‘I know exactly how I’d attack me’: Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell on Lillian’s Law, real-time tweeting and life outside Westminster

By - Tuesday 8th April, 2014

Tom Black meets Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, and talks success, regrets and why some people seem so afraid of him

‘The most casual of casual fleeces’
Photo by Stephen Black. Used with permission.

Those who imagine the MP for Croydon Central living the Westminster high life would be disappointed by his entrance. He saunters into Matthew’s Yard, hands in pockets and clad in the most casual of fleeces. Spotting me – we’ve met half a dozen times at his public meetings – he strides over for an enthusiastic handshake.

Parliament’s not in session when we meet, which explains his attire. I joke about his lack of a Special Branch escort, and he tells a story about Liam Fox’s bodyguard tapping him on the shoulder when he asked the whereabouts of the then-Defence Secretary’s protection.

Barwell’s appeal combines fierce intellectualism and blokeishness. This might be the result of his upbringing and education at Trinity School, his alma mater and that of many of Croydon’s public figures of the left, right and centre. It might also be due to years of conditioning at Conservative HQ where he cut his teeth in the 1990s, eventually working with Lord Ashcroft during the 2010 election. I’d consider the former more likely.

Barwell declares himself a Citizen fan

We ease into our discussion with a quick chat about the Citizen itself. Barwell’s a fan but not as regular a reader as he’d like – though he assures me he is shown relevant pieces by his staff. He sees the Citizen within a post-2011 trend that includes Matthews Yard itself. “I’m talking about people motivated by the riots to seek to change perceptions of the town.”

Small-c citizen journalism interests him and he notes the less-than-positive reactions from some existing Croydon publications to the Citizen going into print. “I think lots of professions have an idea that you have enter by certain routes to be accepted. We see it in teaching, too.”

Barwell in his Westminster stomping ground. Image used with permission.

The mention of recent controversies over ‘unqualified teachers’ in free schools reminds me of his current posting. After a period as Michael Gove’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, he became Assistant Whip in last year’s reshuffle. His new responsibility is to ensure government legislation on education becomes law, but his responsibility to his constituents in Croydon Central remains. I ask him to take me through his week.

“It’s like being a teacher, really,” he says with a gesture to my teacher dad, who joins us briefly to take pictures. “When parliament is sitting, I am incredibly busy and up all night catching up on work. When it’s not, I have just the Croydon side. This week I’ve had meetings with constituents, a tour of the Whitgift Centre to see what’s being knocked down and what’s being developed and I’ve met the council’s new planning officer and a group of TfL apprentices. I met Ashley from Spirit of Croydon and had some surgery work [meetings with constituents] in the afternoon. Plus catching up on my reading. It’s really a week in the constituency – lots of paperwork and catching up on things I can’t normally focus on.”

That still sounds like a lot of work. Barwell nods. “It is. But today I’m pretty relaxed, as you can tell.” He gestures to his fleece with a smile.

Barwell describes himself as a small-l liberal Conservative 

We move on to his personal politics. He’s been described as part of the ‘essentially Lib Dem’ bit of the Conservative Party, but where would he place himself?

“I would describe myself as a small-l liberal conservative. On economic issues, like tax and regulation, I am a small-l liberal. I want to enable people to have more freedom to spend their money and businesses to grow. On social issues, I believe government should give people the freedom to make their own choices. Same sex marriage is a good example – I supported that and voted for it. On immigration, I am liberally inclined.”

What does that mean? “I support the measures to reduce the overall number of migrants, but I am one of the MPs who remind the government of the benefits of immigration.”

That’s reassuring from an MP with Lunar House in his constituency. But I’m detecting that Barwell is specific about particular policy areas because a broad brush won’t work for him. Where does he deviate from the liberal consensus?

“I think there’s a problem when we pigeonhole people,” he suggests, “but on crime I am a traditional Conservative – I support tough sentences. I used to sit next to [right-winger] Philip Davies in the Commons, and we disagreed on plenty. But he’d say that when a crime bill came up, he knew I’d ‘vote the right way’.”

Gavin Barwell on a community cleanup event. He spoke with pride of his activities locally. Image used with permission.

Is Barwell a hang-em-and-flog-em type? “Not necessarily hang-em-and-flog-em, although I think strong punishment is an important part of the justice system. But we should try to rehabilitate people. Crime has complex causes. Burglary is a good example. We should respond differently to a first offender than to someone who’s in and out of prison and repeat-offending’.”

It sounds like Barwell is the love-child of Michael Howard and Michael Heseltine. “That’s a strange and worrying thought,” he remarks, his face almost straight, “but maybe….”

Given his liberal outlook and reputation as a modernising Conservative, why do so many of his opponents in Croydon seem scared of Barwell?

“Scared of me?” he laughs, “I don’t know. It’s not a question I’ve asked.” But there are, he accepts, blogs that seem to exist almost solely to attack him and call him names. “I think it comes from the fact I’m more public than many members of the Conservative Party in defending the government. But I do find some of the attacks slightly bizarre.”

“I say to people – forget politics – how am I doing as a local MP?”

“I regularly survey the people I represent and one of the questions I ask is: ‘Forget my party politics – how am I doing as MP for Croydon Central?’ I get a good rating. Plenty of Labour voters say to me: ‘No offence, I think you’re a good MP but I’m Labour so I won’t vote for you’. Some people try to paint me as this ultra-right wing, rubbish MP and those attacks don’t have credibility. Political attacks need to be credible. If I said Tony Newman [leader of Croydon Labour's council group] didn’t care about Croydon, that wouldn’t be credible. He obviously cares about the town.”

“But”, he adds with the faintest of smiles, “if I pointed out the things that went wrong when Tony Newman was running the council, that would be credible.”

So where are Barwell’s vulnerabilities? He chuckles. “I know exactly how I’d attack me. But I’m not going to tell you, as I’m sure you understand.”

Recalling Barwell’s experience of education policy, I put it to him that Harris Academies have attracted controversy in Croydon from those uncomfortable with corporate involvement in education. He takes the issue head-on.

‘The first thing I’d say is it’s not a business – it’s a trust. You can’t run a school for profit, that’s not legal. Secondly, Academies have delivered in Croydon. The results speak for themselves. It’s not a panacea – not every academy is perfect. But sometimes a change of leadership can be good for a school.”

His membership of the Whitgift Foundation board looks a lot like a conflict of interest

We turn to another controversy. Barwell is a member of the board of the landowning Whitgift Foundation, which looks a lot like a conflict of interest. He claims to excuse himself from discussions about the Westfield development but has declined to resign from the board. “I think it’s a good thing for councillors and MPs to be involved in charities and community groups”, he explains. “That’s why I won’t resign.”

“The foundation has a history of not being a great communicator”, he admits, “but it’s changing. It’s on Twitter now and the Heritage Festival is a very positive move.”

Barwell’s proudest political achievement is Lillian’s Law, making custodial sentences for drug driving far more likely. It commemorates fourteen-year-old Lillian Groves, killed by a driver under the influence of narcotics. “The proposal for special ‘drug breathalysers’ has been accepted and a model has been chosen. We’re waiting for them to be rolled out and for more detailed legislation in relation to specific drugs.”

Barwell speaking in support of Lillian’s Law becoming part of the Queen’s Speech. Image public domain.

His lowest moment, in contrast, has been his support for repeal of the General Equality Duty. A catch-all measure alongside specific duties related to equality in race and gender, this was targeted for repeal by the Coalition last year. Barwell has stressed how vital it is for his party to engage with black and minority ethnic voters, yet voted for the move.

“I do regret it, yes”, he says without hesitation, “but we got the right result in the end. At the time, I was a member of the government and would have had to resign, losing influence that I’m able to use for my constituents. Or I could vote for it making clear I was opposed, hoping the Lords would send the bill back to the Commons for re-consideration.”

This is exactly what happened. Thanks to a Coalition U-turn, the General Equality Duty remains enshrined in law and some will have forgiven Barwell for his seemingly duplicitous position. For others, his reputation took a severe knock.

Barwell doesn’t tweet like an MP

That Barwell doesn’t tweet like an MP is a good thing, for the last thing the world needs is another Twitter account regurgitating policy announcements and celebrating a ‘great response’ on #genericdoorsteps. The @GavinBarwellMP account (which, he tells me, never tweets anything he has not either written himself or dictated to an aide) while not quite a hotbed of free thought and bleeding-edge satire, has real personality. This can lead to a gaffe or two. Or three.

“There are times when I admit I’ve been stupid”, he admits. He tweeted that a Labour account was displaying an insalubrious ‘date Arab girls’ advertisement, but the page’s adverts turned out to be generated by Google based on the viewing history of his PC. Why was the advert there? “I have no idea”, he says.

We move on to ‘delightedgate’, a facetious term for controversy surrounding Barwell’s tweeted ‘delight’ on opening a new foodbank in Croydon. His response is forceful. “I don’t think anyone really believes that a person could be delighted that people have to use food banks. But with hindsight, it was a poor choice of words that unfortunately overshadowed the fantastic work being done by the volunteers at the food bank – and ironically, those volunteers were what I was ‘delighted’ about.”

He admits he’s considered stopping Twitter altogether, but finds it more valuable than damaging on balance. “One thing I don’t do is delete tweets – except when there’s a typo – then I quickly rewrite and post again. Deleting things you regret is dishonest. If I take flak for something, even if I end up looking an idiot, trying to cover up would just make things worse.”

Barwell’s occasionally controversial Twitter account. Image public domain.

Does he think the electioneering of the future will take place mainly online? “No. I think Twitter is an overrated phenomenon when it comes to winning elections. It can be very powerful, but only when you already have a ground game.” The Obama 2012 campaign demonstrated the value of social media in co-ordinating volunteers on the streets, and closer to home, the local Tories are making much of their ‘ground game’ already. Does Barwell think he’ll hold his seat next year?

“I’m not going to say ‘yes’. Some MPs do, but I think you should never take anything for granted. I plan to run on my record. I’m encouraged that I rarely meet a supporter of mine from 2010 who says they’ll vote Labour next time.”

What about the bigger picture? “The Croydon Tories’ campaign is very well-resourced. I also think the national narrative will be positive for the Conservatives. It’ll be a tough election, but I believe that faced with the choice of who gets into Downing Street, most people in Croydon will choose Cameron over Miliband.”

I ask where Barwell imagines Croydon will be in a year’s time. As voters go to the polls in May 2015, Barwell believes they will do so in a town where unemployment will have continued to fall, quality of life will have improved and optimism over Westfield will have kicked in. Several hundred million pounds will have been invested by this point, and ground will have been broken.

Even then, Westfield will still be two years away. What, in Barwell’s eyes, are the best things going on in Croydon right now?

“We need to see changes to help commuters – and fast.”

“Well, investment is already coming in off the back of the Westfield announcement. I think the money now being spent on improving public realm is good news, and should encourage other investors in the town.”

“I also think Tech City, as an independently developed initiative, is very important in terms of Croydon’s economy. We need a diverse economy – we can’t afford to be dependent on big companies. A thriving small, medium-sized and creative sector is vital for Croydon.”

I try, probably unsuccessfully, to hide my emphatic agreement with his last point. Then, I ask him what the worst things currently happening in Croydon are. He takes a moment to think.

East Croydon’s concourse. Barwell is keen to reinvigorate the often-strained station. Photo by Tagishsimon. Used under GNU Free Documentation licence.

“My biggest concerns are housing and rail transport.” Not what most would expect to hear from a Conservative MP, but on he goes. “Housing demand is going up and up – the people in need of help shouldn’t spend a long time in B&Bs. We need to act now to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

“Rail services are a big concern. I hear a lot from commuters in the constituency about the noticeable decline in punctuality. The stretch of line between Windmill Bridge Junction down to East Croydon is the main bottleneck on the whole London to Brighton line.” He’s right – and the London to Brighton line is the busiest stretch of line anywhere in the country. “The Thameslink upgrade and London Bridge upgrade will significantly improve capacity on the London Bridge route. But we need more than that – we need an upgrade at East Croydon. We need an extra two platforms and a new line north up to Windmill Bridge Junction itself. These are all planned, but for 2019-2020. We need those brought forward, and fast.”

I find myself trying to suppress indications of agreement again. But the electoral battle in Croydon won’t all be plain sailing for the Conservatives. Some of the Croydon properties damaged or destroyed by the 2011 riots are in Croydon Central, and perceived failures in riot compensation is a thorny issue for everyone. What is Barwell, influential MP that he apparently is, doing about it?

“The Riot Damages Act is a defective piece of legislation. Some people will not get a fair deal by design”, he says flatly, his frustration clear. Why? “The legislation sets limits on the compensation that the government can pay, and in a lot of cases people will not feel it’s adequate. There may well be a gap between what the average person thinks would be a fair compensation, and what the law allows. The government has accepted this and is changing the law.” Good news, then? “Well, no. It will only help those who – God forbid – are the victims of future riots. The legislation won’t be retroactive.”

“What happened with Andrew Pelling is my biggest regret in politics.”

When I spoke to Steve Reed, Barwell’s Labour neighbour in Croydon North, he played down the public impression of animosity between him and Barwell. Politics aside, the two claim they get on fine. Would Barwell say the same thing about Andrew Pelling?

“What happened with Andrew is my biggest regret in politics”, he says immediately, his tone sincere. ‘What happened’ began when Pelling was Barwell’s predecessor as Croydon Central’s MP. In 2007, after allegations of assault from his then-wife, Pelling was arrested, questioned and released without charge. The Conservative Parliamentary Party suspended him as a consequence, and Pelling eventually ran as an independent candidate against Barwell, who had won the Conservative selection. Pelling lost, and joined the Labour Party in 2011. He is standing for Labour in Waddon in the local elections on 22nd May.

“I don’t for a moment believe that Andrew is Labour”, says Barwell. “I think he joined them because he’s angry and wants to hurt us.” This is a serious claim indeed. Why is Barwell so sure? “He seemed to blame a lot of people in the local Conservative Party for decisions that were taken in Westminster. His response did a lot more damage to the local party than the national party.”

“Andrew was one of my best friends. When he was leader of the Conservative group [on the council], I was one of his two deputies. He was a person I looked up when I got involved in local politics. We worked well together, and we were close.” There’s a sadness in Barwell now, so I move to wrap things up. Their friendship seemed a distant memory in recent years, particularly during and after the 2010 election. Has there been any improvement since? Barwell pauses. “I think we have a civil relationship now”, he says. I decide to leave it at that.

No men in dark suits, no police escort – he’s a bloke from Croydon in a fleece

We say our goodbyes, swapping another couple of nerdy psephological theories on the way to the door. Then the MP for Croydon Central is gone. No men in dark suits follow him, no police cars arrive to escort him. He’s a bloke from Croydon in a fleece, and as much as I disagree with many of his priorities, I can’t help but like him. Then I laugh. I’ve become one of his oft-surveyed Labour voters.

Gavin Barwell (MP, Croydon Central) and Steve Reed (MP, Croydon North) will be discussing Croydon Tech City on Thursday April 10th at 7pm at Croydon Conference Centre.

Registration is required: either by signing up to the event on Eventbrite or  with your name to confirm your attendance.

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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  • Anne Giles

    I am glad you two got on so well!

  • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

    “I think it’s a good thing for councillors and MPs to be involved in
    charities and community groups”, he explains. “That’s why I won’t

    Such a shame that there’s only one charity in Croydon

    “You can’t run a school for profit, that’s not legal.”

    It is one of the great lies of the 21st century that just because you dont have shareholders or are a cooperative you’re not running to make a profit.
    Does Gavin think the Co-op and the John Lewis partnership aren’t run for profit either?