CROYDON IN CRISIS: ‘We mocked the electorate by putting burning £20 notes on our election material’. What now for Croydon Labour, after a nasty and petty waste of around £20,000 in party funds on a referendum campaign they could never win? STEVEN DOWNES reports
In the cold light of day this morning, it was not long before the recriminations, bitterness and anger began to seep out among Croydon’s chattering political classes, or at least around what’s left of the local Labour Party.
For while the governance referendum delivered up a vote in favour of change to a directly elected mayor, the campaign overall, the equivalent of two bald blokes battling over a comb, utterly failed to engage the people of Croydon.
In total, 221,000 people decided that this matter was not worthy of a few minutes of their time to wander along to their neighbourhood polling station. They thought that it was too much trouble to even consider reaching an opinion in an esoteric ballot to determine whether the council is led by a politician picked by their mates that they have on the payroll, or by an election of all the borough’s voters.
And they have a point.
Those who did bother to vote were left underwhelmed by the whole experience. “One of the most depressing examples of democracy in my life,” one Labour supporter said. “Walked into an empty polling station purely to put X in a box to try to maintain an already woefully unacceptable status quo.”
When it comes down to it, none of the nonsense spouted in the past few weeks, of Trumpian levels of misinformation at times from Labour’s anti-mayor brigade, is going to have any effect on the Council Tax increase coming next April, nor is it going to pay off a penny of the council’s £1.5billion debt, nor is it likely to help reduce the £38million-worth of cuts to services that the Labour group that controls the council has been discussing secretly through September.
One Labour councillor, Jamie Audsley, looks to have been blocked from standing for the council again next May because he had the audacity, courage even, to break out of the Town Hall Groupthink that lingers on, even a year after the discredited Tony Newman resigned as leader.
But another who has also been persecuted for daring to put what the Croydon public wants ahead of narrow and short-term party interest, came out fighting this morning, freed of the shackles of a party whip that demanded total obedience to the obviously doomed anti-mayor cause.
“I have been a supporter of a mayor for Croydon for two decades but was obliged to campaign against it by Labour group discipline since June, and despite my being the proposer of the decision of Croydon South Labour to be in favour of a democratically elected mayor,” Andrew Pelling, the former Tory MP, now Labour councillor for Waddon, wrote on social media.
“Tonight’s referendum result is Labour’s chance to change and also to end the culture of banning or sacking Labour councillors (the two of us who are pro-DEM).
“The threats of revengeful action being taken against those pro-DEM after the referendum need to stop now,” Pelling wrote.
“Labour voters have been embarrassed by the Labour campaign, which ignored that party members’ first choice was a democratically elected mayor, and turnout has collapsed in Labour-held wards.
“The Labour campaign made the referendum into a confidence vote in the Labour council, started blaming others for our troubles and reversing our well-received apologies from a tolerant Croydon electorate. We mocked the electorate by putting burning £20 notes on our election material,” Pelling said.
Referring to the Labour’s smear against “fat cat mayors”, Pelling accused those in Croydon Labour who managed their campaign of coming up “with inconsistent estimates of the cost of a mayor, saying services would be cut when at the same time the council has said publicly that it is looking for £38million cuts and a further £25million later”.
“This,” Pelling said, “lacked credibility.
In an early-morning series of tweets that reads very much like a cathartic pitch to become candidate for mayor, Pelling wrote that Labour “should have embraced change and accepted a democratically-elected mayor when it was clear this was the view of Croydon people”.
He wrote,”An elected mayor will release huge opportunities for an activist-rich Labour Party to build strength across the borough. But being so anti-mayor has given us a real problem for 2022.
“The party’s position shouldn’t have been seen through the distorting prism of our selfish interests as councillors and we should have respected the wise party members who voted to support a directly-elected mayor.” Pelling also chided his group leadership for delaying the referendum, which might have been held in May, on the same day as the London elections, “when turnout was higher and costs cheaper”.
That decision to delay the referendum was in order to defer the mayoral election to May 2022, and therefore allow Hamida Ali the opportunity to see out the full term until next year.
But the reality this morning is that even members of Ali’s own cabinet agree that she has rendered herself a lame duck leader for the next seven months, or when she resigns.
Pelling wrote, “We now have the chance to rebuild the trust of Labour voters before May 2022. By being self-interested, we embarrassed many Labour voters who did not go to the polls. Many Labour voters saw the reform that a directly-elected mayor brought after our governance failure as very much worth embracing.
“But we must rebuild an electoral coalition so badly hurt by a campaign that made observations about people’s ethnicity, age and class and accused modest residents associations of being stooges for our political opponents, thus pushing them in the direction of our opponents.”
Leading figures in the Labour campaign were the borough’s two Labour MPs, Sarah Jones and, in particular, Steve Reed.
Reed, having failed to show his face for the count last night, today showed no contrition for the devasting defeat that had been delivered at his door: every ward in the borough had voted in favour of a mayor.
“We can learn from the best Labour mayors in other boroughs to make this work and avoid further centralising decision-making,” was the best Reed could offer.
For his part, Gerry Meredith-Smith, the chair of the DEMOC campaign of residents’ associations that worked through the first covid lockdown to collect 21,000 signatures on the petition that triggered the mayoral referendum, shrugged off the snide and nasty insults that had been hurled his way by Newman’s numpties, and emerged this morning with a cup of tea in hand and a smile on his face to be interviewed by local television news crews.
“Today is a historic day for our borough – because today Croydon voted for change,” Meredith-Smith told Inside Croydon.
“Next May, we will have a democratically elected mayor.
“In every ward across the borough, from Norbury in the north to Kenley in the south, voters chose to have a mayor. We won the referendum by 4 to 1, with more than 80 per cent of voters choosing to have a mayor over the existing system.
“Thank you. Thank you for having faith in Croydon’s future.”
Now all that remains for Croydon is to come up with credible, inspiring and competent candidates to stand for mayor next May. And that could yet prove to be very difficult indeed.
Read more: Reed tells nation what he won’t tell Croydon: trust the people
Read more: Town Hall leadership hatched plan to break election budget
Read more: Nothing adds up as Labour plays numbers game over mayor
Read more: Leader apologises for six years of misrule
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Who has the stamina, the integrity and the ability to lead Croydon who could take on this role and not be broken by the toxic culture in the Council?
There’s a real opportunity for someone independent to take on both political parties here, but it’s going to take some serious organisation and, dare I say, money. We effectively now have a 7 month election campaign to make a case to the people of Croydon that there is a better way.
I would like to say only with the support, guidance, feedback, consultation and evaluation from the general public woven into the decision making structure, will ensure that who ever gets the post will be alright! Communication is key to CommUNITY.
What about Steven Downes? As an independent. Far better to have someone with such an insight to the workings of croydon council which has already suffered so much through Lab/Con’s depressing incompetence than the #SameOldShit.
You probably need to go and have a lie down in a dark room, Paul, after that rush of blood to the head. Thank you. Very flattering, but I am a journalist and, thank goodness, not a politician.