The Strange Absence of Liberal Croydon

By - Thursday 6th December, 2012

Why have the Liberals, from Lloyd George to the Liberal Democrats, never had a foothold in Croydon?

The results are in: Labour held Croydon North, as well as Middlesborough and Rotherham. In the event, the vote tallies showed this result was never really in doubt, despite the usual wishful thinking and strong campaigns from other parties. The national media tells us the real story this time is ‘the UKIP surge’ that brought the Eurosceptic party into second place in Middlesborough and Rotherham and Croydon North’s own Winston McKenzie into third place. The papers also tell us the Lib Dems are continuing to pay the price of Coalition, suffering the humiliation of losing their deposit in all three seats. Croydon North was no exception – Marisha Ray gained a pitiful 860 votes. But the national media are wrong if they think they should consider this another piece of evidence that the Lib Dems are counting down the days until extinction in 2015. The truth is that the Liberal Democrats doing badly in a Croydon election is not news. It’s the norm.

This is not some apologist tract for the Liberal Democrats. Far from it. Instead, this is a journey through Croydon’s political history and the Liberals’ consistent failure to play part in it. At the time of writing, the third largest party in the House of Commons holds no seats at all on Croydon Council, and has never elected more than one at any time since our incorporation into Greater London. While neighbouring Sutton is an orange stronghold with two Lib Dem MPs and a huge majority on the council since 1990, the Lib Dems, in their various iterations over the years, have struggled to be anything more than also-rans in Croydon. The aim of this article is to determine why.

Talk about the Liberal Democrats in Croydon and you’ll often hear that they’ve never had an MP here. Technically true, but to take that statement at face value ignores an important and interesting footnote in British political history. Bill Pitt, elected to Croydon North West in a by-election in 1981, was not a Lib Dem (the party only formally came into existence in 1988) but was the first MP in Britain to be elected under the banner of the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Pitt was an Old Liberal who had successfully been working Croydon North West for years, and his victory was undoubtedly the result of a cocktail of factors. On the one hand, the national political scene had a deeply unpopular Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher being not-particularly-well-opposed by Michael Foot’s divided Labour. By-elections often return surprising results (ask George Galloway), and in this case Croydon North West in 1981 provided a perfect storm for the Liberal Party, as part of the SDP-Liberal Alliance that would become the Lib Dems, to take a seat from the Conservatives. Pitt’s victory was, however, a flash in the pan. Within two years he had been ousted, this time by the now extremely popular Conservative Party, in the 1983 General Election. The Liberals’ Croydon malaise returned, this time very likely due to national factors. It seemed that what Mrs Thatcher giveth, Mrs Thatcher taketh away.

Pitt’s one-off success is only part of Croydon’s rich parliamentary history. Candidates and MPs from the area have more than made their mark on Britain. We’ve had a Speaker – the great Bernard Weatherill sat in the chair from 1983 to 1992, who while a Tory whip played a controversial role in the downfall of the Callaghan government. A young Nick Griffin (where is he now?) stood for the National Front in Croydon North West in 1983. The great wartime diplomat Harold Nicolson was Labour’s candidate in Croydon North for the 1945 election. But all these are a matter for another article – perhaps a series – that could be written if there’s interest. Hint.

When people get used to taking what they can get and holding onto it, it becomes difficult to convince them it’s worth fighting for more

The Lib Dems’ political history in Croydon doesn’t begin and end with parliamentary seats, however. As a party they’re historically famous for strong showings on councils. However, today no Liberal Democrats sit on Croydon Council, and the most councillors they’ve managed to get elected at any one time is one. They’re traditionally stronger in Croydon South, historically taking pride in coming second in every council ward in the constituency. Steven Gauge, former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and author to whom I owe a great deal of thanks for his help with this piece, feels the failure of Liberal Democrats to make much progress in Croydon is “probably down to a combination of personalities, strategy, and demographics.” The makeup of Croydon has not been historically fertile ground for liberals. Bill Pitt’s election may challenge this idea, but the unique circumstances and the Liberals’ historic position as a protest vote certainly counted more then than voters demanding traditional liberal values. A third party since their collapse in the 1920s, the Liberals have had plenty of time to develop good strategies for building up presence where you don’t already have any. Their favourite is ‘targeting’, and it’s pretty simple on paper. Select a ward, work it, win it, expand. Wash, rinse, repeat. How the ward is selected can be in any number of ways – concentration of local party members, historic Liberal support or, so the legend of one plucky group of campaigners says, picking a name out of a hat.

This approach has proved difficult in Croydon, where it began in earnest in the 1990s, because of the aforementioned attitude of taking pride in second place. This pride might appear peculiar, but it should be remembered we’re discussing a party that until 2010 hadn’t sat on the government benches since 1922. The problem with this ‘take what we can get and hold onto it’ attitude, however, is that when it becomes entrenched, it becomes very difficult to convince people it’s worth fighting for anything more. A key part of targeting is abandoning wards you won’t win and pumping resources into ones you might. The few inroads the Lib Dems had made in Croydon over the years proved fruitless and backward-looking. Parochialism was rife – stories circulated of one member who believed that it was illegal to campaign in a ward without sending out a leaflet. Lack of success and political clout had become a vicious circle for the Liberal Democrats.

There is no demonstrable genetic predisposition to vote for a party with a picture of a bird next to it

But the Lib Dems are renowned as fierce and effective campaigners. Teething problems couldn’t sink them, any more than the years of being able to hold parliamentary party meetings in the back of a taxi. But there’s something deeper going on with the Lib Dems in Croydon – even when they find fertile ground, as they did in Coulsdon East, electing Cllr Ian Atkins in 1998, they find it isn’t fertile enough. Steven Gauge remembers at the time that “once we had a foot in the door, we looked behind us and found there were not the army of campaigners waiting to pile in that we needed.” Atkins narrowly held the ward in 2002, but lost it in 2006 thanks to greater Conservative resources and manpower. This was the last time a Liberal Democrat sat on Croydon Council. Why? Gauge feels it’s because the “critical mass of well-motivated campaigning types” needed for any party to succeed just isn’t present for the Lib Dems in Croydon. Is this where the answer to this article’s big question lies? The low level of support across the borough, the failure to win either seats or wards, the lack of presence at any level of Croydon’s government – does it all come down to the looming conclusion that there simply aren’t many liberals in Croydon?

That all seems very neat, but liberals aren’t an ethnic group. Science has so far provided us with no demonstrable genetic predisposition to vote for the party with the picture of a bird next to it on the ballot. Robert Waller and Byron Criddle, in the fifth edition of The Almanac of British Politics, offer an insight into why the residents of Croydon South, at least, seem demographically unlikely to shift towards the Liberal Democrats, or indeed Labour, any time soon:

“Croydon South is one of the most middle class seats in the country with over three quarters of residents in non-manual jobs. This largely determines its political preference too. It is possible for a very socially upmarket constituency to be other than a safe Tory seat: examples would be Hampstead and Highgate or the old Richmond and Barnes. But they had a very high proportion of adults with higher educational qualifications (to be blunt, intellectuals). Croydon South does not. Its neighbourhoods are solidly bourgeois and proud of it.”

Writing this article has taken me down a rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland proportions. Liberals have never had much success in Croydon, whether they run as Liberals, National Liberals, Liberal Unionists or Liberal Democrats. But I already knew that. I suspect you did, too. The stories of Bill Pitt and Ian Atkins, while interesting, only serve to confirm that this is a long-running trend and not one that should be ignored by the national press when they want to write headlines about ‘Lib Dem humiliations’ in areas where the Liberals have never had a presence. But in determining why, it seems the answer is a combination of the following:

A vicious circle of electoral irrelevance. You keep losing, interest among activists wanes, you lose more, fewer people are drawn to your cause, and you lose some more. The Lib Dems got used to it and became proud of second place. Breaking out of that cycle is incredibly hard, for the simple reason that…

There aren’t many Lib Dem members to call upon. While figures weren’t available to me, conversations with Lib Dems elsewhere in the country indicated membership is low in Croydon, thanks in no small part to the lack of traction and interest that comes from the above. It is also fed by the final, perhaps most significant and immovable factor.

People in Croydon don’t seem to be very liberal. I use ‘liberal’ here in the classical sense – socially, Croydon seems no more authoritarian or small-c conservative than many other parts of Britain. But the classical liberal position of free trade, its modern counterpart in staunch pro-Europe positions and the principle of a laissez-faire economy that’s also kept as fair as possible don’t seem to appeal to Croydon citizens. We seem polarised between a Conservative, free market Croydon South, a Labour-supporting, mixed economy-loving Croydon North and a Croydon Central that’s (appropriately) caught in the centre, flitting between the two (generally) whenever the country does. Croydon’s largely mercantile, working class to lower-middle class demographics play a large part in this, as outlined by Waller and Criddle’s quote above. Councillor Lester Holloway of Sutton described his party’s struggle to present itself as a force at the forefront of inner city issues, particularly in places like Croydon, as crucial. “Failure to do so,” he said, “will continue to reinforce our image as a middle class party.”

These three interlinked factors are what I think awaits me at the end of this rabbit hole. The Lib Dems have no presence in Croydon because they start from a position with little appeal to the Croydon demographic, don’t have much support in the first place and then have difficulty getting out of a spiral of defeat. Croydon is not the only place this is happening, and there are cities where the Conservatives or Labour find themselves in the same position. But here in Croydon, it is the Lib Dems who are our wallflowers. I hope I’ve presented some good, or at least interesting, arguments as to why, but perhaps Steven Gauge’s pithy summary of the situation is in fact the most useful.

“Maybe,” he says, “it’s just because Croydon just isn’t the sort of place where liberals choose to live.”

The only hope for the Croydon Liberal Democrats might just be that it’ll turn into one.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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