CROYDON COMMENTARY: If the lies don’t get you angry, the cant and hypocrisy surely will. STEVEN DOWNES, Editor of Inside Croydon, on the barrel-scraping going on over next month’s mayoral referendum
At a time when Michael Gove is put in charge of communities, when Liz Truss, who boasts that “I’m no diplomat”, is handed the Foreign Office and Nadine Dorries… yes Nadine Dorries, is given culture, as the country is run by a nine-bob buffoon, you might think that politics in this country could stoop no lower.
But here in Croydon, where there’s a proud tradition of barrel bottom-scraping, it’s my sad duty to report that they have trumped even the worst that the Tories at Westminster can come up with.
The tired old joke “How do you know if a politician is lying? Their lips move” was given fresh currency this week when Steve Reed OBE, the Progress MP for Lambeth South/Croydon North (delete to taste), appeared in a video on social media.
Reed, by now an experienced member of Labour leader Keir Starmer’s front bench team in parliament, spoke in the video for little more than two minutes.
In that brief time, he told 10 lies.
That’s going some, even by Johnsonian standards.
Reed was speaking about the borough-wide referendum to be held on October 7 over the less-than-burning issue of whether Croydon’s cash-strapped council should continue to be run under the “strong leader” system that helped to bankrupt the borough, or whether it should change to a directly elected mayor.
Reed, you see, is against change. He appears to believe that after the Regina Road council housing scandal, Brick by Brick’s multi-million-pound disaster, the Fairfield Halls “fiasco” (© The Stage 2021) and the borough’s £1.5billion mountain of debt, it is a credible position to tell his constituents that the council should carry on as before.
In delivering his 130-second address to the borough, Reed spoke for longer on the mayoral issue than he has at any point in the previous 12 months over the financial collapse and emergency bail-out for Croydon’s Labour-run council.
Reed said more about protecting the discredited status quo at the Town Hall than he has ever said about the conduct of his old mate, Tony Newman, the council leader who presided over the multi-million-pound mismanagement of the council’s budgets.
Which might seem a little odd, since Reed just happens to be the Labour Party’s parliamentary spokesperson on local government.
The majority of Croydon’s 41 councillors, many of whom were directly responsible for the council’s collapse, decided over the summer that they would ignore the residents and ignore their own party members and spend tens of thousands of pounds campaigning against a change in the way the Town Hall is governed.
And Reed has put his weight behind them.
It’s a bizarre, illogical decision, one surely destined for political self-destruction. But it’s not as if many of those who spent years working cheek by jowls with Newman have much of a reputation for good judgement to squander.
What has resulted is a Labour campaign so riddled with cant and hypocrisy that one community group in Reed’s own constituency have described it today as “mendacious rubbish”. Whoever decided that it was a good idea to stick a picture of a burning 20-quid note on a leaflet, from the borough which has frittered away hundreds of millions of pounds, really ought never to be allowed access to the corporate crayon set ever again.
The Labour campaign sees Reed and the party of the people ignoring the people, or at least the 21,000 Croydon residents who put their names to the petition which was successful in triggering next month’s referendum seeking to change the current system of patronage.
From the moment Reed opens his mouth in his video, he seeks to deceive and dissemble.
“The Conservatives have forced a referendum,” Reed says. Which is untrue. The referendum was forced by a petition which was run by about a dozen residents’ associations and which was supported by the Croydon South Constituency Labour Party.
Together with Newman’s numpties – many of whom were on council-funded allowances of £40,000 per year – Reed has decided that a catchy hashtag in the campaign would be #MillionPoundMayor.
“Setting up a Mayoral office would cost well over a £1million,” Reed claims, falsely. It’s an echo of the scaremongering used by Newman and his henchman, Simon Hall, when they tried to rule out having a referendum on grounds of cost.
Hall, the council’s cabinet member for finance until last October, said that such a process would cost £1million, which was also untrue. But it’s a nice round figure to scare people with when you have been personally responsible for throwing £200million at Brick by Brick and paying over the odds for a loss-making suburban hotel.
In reality, the existing elected mayors in London boroughs are paid less than £82,000 per year each. There are four of them, all of them Labour, and all of them apparently “fat cats”, if Croydon Labour’s leaflets are to be believed.
Newman, until he got caught out, was on more than £56,000 per year and had a dedicated leader’s office staffed by two council officials. If the system is changed, the role of “leader” would be abolished (together with those allowances) and the new mayor would take over the already established leader’s office.
The deflection of blame for the plight the Labour council got itself into is a key part of the dissembling. According to Reed, the borough’s bankruptcy is nothing to do with Newman and his numpties, who took charge of the Town Hall in May 2014.
Reed trots out the cuts in government funding (he claims by 76 per cent since 2010, a figure which is disputed). This also overlooks a key point. There are more than 200 local authorities in England, all of them having to deal with Tory austerity cuts and covid.
Yet it was only Croydon last year that had to declare itself effectively bankrupt, and needed a record-breaking £120million bail-out from government.
According to Reed, a mayor’s power is “too centralised”. Much the same as a “strong leader”, really.
He claims that Labour under the “strong leader” system will give “a bigger say to the community”. This after seven years of a Labour council with a “strong leader”. If Reed tried to make that claim in public, residents, his constituents, would laugh in his face.
And he even tries to say, “You can’t get rid of failing mayor but you can get rid of a failing leader”. Which is clearly poppycock.
Tony Newman was leader of the Labour group on Croydon Council for 15 years. He was “re-elected” by fewer than 41 councillors every year. He was even re-elected by Croydon’s craven Labour councillors in May 2020, when the council’s finances were already heading at full-speed towards the rocks.
Every one of those councillors who supported Newman as leader will have benefited from his patronage, all paid for out of Council Tax. These include the likes of former deputy leader Stuart Collins, one of the Labour councillors spearheading the opposition to the mayoral campaign.
From 2014, Collins was a key member of Newman’s cabinet, all 10 of them on similar levels of allowances. In six years, Collins alone will have pocketed more than £300,000.
It takes plenty of (other people’s) money to buy silence these days.
And on and on the Reed video goes, with a series of half-truths and deceptions, until he returns to the million-pound mayor theme, saying that such money should really be spent on the council’s public services. Which would be a terrific position to take had Reed’s mates on the council not managed to waste so many millions already, as a result costing hundreds of council staff, many of them front-line workers and union members, their jobs.
Next year’s council budget, being drawn up now by Newman’s successor, Hamid Ali, under the careful and close supervision of government-appointed inspectors, is expected to require another £30million-worth of cuts. Or more.
There will be benefit cuts for the most vulnerable, further cuts to services, and council facilities will be shut permanently.
Reed makes no mention of these consequences of the “strong leader” system he appears to support so unwaveringly.
Now, ever since the strong leader versus elected mayor contest was rolled out, I have remained utterly unconvinced that the alternative was that much of a change, nor the radical change that Croydon needs. It’s why this website has always regarded the case for the elected mayor as simply #ABitLessShit.
That view has not altered.
DEMOC’s own claims have avoided mentioning the mayor’s likely salary, and they have exaggerated the mayor’s influence to halt the over-development of the borough, as if a mayor will somehow manage to intervene and overrule decades of planning legislation.
The DEMOC campaign leaflets that dropped through letterboxes around the borough over the summer, while not as blatantly false as Labour’s, were profoundly underwhelming. One local Conservative who had not been won over by the DEMOC arguments scored the DEMOC offer at a miserly 2.5/10.
It was hard to dispute that assessment. #ABitLessShit.
Yes, it’s a bit glass-half-full, a bit Eeyore-ish, perhaps.
But it reflects the views of many Croydon electors, fed up with dirty streets, missed bin collections and reduced services, for whom discussion over how the Town Hall is run is right up there with the burning issues of the day along with how many angels can stand atop a pin head.
It is also a major missed opportunity, since once Croydon’s referendum is held, the law says there can’t be another attempt to shift the council’s governance system until 2031 at the earliest. Labour members had recommended, in 2018, that the council should return to something like the old committee system. But “strong leader” Newman and his numpties kiboshed that. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why.
There were promises made a year ago by “Apologetic” Ali and her not-quite-new cabinet, in the aftermath of the council’s collapse, that committees would be introduced. But nothing has been done about it since.
The one, fundamental and important difference between the systems on offer is that the mayor would need to be elected by a majority of Croydon’s voters. It could have taken as few as 21 self-interested councillor votes for Tony Newman to be elected as Labour’s “strong leader”.
If Inside Croydon’s unscientific online polling is anything to go by, then 84 per cent of the Croydon electorate will be voting for change next month, despite Steve Reed’s bit of video ga-ga.
Some of that public rejection of the Labour position is undoubtedly a reaction to the bare-faced arrogance some councillors have adopted, the unashamed refusal to acknowledge that the borough is in a hole entirely of their own making. It may also be a repudiation of some Labour campaigning, by senior councillors, that has been both nasty and bitter about the DEMOC supporters.
There’s even a chance that Reed, safely ensconced in an uber-safe Labour parliamentary seat, realises that there’s a backlash coming.
Croydon Labour has drafted in a social media specialist to assist with their anti-change campaign. Despite such expertise, Reed’s video has, oddly, not been posted on to the MP’s own Twitter feed, where it might reach his 34,000 followers.
Instead, by earlier today, Reed’s anti-change, everything’s hunky-dory video remained hidden in a corner of the interweb, where it had been viewed just 51 times. And I accounted for at least four of those clicks (my transcribing skills are not what they once were).
Given the video’s unreliable content, it might be best if it stays that way.
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