To win the next General Election, Labour needs to gain 124 seats. And Number 122 on the list of Labour target seats is Tory Chris Philp’s Croydon South constituency. Our sarf of the borough correspondent, PEARL LEE, looks at the seemingly impossible task facing the opposition leader and his Croydon campaign guru
There is a growing sense of existential struggle about the Labour Party’s annual conference being staged in Brighton at the end of this month.
Keir Starmer is supposed to want to “relaunch” his leadership at conference, yet last week, the latest controversy to surround him and General Secretary David Evans, was over whether they would, or would not, grant an entry ticket to conference to Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has had the party whip withdrawn in the House of Commons.
“Not even Macbeth tried to ban Banquo from the feast,” one former Labour MP noted.
The scale of the task confronting Starmer and the supposed campaign expert Evans, though, is huge, and it is growing. And the size of that task is nowhere more apparent than here in Croydon.
You can imagine the kind of conversation that they might have on their rail journey to the south coast, with Evans, the former Croydon councillor and founder of locally based consultancy The Campaign Company, perhaps joining Starmer’s train when it stops at East Croydon
Soon after the train pulls out heading south, they will be whizzing towards Purley, and on towards the South Downs.
Looking out of the window, Evans might see the South Croydon recreation ground that offers a rail passenger’s landmark of where their journey takes them from the deep red of Labour-held London constituencies, and into the true blue of Conservative Croydon.
Evans knows that his job, if his party is to win a majority in Parliament under Starmer, is to gain 124 seats.
Croydon South is No122 on that list of Labour target seats. In 2019, Tory Chris Philp retained Croydon South at the General Election with a seemingly impregnable majority of 12,339 votes.
Thus a seat which Labour has never won is now a must-win seat for Labour.
Croydon South needs a 10.39 per cent swing to unseat Philp. Labour would need to be winning in places like Purley and Coulsdon to take the seat (the Croydon South seat that was won by Labour in 1945 and in 1966 is the equivalent seat to what is today’s marginal Croydon Central seat, currently held by Labour’s Sarah Jones).
And Evans, who in 2014 helped win Croydon Town Hall for Tony Newman and Alison Butler, his former lover, will know only too well that Labour won’t win Croydon South in a month of Sundays. And that’s even before the parliamentary boundary changes will see Labour-voting Waddon being moved mostly into the already Labour stronghold of Croydon North.
A look at recent General Election results will make for depressing reading for Starmer, however well any “relaunch” might go.
In 2015, Emily Benn, the granddaughter of Corbyn’s great political hero, Tony Benn, offered voters twee concerts with a string quartet when she was the Labour candidate in Croydon South for that year’s General Election. When the votes were counted, the Hon Emily (her father has taken the hereditary title her grandfather so despised) trailed Philp by just short of 30 per cent.
In 2019, Labour chose the earnest and hard-working women’s and parents’ rights campaigner Olga Fitzroy as its Croydon South candidate, and the party locally actually spent some campaign funding for leaflets across the whole constituency (a rarity in the usually disregarded, unwinnable Tory seat).
When the votes were counted, Fitzroy still trailed in 20.8 per cent behind Philp, as results in London that night were a good deal better than elsewhere in the country where the Tories stormed the “Red Wall” in the north and Midlands.
The really galling thing is for Labour in Croydon South, the party’s best result ever came with an imposed candidate in 2017.
Blairite Lambeth councillor Jennifer Brathwaite hardly bothered to visit the constituency, and never even learned how to spell “Coulsdon” correctly in her (rare) social media campaign utterances. The Brathwaite experience just emphasises that it is the national, not the local, campaigns that matter in General Elections.
But all that was before Labour at Croydon Town Hall trashed the party’s reputation in the borough. May 2021’s London Assembly election results offered just an indicator of quite how bad things could be for a while yet for Labour in Croydon.
In May, only one of the wards in Croydon South voted for Labour’s Patsy Cummings, namely Waddon where, after postal votes, Labour were ahead by about 250 votes. This was down from the 420 majority Labour had in that ward in the 2018 local elections.
In the nearby South Croydon council ward, Labour were about 375 votes behind the Tories in May.
The local Labour party, still dominated by figures who spent years supporting Newman and his clique at the Town Hall, has somewhat oddly decided that South Croydon should be a target ward for next May’s Town Hall elections.
Reality suggests that in 2022 Labour will need to be defending seats, rather than trying to gain a ward.
Labour were buried in New Addington South in the Assembly election in May, losing by more than 400 votes in the smaller of the area’s two wards. In the council by-election held at the same time in the neighbouring New Addington North, there was a 15.75 per cent swing away from Labour.
Vote swings to the Tories of that extent, if repeated in May 2022, could see Labour lose 15 of their 41 council seats.
Nor was New Addington North unusual in its swings that day, with the South Norwood council by-election seeing a 14.8 per cent swing away from Labour and Woodside – where the vacancy created by Newman’s forced resignation, saw a 11.3 per cent adverse swing.
These figures reflect the huge disillusion among the Croydon public with Labour crashing the council’s finances. It is not helped by having a leadership that remains closely associated with the previous Newman-led council.
The situation with the council is so bad that it has allowed the Conservatives, usually the party of cuts and closures, to start a leafleting campaign with one slogan: “Croydon Labour is cutting everything… except the grass!”
The Tory leaflets are excoriating in their references to Brick by Brick, the council’s hotel purchase, the £70million Fairfield Halls fiasco and other failures.
These are unhappy times for Labour supporters and members, with the party locally indulging in the Stalinist culture it harboured under Newman, blocking one councillor from seeking reselection because of his support for a directly elected mayor and ruling out a former official for backing a campaign to save his local library, something described as “anti-council”.
What’s left of the Town Hall leadership’s credibility will be on the line on October 7, with the referendum for a directly elected mayor. Local party members voted narrowly to support a change in the council’s governance system, but were ignored by Hamida Ali and Stuart King, the former Newman cabinet members and not-so-new council leader and deputy leader.
As if trying to demonstrate how Ali and King really struggle to break free of the old regime, when it comes to debating the mayoral referendum in Coulsdon tomorrow night, they are allowing Stuart Collins to argue the case against changing the system from that which managed to bankrupt the council. Collins, of course, was Newman’s loyal deputy leader right from 2014 until the regime collapsed 12 months ago, happily benefiting from £45,000 in allowances under the patronage system.
Not for the first time, Croydon Labour’s stubbornness has seen them dig themselves into a politically unsustainable hole.
For the next few weeks, they will be on the doorsteps telling voters what a bad idea a directly elected mayor will be. Then in all likelihood – remember, the referendum is happening because residents’ associations in the borough gathered more than 20,000 petition signatures – with the referendum voting for change, from October 8, Labour will be asking those very same voters to back whoever they “select” as their candidate as mayor. Such a U-turn might only be credible if, after being defeated at the referendum, Ali, King and the current leadership felt obliged to resign.
But that’s about as likely to happen, insiders suggest, as Keir Starmer and David Evans, after “relaunching” their leadership in Brighton, managing to secure a victory in Croydon South at the next General Election.
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