Democracy was kept waiting while council officials struggled with their abacuses. By our sleep-deprived political editor, WALTER CRONXITE
Jason Perry has been declared the first elected Mayor of Croydon, after a borough-wide vote sent a message to the local Labour Party, which had bankrupted the council, that plausible deniability as a campaign strategy was not enough to win back public trust and keep control of the Town Hall.
But the result was a very long time coming, with a recount ordered by the Returning Officer and the final declaration not being announced until just before 5am on Saturday – 31 hours after the polls had closed on Thursday night.
Conservative Perry was declared as having 38,612 votes, while Labour’s Val Shawcross had 38,023.
It was a close-run thing, with 2,000 votes separating Perry and Shawcross after the first-preference votes had been slowly tallied and verified.
Once second preference votes were added to the two leading candidates’ votes, that gap had closed to 550. With Shawcross on the verge of conceding defeat, the recount was called.
It was 3.30am when Returning Officer Katherine Kerswell, rather than either of the contesting parties, ordered the recount. “This is such an important vote for Croydon and the margins are very slim for me to be asking this, so I need to be absolutely sure they are correct,” Kerswell told the school sports hall where the count was being held.
For Shawcross, this was all a case of history repeating itself.
It was 10 years ago that she was narrowly denied her lifetime’s political ambition, of becoming the MP for her home constituency, when beaten by just three votes in a Labour selection battle in Croydon North. Then, Shawcross was denied on second preference votes by Steve Reed.
After coming out of retirement from public life to try to “save” Croydon – largely from the mess created by her own party and colleagues – Shawcross found herself pipped by a slender margin once again.
Perry’s election means that there is already potential for a costly by-election in South Croydon ward, where he was also running as a candidate to be councillor. You cannot be both a Mayor and a councillor.
And Perry’s victory also presents the strong possibility that the Conservative Mayor will be presiding over a council where the majority of councillors are from a different political party – Labour.
Labour had gone into the elections with 40 councillors to the Tories’ 29, and Boris Johnson and Partygate probably put paid to any real chance the Croydon Conservatives had of winning more than the six extra Town Hall seats needed to form a majority group. Perry’s status in South Croydon and the results in the other 27 wards will have to wait now until Sunday, in a much-delayed election count.
When Perry takes office, it will not be an easy task for the new Mayor.
He will inherit a council with, as he was fond of detailing to the campaign hustings, a £1.6billion debt mountain, huge problems still to fix over Brick by Brick and the Fairfield Halls, and with the authority’s public services already cut to the bone, while all his work will be closely supervised by government-appointed inspectors.
The long-delayed declaration established another unwanted record for Croydon and added further scorn to the cash-strapped council’s already tattered reputation.
Tallying the Mayor votes took so long that the count for the borough’s 70 ward councillors has been postponed, and now will not start until 6pm on Saturday – probably a consequence of hiring a sports hall at a £20,000 per pupil per year private school where there’s a busy weekend of sport planned.
Croydon’s result was so late that BBC News’s coverage of the 2022 local elections had gone off-air hours earlier. Nothing like missing a deadline.
Derision from an impatient public was barbed: “Have they contracted Brick by Brick to conduct the count?” one sharp Inside Croydon reader asked.
Another said, “I’m surprised people are so surprised with the poor and slow counting in Croydon. It was an inability to count that got the council into this mess in the first place.”
Remember, the council had predicted that the Mayor vote would all be sorted by 10pm on Friday, allowing the ward election count to be conducted overnight.
Yet by 11pm on Friday, Kerswell was announcing that they might be able to get round to announcing the outcome of the Mayor election’s first-preference votes. In another half an hour.
A source at the count suggested that the race between the top two was, in electioneering jargon, “too close to call”. Someone else suggested that Perry was 2,000 votes ahead on first preferences.
11.30pm came and went, and still no word from count officials…
It was 30 minutes past midnight, and still nada.
Just before 1am, Kerswell had just held another private meeting with the eight mayoral candidates and their agents. Finally, the officials had managed to do their sums.
“No candidate has reached 50per cent after the first preference result.
“Jason Perry (CON) has 33,413 votes and Val Shawcross (LAB) has 31,352 votes. Second preferences votes for these top two candidates will now be counted to determine the outcome of the election.”
Anyone hoping that it would all be sorted soon will have been sadly disappointed when they read the next sentence: “Counting of the second preferences will commence shortly.”
The full tally of first-preference votes was interesting, first because it demonstrated a decent level of support for Richard Howard, the LibDems’ candidate, and second because it showed that more than a thousand people in Croydon still take Winston McKenzie seriously. Oh dear…
First preference votes:
Jason Perry (CON) – 33,413
Val Shawcross (LAB) – 31,352
Richard Howard (LIBDEM) – 9,967
Andrew Pelling – 6,807
Peter Underwood (GREEN) – 6,193
Farah London (TTIP) – 5,768
Winston McKenzie – 1,324
Gavin Palmer – 1,114
The candidates from Croydon’s political duopoly, one from a party that campaigned to have a directly-elected Mayor, the other from a party that campaigned stubbornly against, had between them accumulated two-thirds of the available votes. Neither had the borough-wide mandate that is required with this office. So the tellers returned to their desks.
Trailing behind Shawcross’s block vote were more than 20,000 others who had supported either the LibDems, Greens or independent candidate Andrew Pelling.
It would be the destination of their supporters’ second choice votes which would swing this election.
In common with other local authorities around the country, Croydon’s polling stations had closed at 10pm on Thursday. But while most other London councils had managed to declare their election results early on Friday morning, for Croydon it was 5.30pm before the tellers in the sports hall at Trinity School would even begin to deploy their pocket calculators and foldaway abacuses.
The school hall that Kerswell had booked was needed for A level examinations on Friday. Democracy in Croydon would have to wait.
Kerswell, the council’s chief executive, had also decided that before any of the counts of the votes from the borough’s 28 wards could begin, the mayoral contest would need to be decided first.
And so the long wait began.
By 9.15pm – nearly four hours since they’d started the count – it was clear that no candidate had done enough to win the mayoralty on first preference votes alone. The second preferences of the five also-rans and Winston McKenzie would have to come in to play, where their voters had decided that Shawcross or Perry was their second choice.
The expected count finish time of 10pm came and went, and there was still no news, no announcement even of the first preference tallies.
The council’s media “professionals”, who are usually employed to pump out propaganda to make the borough’s third-rate politicians look good, had been put on public information duties for the evening.
“Hello and welcome to our live blog covering the first Croydon Mayor and local election results 2022.
“This is a historic night for Croydon, and we will be bringing you the results for the mayoral election followed by each council ward as they come in,” they posted at 6pm.
It turned out to be a less-than-lively blog. Nothing else was posted by the council’s top media team for almost five hours.
Even when the figures for turnout for the Mayoral election were made available, the council’s dynamic media team decided that this was not anything worth adding immediately to their “live” blog. The Monty Python parrot had more life in it that the council’s media team.
For the record, in a borough with a population of more than 300,000, just 97,457 bothered casting their vote for the Croydon Mayor – a less-than-impressive turn-out of just 35per cent.
This was hardly the seismic change in voter engagement that the people behind DEMOC, who campaigned for a shift to the mayoral system, had hoped for. The unappetising choice between the party of Boris Johnson or the party of borough bankruptcy had clearly made thousands of Croydon voters decide not to even bother.
With a low turnout, the Tories in the counting hall seemed to have a spring in their steps. Low turn-outs tend to favour the Conservatives, as their supporters ensure that they actually use their votes.
The outcome in Croydon, after Shawcross had been supported in her campaign by high-profile figures such as Keith Starmer, general secretary David Evans, and assorted others from Labour’s Westminster front bench, will have done little to revive the spirits of the Leader of the Opposition after what turned out to be a less-than-inspiring performance in the polls nationally.
Despite the country being in the midst of soaring inflation, with a proven liar and cheat in No10, and with the Tory government mired in sleaze, porn and corruption scandals, it started to emerge during the course of the day that nationally, the 2022 local election results were barely any better for Labour than 2018’s.
Town Halls in the “Red Wall”, the Labour heartlands in the Midlands and the North which had crumbled in the 2019 Brexit General Election, were not being won back.
After Labour’s overnight successes in Westminster and Wandsworth, things began to sour when the news came in the afternoon that Labour had lost Harrow.
Then the mayoral result came through from Tower Hamlets where Lutfur Rahman, the man banned from standing for election for five years, had returned to office, at the expense of the Labour Mayor there.
Partygate was now being lined up alongside Beergate.
As the Croydon Mayor count dragged on and on, the capacity of the council workers to be able to conduct their important task properly must have started to become a consideration. But then, so too would the requirements of Trinity School, doubtless with a busy Saturday schedule of sports planned for their fee-paying pupils.
Around 2.30am, the latest musing from Kerswell’s council was posted on the council Twitter feed: “At the request of candidates and agents,” it said, more than a tad disingenuously, “we’ve been asked to start the count for the local elections at 6pm today and continue on Sunday at 1pm. Thanks to our host for accommodating us and our hard-working count staff.”
In an announcement to the main sports hall, Kerswell admitted that the space would not be available for the count on Saturday.
A count that won’t be completed until at least three days after the votes were cast is some sort of metaphor for the state of Croydon’s rotten borough.
And Croydon’s first elected Mayor? Jason Perry will be in office on Monday confronting a series of issues left in the in-tray by the discredited and distrusted previous Labour administration.
There may not be any ready answers to the long list of problems. Not least will be the conundrum of how, after £34million has been cut from the Town Hall budget this year, to find another £30million-worth of cuts in 2023-2024.
“It’s a poisoned chalice,” one party activist said. “Given the state of the council’s finances, and the control wielded over the council by Whitehall, history might prove this to have been a good election to lose.”
- For the official list of council election candidates, by ward, click here
- For our report on the eight candidates for Croydon Mayor, click here
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