Losing stinks – but the Croydon Conservatives will be back

By - Friday 23rd June, 2017

An activist’s-eye-view of this month’s general election in Croydon Central, which ended with the defeat of Conservative Gavin Barwell and victory for Labour’s Sarah Jones

Gavin Barwell takes notes as his eventual successor Sarah Jones answers questions at a hustings.
Photo by Zach Baker for the Croydon Citizen.

Losing stinks. On 8th June, the Conservatives lost Croydon Central and, as a Croydon Conservative, that hurt. That we had such a fine candidate, and the fact that I along with many others had put considerable effort into getting Gavin Barwell re-elected, meant that it felt doubly bad. But that’s democracy.

My election day was a long day on the streets of Addiscombe and Ashburton, followed by a late evening into the early morning of 9th June at the count. A somewhat shorter day than 2015 when there were recounts, but time goes slowly when you look set to lose.

I, for one, did not see the scale of defeat coming. Early canvassing looked promising. Our candidate was already in place and the Labour candidate was yet to be decided. We had a start which we made the most of.

The first surprise was how little the election was about Brexit

Labour swamping the constituency with support from their far-left Momentum group also seemed to play into our hands. Their trampling of the Woodside war memorial, with the Labour candidate and several local Labour councillors present and tacitly approving, was even picked up by the national press. Had the election happened a month earlier I think we would have won. It wasn’t, and we didn’t. So where might it have gone wrong?

The first surprise, to me at least, was how little it was about Brexit. Brexit is the most important long-term issue facing our country, yet after the early part of the campaign it dropped right down the political agenda, on the doorstep and nationally. The electorate moved on rather quickly; the reason why still eludes me.

Labour, aware of the unpopularity of their leader, mounted a locally-focused campaign. Unfounded scare stories about, for example, closure of the Mayday hospital, and a repetition of the ‘Tory cuts’ narrative, ignoring the still poor state of the national finances, were not a surprise.

Sarah Jones was reluctant to appear with her leader

Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance in Croydon Central, surrounded by Labour activists, had little impact either way. A tub-thumping stock speech, a few selfies, no questions, swiftly packed into a car and gone was barely noticed outside the politically active.

At that point Labour had not formally nominated their candidate although it was clear who it was likely to be. Yet Sarah Jones was reluctant to appear with her leader. The absence of Jeremy Corbyn on their literature and his featuring on ours were, in the context of the time, not political communications rocket science.

Things started to go wrong with the publication of the Conservative manifesto. An own-goal with social care, quickly followed by the suspension of the campaign due to the terrorist incident, prevented explanation for a vital few days. A swift ‘clarification’ knocked Theresa May’s image of strength and stability.

I recognised that something might be changing less than a month before polling day

A national mood of austerity fatigue then seemed to develop. The UK’s finances are in poor shape. We still spend much more than comes in, so borrowing continues to climb. Interest on our debts is huge. Doing something about it is not austerity, yet the public has tired of hearing about it. Labour’s magic money tree economics are attractive if you don’t look too closely.

I recognised that something might be changing less than a month before polling day. Recognising a change is one thing, but understanding what it might be is an entirely different thing. I am not sure that we could have done anything about it if I had.

Which brought us, in the early hours of 9th June, to defeat. As he had two years earlier in victory, so too in defeat Gavin gave a gracious and magnanimous speech. The rest of Friday was not a good day.

What next? For Croydon Conservatives, we must dust ourselves down, take a rest after an intense period of work, and figure out what went wrong. The opinion polls and the media got it wrong, again, yet they have already jumped to conclusions and blithely moved on. It won’t surprise you that I will want to look at the data before claiming to know any answers or what to do about it. Watch this space.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • trypewriter

    Don’t beat yourself up Robert – as you suggest, there wasn’t anything you could have done about it.
    The seeds of the defeat were sown by the anointing of a new party leader, who barely had to lift a finger to get the job she had long coveted, without being tested by debate. As things turned out a more searching process might have been a useful ‘warm up’ for what was to come.
    In some quarters May had already been viewed as being opportunistic. Although notionally in the Remain camp, her long stint as Home Secretary had seen her clash repeatedly with the EU, to the extent that her eventual siding with Remain did not look natural. As a political big hitter, her tepid (and that’s being charitable) campaigning for Remain, hinted that she was more interested in positioning herself for a ‘vacancy yet to come,’ than in the outcome of the referendum.
    Putting that aside, the calling of a snap election was instantly seen for what it was – an attempted power grab.
    However, that hubris, in itself, might not have been fatal.
    Unfortunately the mistakes just kept on coming.
    The Conservative campaign appeared to be presidential rather than party political, which is ok so long as you have a candidate that people have taken to. This proved not to be the case.
    More mistakes were to follow – you know what they were so I will not add them here.
    But, thanks to a firm bedrock, plus tactical Brexiters coming back to the fold, you did just squeak in.
    My word it could have been so much worse.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks. I agree the national campaign makes most of the difference in any election. In this case we were swimming against the tide locally.

      • Patrick Blewer

        “The national campaign makes most of the difference in any election.” There’s a yes… but to this. I think the main Tory miscalculation was to assume that TM was a major positive across the UK and pushed very hard to run an integrated national campaign.

        Anecdotal reports I’ve heard from a number of Tory losses suggest that an inability to fight a local campaign – largely at the instigation of CCHQ – is what consigned a number of candidates to failure.

        Tory opponents be they red or yellow ignored Brexit and wider national challenges. Instead they focused on the local narrative, often presenting themselves as an authentic local voice who would be able to fight for local interests and not be cowed by being offered a government role.

        • Robert Ward

          Don’t disagree with most of what you say.

          On the anecdotes claiming a mandatory message from Conservative Central Office I have no knowledge of that. That’s above my pay grade.

          I would be interested in what the LibDems did. Their big pitch at the start was to be the UKIP-of-Remain, whereas historically they have run very local campaigns. I wonder whether they recognised that the UKIP-of-Remain message wasn’t working and changed approach or whether it was what they planned to do anyway. Credit to them if they saw what was happening and changed tack.

  • Anthony Miller

    “group also seemed to play into our hands. Their trampling of the Woodside war memorial, with the Labour candidate and several local Labour councillors present and tacitly approving, was even picked up by the national press.”

    It was innocent enthusiam. There are steps at the bottom of the memorial. Someone stood on one to get in the picture frame. It’s a memorial not a grave. Tactless maybe but not a crime. We hear a lot about the looney left …this is a classic example of the looney right. People looking for offence for cynical reasons. What did we fight the wars for anyway?

    • Robert Ward

      It was more than one person on more than one occasion. Pictures from Labour’s own publicity.

      It is indeed a memorial not a grave. In my view that does not make it ok.

      Not many of us now alive fought wars, but I think we owe it to those that did to show respect.