CROYDON IN CRISIS: With the two major parties in turmoil in Croydon, alternative candidates, seeking the ‘none of the above’ vote, are hopeful ahead of next week’s council by-election, reports WALTER CRONXITE, political editor
Having broken the borough’s political duopoly by winning council seats at the Town Hall elections last month, the Liberal Democrats and Greens will have both taken great encouragement from the results of yesterday’s two parliamentary by-elections, where the Tories lost seats in Tiverton and Honiton in Devon and in Wakefield, Yorkshire.
Croydon has its own little bit of by-election action next Thursday, in the South Croydon council ward where Jason Perry, Croydon’s part-time Mayor, used to be a councillor.
Perry has offered to pay the (unnecessary) costs of the by-election out of his very generous £81,000 mayoral salary, a gesture caused by his embarrassment at having created the vacancy after he decided to run for both Mayor and ward councillor. Perry and the Tories presumably knew the rules before the May 5 election day – you can’t be both Mayor and a councillor – so they probably shared the view that Perry wouldn’t win both…
That Perry won the Mayoralty by fewer that 600 votes suggests he was right to take out that insurance. Paying for the South Croydon by-election is like paying the insurance premium after submitting the claim.
With Labour in Croydon still in the dog house after they bankrupted the borough, the veteran LibDem, Green and independent candidates running in South Croydon might have fancied their chances of grabbing another council seat – although between them, they will probably only manage to split the “alternative” vote, thus allowing the Tory candidate to squeeze home in what has always been a true blue part of the south London suburbs.
There was a small flurry of interest when Labour and the Conservatives announced their candidates.
The Tories picked an estate agent from outside the area, Pollards Hill-based Danielle Denton, who long-standing Conservatives suggested had not even been a member of the party at the start of this year.
Meanwhile, bungling Labour officials imposed Ben Taylor on their local members, without any selection process, and then tried to pass off the Coulsdon resident as being from South Croydon on the registration forms.
Taylor – ignoring the old wisdom of when in a hole, stop digging – then tried to argue that South Croydon ward is the same as the Croydon South parliamentary constituency. Such a puerile grasp of how elections work might be enough to see many voters discount Taylor as a serious candidate.
The fact remains that Taylor’s CR5 address is not in South Croydon, but it will appear on the ballot paper as “South Croydon”, something which one of his election rivals has, rightly, described as an attempt to “con” the voters.
There have been more Croydon Labour councillors campaigning in Wakefield this past week than seen on the streets of South Croydon, where the team of candidates who ran a half-decent campaign before the May 5 polling day, possibly narked at the way in which they were discarded, have been conspicuously missing from the gormless selfies posted on social media by Taylor and his mates.
The dedicated “South Croydon Labour” Twitter account, featuring the three previously selected candidates, has been dormant since May 9, without a single tweet. In the midst of a by-election in that very ward.
Since the 2018 borough ward boundary changes, South Croydon now straddles Croydon South and Croydon Central parliamentary constituencies. The old Croham ward has effectively been shunted northwards, losing a solidly Tory-voting polling district south of Croham Hurst and getting bits of Waddon and Labour-voting Fairfield in exchange. The ward today has areas of mixed social deprivation in its western sections more typical of the neighbouring marginal Waddon ward.
Whether any of that will assist Taylor’s cause remains to be seen: on May 5, the sometime Momentum member Taylor stood, and lost, in New Addington South, polling a measly 647 votes, delivering Labour’s worst-ever result in a Croydon ward since 1965.
But Taylor’s not the only loser among the candidates.
The LibDems have plumped for John Jefkins, an amiable and long-standing official of the party who, after 20 years, last month finally saw one of his colleagues win a foothold in the Town Hall, with Claire Bonham’s success in Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood.
Sanderstead resident Jefkins goes into the final seven days ahead of the by-election thinking that if his party can overturn a 24,000 Tory majority in Tiverton, he must have a chance in South Croydon. His leaflets make the same point: “Vote to send Boris Johnson a message”.
Jefkins’ leaflets also suggest that he, as a retired architect, is better placed to read planning applicants’ architectural drawings than the already elected South Croydon ward councillor Michael Neal. Anyone who watched Tory Neal’s first planning committee meeting as its chair may be inclined to agree.
But given the growing confidence and impact made by Rick Howard during the mayoral election, it surprised some that the LibDems did not seek to capitalise by selecting the retired Army major in South Croydon.
That’s what the Greens have done, with their mayoral candidate Peter Underwood standing in the by-election, although he will need to improve somewhat on his polling from May 5, where he finished only fifth of the mayoral candidates in South Croydon.
Underwood, a community conservation worker with an office in Coombe Wood, in the ward, received 6,000 first preference votes in the mayoral election, but might have done far better if the public was more familiar with how the transferrable voting system works.
Underwood claims to have got the majority of second preference votes from people across Croydon, making him the most popular “second choice” on the ballot paper. That, though, did nothing to get him anywhere close to making it into the top two and the decisive final round of the count.
Election night was bitter-sweet for Underwood: standing for the council in Fairfield ward, he saw two party colleagues elected, the Greens’ first-ever councillors in Croydon. Yet Underwood himself missed out.
Such is the curse of having a surname starting with the 21st letter of the alphabet. Underwood lost by 33 votes to Labour’s “Thirsty” Chris Clark. It is, of course, very early days in the term, but the Green councillors have yet to be seen to make any impact at the council; having the experienced campaigner Underwood alongside them might add a bit of heft to their presence in the Town Hall Chamber and get their voices heard.
Underwood certainly believes that by finally erasing the old door-step narrative that “Greens have never been elected here”, his chances next Thursday are greatly improved.
“No party has a majority on Croydon Council,” Underwood told Inside Croydon. “The Green Party councillors hold the balance of power in the council chamber, so electing me would mean that you will have a councillor who can really make a difference.”
Croydon Mayoral Election Result May 2022 – South Croydon ward (figures in brackets: overall Croydon Mayoral vote shares)
Perry (Conservative) 1,718 36.1% (34.8%)
Shawcross (Labour) 1,362 28.6% (32.7%)
Howard (Liberal Democrat) 505 10.6% (10.4%)
Pelling (Independent) 432 9.1% (7.1%)
Underwood (Green) 325 6.8% (6.5%)
London (TTIP) 269 5.7% (6%)
Palmer (Independent) 96 2% (1.2%)
McKenzie (Independent) 51 1.1 % (1.4%)
Perry +292 to 2,010 53.8% (50.4%)
Shawcross +365 to 1,727 46.2% (49.6%)
Not transferring to top two candidates: 1,021 (21.5% of ballots received)
When compared to the rest of the borough, the May 2022 Mayoral results show a slightly greater desire among voters in South Croydon ward for “third parties”. This is where the independent candidate, Andrew Pelling, is hoping that he will be the one to make the electoral “breakthrough”.
Pelling is the hugely experienced former Conservative councillor, London Assembly Member and MP, who then served as a Labour councillor in neighbouring Waddon ward for eight years.
Pelling was forced out of the Labour group at Croydon Town Hall because of his whistle-blowing over the council’s financial mismanagement, and in May he ran as an independent in the Mayor election, his under-powered campaign finishing fourth behind the better-funded party machines. He, too, probably suffered from not converting more of his “second choice” Mayor votes into first choices.
Pelling, who does actually live in the ward, says that he outperformed in South Croydon, where some electors remember him from his time as the local MP, or as a Waddon councillor, or as a Heathfield ward councillor.
Psephologists looking at yesterday’s Wakefield result have noticed that more people moved away from voting Tory there than switched to vote for Labour. At last month’s councillor elections in South Croydon, with the Conservatives unpopular nationally and Labour unpopular locally, there was also a similar and notable move by voters wishing to support “none of the above”, with Labour’s vote share down 4.9per cent and the Tory vote share (including votes for Jason Perry) down 6.4per cent.
That’s something which Jefkins, Underwood and Pelling will hope will be to their advantage next week.
The state of the parties
How the Town Hall seats stand ahead of next Thursday’s South Croydon by-election
While there may be grumbling disaffection within the local Labour Party, not only over the imposition of their candidate but over the way the Town Hall was run between 2014 and 2022, there’s a discernable disinterest among some Conservative members over their South Croydon candidate, too.
Denton asks voters to “finish the job” by filling the vacancy which the Conservatives themselves created with… another Tory.
With council seats currently standing at 34 Labour, 32 Conservative, 2 Green and 1 LibDem, whatever next Thursday’s by-election does, electing another Tory will make little difference to a council under No Overall Control.
Denton also says that the election is “crucial”. It really isn’t.
The newly elected Mayor has already decided he is not going to work on a cross-party basis to resolve the borough’s many issues, nor even delegate any powers to his own Tory cabinet.
Were Denton to be declared as the winner next Friday, then she’s likely to spend the next four years as a backbench councillor pocketing £11,000 a year in allowances and merely doing Mayor Perry’s bidding.
Pelling’s election leaflets seem to come straight out of the Liberal Democrat playbook. Having spent much of the Mayoral campaign telling hustings audiences, “I agree with Rick”, it appears that some of Major Howard’s political practices have rubbed off.
May 2002 South Croydon council election vote share (figures in brackets change in vote share from 2018).
Conservative 40.8% (down 6.4%)
Labour 29.4% (down 4.9%)
Liberal Democrats 13.8% (up 6%)
Greens 13.4 % (up 5%)
UKIP 2.6 % (up 2.6%)
Pelling leaflets have a map pointing out where he and his Labour and Tory election rivals live, highlighting that there’s a very great distance between Norbury and Coulsdon, and South Croydon.
Pelling also emphasises his 36-year experience in Croydon politics, and he reproduces his 20-point plan for the recovery of the borough which includes devolving planning decisions to the local community, chasing money lost by Labour through the courts and reversing the cuts to the Council Tax benefit.
“Pelling’s Plan”, somewhat more detailed than most politicians’ bland promises, was first outlined on the pages of this website last December, to the obvious discomfort, and some anger, of his erstwhile Labour colleagues.
Mark Samuel is known in Croydon political circles for being a repeat candidate in local elections, but he was missing from the ballot papers in May. This time, Brighton Road resident Samuel is back, as is another South Croydon resident, Kathleen Garner, still standing for UKIP, even though she made only a very modest showing in May.
Perry’s election on May 5 was a shock, perhaps even for him and his campaign managers, as around the country, and in London in particular, the Conservatives were losing control of local authorities, notably including Westminster and Wandsworth councils. Yet if anything, thanks to Partygate, Boris Johnson’s Tories are now even more unpopular than they were six weeks ago.
Certainly, in Croydon, there’s been no groundswell of new support for Labour, either. But with three respectable candidates each seeking that “None of the above” protest vote, it could be that next Friday (the vote count is set to start at 10am on July 1), Denton will scrape through, with possibly a slight swing to Labour and a slightly higher vote for the third-party challengers.
One thing’s for certain. Even with a Croydon Council-organised count, determining the result really should not take too long. Turnout will be down.
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