Now is the time for all politicians to be radical

By - Thursday 6th July, 2017

Labour’s big win in Croydon Central suggests that it is on track to keep control of the council next year, but can old-school socialism revive the borough?

Sarah Jones smiles with joy while her supporters celebrate behind her.
Photo by Zach Baker for the Croydon Citizen.

One month ago, the nation and local community in Croydon Central were left in an uncertain state – an election with an inconclusive result left a nation apprehensive and politically divided. I spent election week confident, politically hungry, and optimistic as I campaigned for the Conservative Party in Croydon, wanting to give Theresa May a helping hand by strengthening her position to defend neo-liberal politics and Brexit. I was also determined to re-elect our housing minister and MP Gavin Barwell. I see Gavin as an example of how conservatism can be revolutionary, thanks to his support for the new Mental Health Bill and belief in social justice. His brand of Toryism looked to be in the ascendancy, with Theresa May’s government emphasising strong local public services and an industrial strategy.

Now, things have changed. I am left struggling to understand why such an excellent candidate, one who championed minorities and the young, one who fought for his residents every step of the way, lost his seat after seven years of service as an MP.

Gavin Barwell lost to Sarah Jones despite boosting his own share of the vote, and yet his talents were snapped up straight away with a prestigious promotion as Theresa May’s chief of staff. With Gavin now occupied elsewhere, Croydon is left facing its biggest challenge yet: how to define itself politically and culturally for the decade to come. In a world in which public faith in both national and local government has been eroded – something strongly suggested by the Brexit vote and by thirteen million votes for Jeremy Corbyn – this will be no easy task.

Both parties must now redefine themselves

On the face of it, Sarah’s election represents an endorsement of Corbynism, and was part of a national result that saw the return to the two-party state – the two main parties got 83% of the vote between them, their highest total since 1974. But while Labour’s leader undoubtedly became more of a help than a hindrance in London seats, it is a matter of record that Jones supported both Liz Kendall and Owen Smith instead of Mr Corbyn in both of his leadership bids. Steve Reed, Croydon North’s Labour MP, stunningly resigned from Corbyn’s ministerial team last year, though he returned before the snap election. With large numbers of Momentum activists apparently crucial to her victory, Jones may now feel ideologically conflicted.

At such a dangerous time for both Labour and the Conservatives in Croydon, both must navigate their way through the new political-economic consensus to redefine themselves. With the council election ten months away, Labour in Croydon faces a choice. Will their rhetoric embrace the extreme socialism of Labour’s manifesto? It would be a risk – for all that Labour’s surge in support was impressive, they did not win the election, and it would be foolish to forget that. A Labour council that promises higher council tax to pay for a massive expansion of local services would match the Corbyn brand, but would the people of Croydon vote for it?

Similarly, the Conservaties are at a crossroads. Will they maintain their steady effort to reach into diverse communities across Croydon, creating a common consensus of community engagement and positive political debate? Or – as must be tempting – will they retreat to their southern heartlands? The recommended new council boundaries, likely to be in place in time for the 2018 council election, suggest that the Conservatives might be able to win this way.

The Conservative government must now address the root of the Southern Rail problem

And how will ‘normal’ residents react? Are residents the key ingredients to catalyse transformation? Party politics and society in general must keep in line with an ever-changing public mind-set, and must alter its ‘same old’ approach to policy ideas. Nobody denies that British politics must move on from Blairism, but old-school socialism is no longer enough to revive the borough. Conservatism too must learn to administer new ideas and sell them to the youth and grey vote. Corbynism seems to be good at reaching young people, but can its namesake enter Downing Street without pensioners’ support?

As for those of us in the Conservative Party, we must continue to encourage and support Conservative ideologues such as Theresa May when they bring forward new routes of thinking, policy-making and political talk. Otherwise, we will be rightly accused of being too afraid to break traditional political norms, something which the present-day Labour Party – which can be called many things – cannot be accused of. The Conservatives have historically performed the best when they realise that rules are made to be broken.

In Croydon’s general election campaign, residents were given the same-old political narratives with familiar responses to social issues. On Southern Rail, Labour shouted about renationalisation while the Conservatives offered mixed messaging on the status quo or inviting TfL to take over the Brighton line. Instead, I would argue that the Conservative government must now address the root of the problem: sack Southern, and contract out a new operator which can understand public concerns and the complexities created by the cost of living crisis and which can guarantee more public co-efficiency.

Croydon can lead the way by building a new kind of localism

On housing, a huge issue nationally and in Croydon, the Conservatives should continue to press for more Community Land Trusts, as Barwell did in office. New ways of thinking could include shared ownership and rental of council homes that have been targeted by the controversial bedroom tax. Both parties should explore decentralising local council powers that would enable residents to take control of the private housing market: in particular, deciding what type of residential homes developers and the local council can build, or turning the blanket ban on green belt land construction into something more flexible that meets local needs.

These competing political narratives suggest that old-school socialism prevails and neo-liberalism is no longer business as usual. Better public service planning has been long-needed. Our leaders constantly tell us that Croydon is open for business – it’s time for us to lead the way to build a new kind of localism as well. Residents can – and must – be the real champions of democracy.

Daniel Deefholts

Daniel Deefholts

Daniel is a life-long Croydon resident, and regularly campaigns for London Citizens (Citizens UK) to address community issues within London and across the UK. He is studying at university towards a BA (Hons) in Politics and International Relations, and is a committed party member of the Conservative Party.

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  • Michael Swadling

    Daniel, an excellent article.

    I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem was the brand of Toryism that emphasised social justice, public services and an industrial strategy. This all sounds like ‘Labour light’ and I suspect a section of people given the choice simply chose the real thing.

    • Alessia

      A very good point. There are some fundamental differences between social justice the Tory way and social justice the socialist way. Anyone involved with this agenda long before Theresa May has been highly critical of her for turning into Ed Miliband when we have thinking of our own, although in the opinion of one of David Cameron’s advisors it’s drowning in a sea of left-wing pressure groups and I see where he’s coming from. The Conservatives have not been too good as a party at selling it in recent years, which is why whenever this issue comes up everyone thinks the party moved to the left, but it’s ingrained in the party’s history. Fraser Nelson wrote what I believe is a really on point editorial about this “identity crisis” on a recent edition of the Spectator.

      And I agree on the article being excellent, great job Dan :)

  • John Gass

    “I see Gavin as an example of how conservatism can be revolutionary, thanks to his support for the new Mental Health Bill and belief in social justice.”

    I met Gavin Barwell at a local mental health event and, despite not agreeing with him politically, he seemed well intentioned. But did he ever make any positive difference to mental health provision in Croydon? None that I’ve been able to find.

    Almost all Tories sing from the same mental health hymn-sheet, which is high on pie-in-the-sky intentions and appallingly low on delivery. Actually, that’s being charitable… mental healthcare in Croydon was endangered; now, under a Tory government, it is to all intents and purposes extinct. Patients (aka ‘service users’) are being routinely denied access to services, often by being referred back to general practitioners. This, according to mental healthcare provider, should always be done with full patient involvement. The reality is that the first the individual hears of it is when the ‘goodbye & good riddance’ letter arrives through the letterbox.

    How many MPs, I wonder, have experience of – much less rely on – NHS mental health services? Separate from other NHS services, the reality often feels more akin to a prison service for non-offenders.

    I’ve been quite verbose in setting out one example of a more general scenario, explaining why I believe many people didn’t vote for Barwell: a local MP who focused his attention more on building a Westminster career than caring for Croydon. Championing anything is easy if all you have to do is talk the talk.

  • trypewriter

    There should be no struggle to understand Daniel, GB was shackled to a leader who made the campaign personal but was found wanting in that respect.
    To be honest, you look at both labour and conservatives, and in football parlance, they lack strength in depth, there is little on the bench.
    Social justice the Tory way – what exactly is it please – I’m old and a bit dim so can you give me some examples? This is a genuine question by the way.

    • John Gass

      The thrust of the article seems to be:

      1. The Conservatives do lots of great stuff and no bad stuff.

      2. Labour are all commies – mad, bad and dangerous to know.

      3. How stupid are Croydon voters?

  • Allen Williams

    What a load of guff. For example: “Will their rhetoric embrace the extreme socialism of Labour’s manifesto?” Extreme socialism? Are you kidding? Mrs Thatcher would not countenance privatization of the Royal Mail, and steered well clear of privatizing the railways, a process that has been clearly disastrous. As for energy companies, we were merely promised the setting up of regional companies as a non-profit alternative to the present hotch-potch of private providers. Hardly extreme, in anyone’s books, unless written by the hard-right.