“We can become what we used to be – the hub for south London”: An interview with Steve Reed MP


By - Thursday 19th December, 2013

Tom Black takes a week off from The Public Gallery to meet with Croydon’s newest MP and discuss his first year in office – including Westfield, politics, and co-operation


Steve Reed’s constituency office is clean, crisp and almost aggressively white. That’s a comment on the décor, not its ethnic makeup. It would be inaccurate if it was – several BME constituents are being looked after by staff while I wait for Reed.

“Tom, isn’t it?” I look up with a jolt, cancel whatever inanity I was about to tweet, and realise I am looking at the MP for Croydon North. He’s a jovial man with a firm handshake and a chatty manner. Our walk to the meeting room is smiles all round, and we’re soon deep in conversation – after the obligatory jokes about how awkward it can be to set up an iPhone to record an interview.

Reed’s manner doesn’t change throughout the interview. While the smile may fade when discussing more serious matters, he’s always sharp, poised and ready with a reply. I quickly become aware that I’m in the presence of a seasoned political operator – six years as Leader of Lambeth Council have clearly rubbed off on him. But Reed isn’t like most experienced politicians, who can come off as ‘machine’ or inflexible.

“I was Leader of Lambeth Council, yes, but before that I had twenty years in private business. I was a publisher.” What drew him to politics? “The reason I switched into politics was because I wanted to make a difference in the community. I think we did make a difference in Lambeth. Then the opportunity to serve as Croydon North’s MP came along.”

That opportunity arose just over a year ago when then-MP Malcolm Wicks died in September 2012. Wicks had first taken the seat for Labour in 1992, overturning a Conservative majority of 4,000. In Wicks’ last election in 2010, he himself won a majority for Labour of 16,000.

In the ensuing by-election, Reed was selected by Labour to fight the now-safe seat, and duly won. When we meet, it’s been exactly a year and a week since his election.

“I think here in Croydon we can engage the community and start to work together to find solutions that might have a wider application than just here”

Lambeth and Croydon are not a million miles apart, but as if to shield himself from accusations of parachutism, Reed certainly knows his local history. We  discuss Croydon’s history of high profile political names, including Social Security Secretary John Moore and Speaker Bernard Weatherill in the 1980s. Admitting it’s somewhat cheeky, I ask if I’m talking to a future cabinet minister.

“There’s no way I can answer that!” he laughs, but does elaborate. “You know, any other job I’ve ever been in, if you want a job you apply for it, you get interviewed and then you get offered it based on how you’ve done in your interview against other candidates. In a reshuffle you don’t apply for anything, you just do or don’t get a phone call and you get offered something. You’ve not really got any particular reason to know why you’ve been offered that over anything else.”

It’s a conundrum that Reed must have wrestled with recently – when Ed Miliband reshuffled his frontbench team in October, Reed was made a Shadow Home Office Minister under Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. What responsibilities does he now have?

“The areas I’m covering are anti-social behaviour, gang crime, London crime generally, people trafficking and cybercrime. I think what’s really good is that they’re all issues that are of direct relevance to people here in Croydon North.”

There might not be an epidemic of cybercrime in Thornton Heath, but Reed is keen to convince me that the other areas he’s covering are highly applicable to his constituency. “We’re seeing an increase in violent youth gangs. It seems to be spreading this way from parts of inner London, and I don’t think there is yet any concerted approach to dealing with what’s causing that or dealing with the consequences of it.” What does he aim to do about it? “I think here in Croydon we can engage the community and start to work together to find solutions that might have a wider application than just here.”

“I do not understand why Croydon’s Conservatives won’t back [my campaign] when the Tory MP in Epsom is backing a campaign to save his hospital which has been part of the same review”

I try not to wince at the use of ‘finding solutions’, but it’s a good point. Reed clearly intends to work on his policy briefs in a manner that serves his constituents as well as the Parliamentary Labour Party.

As if reading my mind, he goes on. “I think if you look at the surveys about what people care about and worry about, anti-social behaviour and nuisance is still right up there as a set of concerns. If you look at what the Home Secretary has been saying over the last three years, she barely mentions it.”

It’s a rare flash of criticism of the government – throughout our conversation, Reed focuses most of his fire on Croydon Council and the ruling Conservatives.

“I think there are some issues where you need to say, ‘We’ll break ranks on this and we’ll stand up for Croydon,’” he says when discussing the proposed closure of elements of Croydon’s A&E and maternity unit. “I do not understand why Croydon’s Conservatives won’t back [my campaign] when the Tory MP in Epsom is backing a campaign to save his hospital which has been part of the same review. If the Tories in Epsom can do it, why can’t the Tories in Croydon? Chris Grayling, the Epsom MP, is a cabinet minister!”

In Katharine Street’s Council Chamber, Croydon Labour are keen to praise Reed’s efforts to create a ‘co-operative council’ in Lambeth. Croydon’s Tories deride it regularly. I ask Steve to explain the big idea.

“The fundamental point to it is to empower communities, to give them control over things that they currently can’t control.” Such as? “If you’re living in social housing, you get more control over the managers that are running the housing service for you. If you’re using social care, you get more control over the decisions taken about how the money allocated to you is being spent, so that you can get different services that meet your needs better.”

It’s a model that’s typified by Reed’s decision to create the Croydon North Streets Commission. Streets in the north of the borough are regularly described as filthy and full of litter and flytipping. “The council won’t listen to me because the council’s Conservative and I’m Labour. Well, here’s an independent commission and they can listen to the commission because it’s representing the views of hundreds if not thousands of people in Croydon North. It’s chaired by a figure of impeccable political neutrality, Nero Ughwujabo.He’s the chairman of the Croydon BME Forum. He works with both parties and he’s a member of neither. I hope that when they make their recommendations early in the new year, both parties will listen to their recommendations and let people in Croydon North know whether they’re going to act upon them.”

“I thought I owed it to both Malcolm Wicks’ memory and to the people who voted for me to be as out and about and active and accessible as I could possibly be”

Overcrowding may be the root cause of some of the litter problems – Croydon North has been growing consistently for twenty years (my mouth falls open when Reed tells me that while an average constituency contains 70,000 people, 110,000 live in Croydon North). Does Reed feel the demographic changes in the constituency are responsible for the seat’s transformation into a Labour stronghold over the same period?

“Yes. But I also like to think that Malcolm was a very well respected MP, and he built up the Labour vote. It was probably a bit of both.”

It’s clear that Reed is aware he has big shoes to fill as Malcolm Wicks’ successor. Throughout the interview he takes various opportunities to praise Wicks’ achievements. Citing his predecessor’s local popularity, Reed tells me how he tries to maintain the level of engagement people in Croydon North have come to expect. “I thought I owed it to both his memory and to the people who voted for me to be as out and about and active and accessible as I could possibly be.”

How does he think he’s doing? Reed gives a knowing smile. “I’ll give you a number,” he says, as if he’s heard this one before. “4,000 pieces of casework.”

‘That’s just a statistic,’ he admits immediately, but goes on to explain what it actually means for people to be able to work with their MP and see results. He talks with genuine pride about an elderly constituent who, falling ill, was no longer able to use the stairs in their home. When the council refused to install a stairlift, Reed stepped in and successfully lobbied Katharine Street to reverse the decision.

A careful segue via what he wants to achieve next brings us to the biggest story of the year. “Westfield and Hammerson is a fantastic piece of news for Croydon, one of the best things to have happened for decades. It means we have the opportunity to become what we used to be – the hub for south London.”

“Westfield and Hammerson need to be seen as a driver for regeneration across all parts of the borough. I think this is where a co-operative approach comes in”

That sounds good to me. I sense a ‘but’ coming, however, and I am swiftly vindicated. “But all of the town centres in the borough need to regenerate – Norbury, Thornton Heath, Selhurst, and that’s just the ones I represent. If everything is focused on the town centre, it could actually end up sucking things away from the outlying town centres in the borough, and make them even worse.”

So what does he propose? “Westfield and Hammerson need to be seen as a driver for regeneration across all parts of the borough. I think this is where a co-operative approach comes in. If you pull together the local community and amenity organisations, including faith groups, in each of those town centres, and let them shape how they want that regeneration to look and how they want it to happen so it benefits people there, then that needs to become part of the council’s wider regeneration proposal. Where I’ve tried that idea out, it’s worked.”

Does he think this is the approach that’s currently being pursued?

“No. I think the council is entirely focused on the town centre.” The community organisations here feel they’re not engaged by the council, and people living in the north feel that the council neglects them. Now, I think the council’s got to totally change its approach. It’s got to open its decision-making processes up, it’s got to share its information more freely because without information people can’t participate.” Freedom of information rears its head – and Steve has a concrete proposal for how to take advantage of it. “I think you need an open data charter that says the council will publish everything that it’s not legally prevented from publishing.”

Gavin Barwell, Reed’s parliamentary neighbour to the south and a Conservative, paid tribute to Malcolm Wicks by disclosing that Wicks used to drive them both back from Westminster to Croydon at the end of each week. Relations between Barwell and Reed have appeared more strained – has that arrangement not been renewed?

“We get on really well on a personal level,” Reed laughs, “we’ve had a pint together.” Just one? “I saw him just last Friday. Our politics are different but I like the man – you’re not going to see me dissing him personally, but I will disagree with his politics when I think they’re in the wrong place.”

“In terms of legislation, we’ve probably got everything that needs to be there in terms of equality. I think the battle is now for hearts and minds”

The carpooling, however, has come to an end – but only, Reed insists, because he takes public transport to get to Parliament. “A lot of people here,” he says with a gesture to the high street, “are commuting to central London on the buses and on the trains. I think you need to experience that otherwise you become out of touch.”

“It’s also another way that people can grab hold of you, to be honest. People see me travelling around, they’ll come up and have a word. That’s quite a good thing.”

Reed is the town’s first LGBT MP, and gave a particularly impassioned speech in the equal marriage debate earlier this year. He made waves when he stated bluntly ‘if you don’t agree with gay marriage, don’t marry a gay person.’ What does he think LGBT Britons should aim for as the next milestone to equality?

“In terms of legislation,” he says, “we’ve probably got everything that needs to be there in terms of equality. I think the battle is now for hearts and minds.” He talks passionately about the high level of homophobic bullying in schools. “The use of pejorative language against the LGBT community in schools and elsewhere still needs to be tackled, and I think we need to move to a situation where, you know, whatever your sexual orientation growing up, it’s fine. If a child grows up feeling that they’re bad, and that the way they feel is somehow wrong or evil, you can develop very strong feelings of self-hatred that can be extremely damaging psychologically.”

Thankfully, Steve is able to live happily with his partner and two cats. I’ve no doubt that he wants that liberty for anyone else that desires it. As we shake hands – firmly again – I’m left to ponder what else Steve Reed wants to achieve for Croydonians and their fellow Britons. Open, co-operative government that listens and acts on concerns sounds too good to be true – but I suspect we have not heard the last of Steve Reed’s efforts to make it a reality.


The Public Gallery will return with a festive end-of-year review next week

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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