CROYDON IN CRISIS: The council cannot be trusted to run elections in the borough, according to senior political officials.
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
An experienced election agent for the Labour Party has effectively declared that he has no confidence in Katherine Kerswell, the council’s chief executive acting as the borough’s Returning Officer at forthcoming elections.
Others closely involved with the local and mayoral elections in May 2022 have alleged that thousands of votes were left uncounted.
And a former MP for the borough says that there were “dodgy dealings” at the start of the count at Trinity School on the night of the elections, when he and other officials and scrutineers were locked out of the school hall where the count was due to take place.
Kerswell became Croydon’s CEO soon after Jo Negrini quit the council in August 2020. Last May’s mayoral and local elections, where Tory Jason Perry became Croydon’s first elected Mayor, though only by a majority of fewer than 600 votes, were the first borough-wide elections that Kerswell had overseen as Returning Officer.
The count drew further notoriety Croydon’s way as Kerswell was heavily criticised when results for the election held on Thursday May 5 were not declared until Sunday May 8.
This week, Kerswell published a review of the events leading up to and including the 2022 election count. Kerswell commissioned the review and drew up its terms of reference. The review found that the election results were accurate, but that the criticism of the way those results were arrived at was “justified”.
The review said that “allegations cited poor leadership, inadequate delegation, slow decision-making, resources not utilised correctly and inadequate communication in the venue.
“The criticism is in our view, to a limited extent, justified with those attending the venues subject to delays getting into the venue, long periods of inactivity in the halls and the mayoral count result extending beyond the predicted 10pm.”
Now John Wentworth, one of Croydon Labour’s most senior figures, a former councillor and in the past agent to MP Steve Reed OBE, has commented on the review and the conduct of the election. He has called for the Electoral Commission to intervene.
“The count was a complete shambles from start to finish,” Wentworth said.
“Croydon Electoral Services is not fit for purpose and hasn’t been for years. Previous election counts have been notoriously and unnecessarily slow, but council officials when challenged on this just shrug their shoulders.”
With bankrupt Croydon Council already having all major decisions overseen by an improvement panel imposed by Whitehall, Wentworth thinks it is time for intervention over the council’s democratic functions, too.
“As no senior officer seems in the slightest bit interested in fixing this long-running issue, the Electoral Commission should step in and remove the function of Electoral Services from the Croydon Council,” Wentworth said.
Such intervention could be key come the next General Election, when boundary changes will mean cross-borough parliamentary constituencies, potentially making an already complicated process even trickier.
Peter Underwood, the Green Party candidate who was fifth in the first-round of votes for Croydon Mayor, has confirmed to Inside Croydon that all decisions on recounts for the mayoral election – a major cause of the delays on that count – were taken by Kerswell, “and Kerswell alone”.
He also maintains that to save some time and her exhausted staff some work, none of the second preference votes cast by those who voted for Perry or Val Shawcross, Labour’s mayoral candidate, were ever counted.
David White is a veteran of Croydon politics, a former elected member of the GLC who has attended dozens of election nights over the past 50 years. He described the review of the 2022 local elections as “a poorly written whitewash”.
White told Inside Croydon, “Croydon was the laughing stock of the whole country, being the last local authority to declare its election results. The report’s conclusions centre on the fact that at the end of the day (or four days) no votes appear to have been miscounted. But that was not the main issue.
“The issue was the shambolic conduct of the counts, causing considerable inconvenience to candidates, observers, counting staff and others.
“The simple fact that there was no contract with the school, and that the council’s CEO/Returning Officer did not know that, is damning.
“As a result of that, there were conflicting engagements at the school which meant either that it couldn’t be used for long periods or that members of the public were coming in and having access to counting areas.
“Ms Kerswell was receiving a handsome fee as Returning Officer. The fact she hadn’t checked what legal basis the council had for occupying parts of the school for the counts is a serious error which alone should result in her resignation.”
Andrew Pelling, the former MP for Croydon Central, stood for mayor as an independent last year, and says he was shocked that he and other officials and observers were kept out of the count for a crucial 20 to 30 minutes when the first ballot boxes were being opened on the Thursday night.
“Something dodgy was happening in the first 20 minutes, when I and all the other observers were kept out,” Pelling said.
“I was concerned about what happened during those missing 20 minutes.
“You should not open the ballot boxes until you are being watched.” Pelling filed a formal complaint to the Electoral Commission soon after the results were declared.
The review authors themselves found that one political figure – it did not identify who, nor which party they represent – had been seen “manhandling” ballot boxes on their way into the count.
On the night of the count, council officials could not cope with the authorising of so many scrutineers and observers all arriving soon after the polls closed at 10pm. The review notes that they were under-prepared and under-staffed.
Pelling claims that generally the count was “hugely error-strewn”, but of that initial half-hour, “We were reassured by a senior council officer that nothing would happen in the period between the queue being dealt with and scrutineers getting in. But votes were already being counted when we got in at 10.20.
“I did not see where there was any showing of empty ballot boxes or showing of number of ballot papers issued matching number of ballot papers received.
“We were asked to take this all on trust. But a council that has mislaid £193million cannot be trusted.”
Based on council announcements this week, after they finally released the election review report, Kerswell’s intention is for the report to go to the council’s general purposes committee for a cosy little discussion, to be seen by as few people as possible.
Mayor Perry, a year ago, when agreeing to conduct the review into Croydon’s shambolic election count, had promised that it would be discussed at a meeting of full council.
Inside Croydon has asked Kerswell and the council how much the review has cost the council. They have refused to respond.
Inside Croydon has also asked Kerswell whether the report, which she has had since May this year, has been referred to the Electoral Commission. Again, Kerswell has refused to answer.
Read more: Criticism of Kerswell’s election count ‘justified’ says report
Read more: From bankrupt to laughing stock as council count continues
Read more: Tory Perry wins historic Mayor election by less than 600 votes
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