party, and both are understood to think that the party’s councillors are about to make a monumental political error which will hand control of the Town Hall to the Tories for years to come.
Andy Bagnall is a former councillor, who now works as director general of the Rail Delivery Group. In the past, he worked on campaigns for the CBI and was head of party networks on David Miliband’s leadership bid in 2010. The former chair of Croydon South CLP has been involved in the DEMOC campaign from its very beginnings, helping it to collect 21,000 petition signatures despite the pandemic lockdown.
Andrew Fisher was Jeremy Corbyn’s chief policy adviser when he was Labour leader, and today a source close to the South Norwood resident said, “He takes the view that if the mayoral system is going to win, then the local party needs to get behind it and work for to ensure there’s a Labour mayor.”
Another Labour member said, “Many like myself will get on board with the democratically elected mayor even if we have misgivings. That’s the best way, the only way, to have a Labour candidate primed to run for mayor and win.
“Instead, they want to back the loser in a two-horse race.
“What we have is a bit of a farce. Labour isn’t going to be able to get an agreed line.
“DEMOC looks unstoppable.”
Put another way, instead of what Inside Croydon has characterised as the mayoral system with a slogan #ABitLessShit, Fitzsimons, Fraser and many of the borough’s Labour councillors look like producing a hashtag of their own: #MoreOfTheSameOldShit.
Read more: Newman returns… to vote down motion in support of Corbyn
Read more: Council forced to declare itself bankrupt
Read more: Officials to investigate possible wrong-doing at council
Read more: Croydon Labour meeting bans the use of the word ‘Blairite’
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