The Public Gallery: ‘Lettergate’ and the peculiar politics of Tech City


By - Thursday 26th September, 2013

Ever thought about becoming a [Conservative] councillor?

After the mind-numbing farce that was Walkgate, it’s no surprise that commentators steered clear of coining ‘Lettergate’ this week. Yes, I think that’s a better sounding ‘-gate’ too. And the story’s much more interesting.

Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, sent a letter to households in Addiscombe asking whether residents had ever considered running for the council. There’s merit to this, on the face of it – get ordinary people involved in politics, broaden the skillset of our representatives, prevent it existing in a bubble. All very noble.

But the fact that Barwell was writing on behalf of the Croydon Conservatives was conspicuous by its absence. Local residents who contacted Barwell but wanted to run for Labour were given ‘the relevant contact details’, assured Barwell’s assistant Mario Creatura on Twitter. Even if that’s true, the whole thing feels a little underhand. Sneaky, perhaps.

But why do it? It’s no secret that some parties in certain parts of the country struggle to get enough candidates to stand in every ward of a local election. I’m sure the Jarrow Conservative Association has as much trouble as Torbay Labour in this regard. But Addiscombe is a winnable ward for the Tories, and one they have history in. If they’re struggling to find talent there, it doesn’t bode well for them in 2014.

Barwell writing the letters ‘says a lot about who is the brains behind the operation’

The choice to put Gavin’s name on the letter – and indeed use his time if he indeed wrote it – is also telling. Why not Mike Fisher? Mr Fisher is the head of Croydon Conservatives, and if you needed me to tell you that we’re probably half way to working out why he didn’t sign the letters in question. Barwell is an MP and has a much bigger profile. But Steve Reed isn’t doing the same thing for Croydon Labour. Tony Newman spares no opportunity to use and improve his own public profile – understandably, given his ambition to be the next leader of a Labour Croydon Council. Is it really Barwell’s role to take such a direct involvement in council matters?

Perhaps it is. Barwell started his own political career as a councillor in Coulsdon, after all, and can speak to the success he had in rising through the ranks and eventually being elected to Westminster. But there’s something being said here about how the Croydon Conservatives view their own leadership, surely. Some commentators are postulating that Barwell writing the letters ‘says a lot about who is the brains behind the operation’.

But the plot thickens. I have it on good authority that Gavin has approached people directly, some months ago, recruiting for Addiscombe ward. One individual was praised by Gavin for their great work with young people, and this dialogue eventually led to an encouragement to run for the council. Again, the necessity of joining the Tories was ‘underplayed’.

This is more than a letter over the summer. It is a concerted effort. Alarm bells are ringing in Croydon Conservative HQ, and it looks like they’re coming from Addiscombe.

Tech City ought to be caught in a tug-of-love between the Conservatives and Labour – but it isn’t

It’s been an interesting week for Croydon Tech City’s relationship with politics. As a movement, it naturally attracts a certain kind of ‘sod the politicians, let’s do it ourselves’ individual, and this week its members were happy to demonstrate quite how strongly they held this view.

A fiery debate about gentrification unfurled in the town’s twittersphere on Friday as Labour councillor Tim Godfrey retweeted an article which seemed to accuse CTC of doing nothing for local working class people. Co-founder Nigel Dias was quick to go on the offensive - though he unfortunately didn’t seem aware that the correct demonym for Croydonians is not ‘Croydoners’.

There are Katharine Street rumblings that suggest Godfrey has been digitally treading on some other toes, too – his tweets on the Hammerson-Westfield development’s required compulsory purchase orders landed him in hot water with the Croydon Labour leadership.

Tech City’s goal of a Code Club in every Croydon Primary School is an ideal opportunity for politico-technophile co-operation

All this comes after weeks of  rumours about Croydon Labour trying to ‘court’ CTC, notably its charismatic (and frighteningly energetic) founder Jonny Rose. Talk of Rose being invited to ‘confidential’ Labour meetings in the Town Hall and appearing unimpressed has added to tensions between the political and tech camps.

It doesn’t have to be this way – local CTC member Ash Rishi is full of praise for what he feels tech and Tech City can achieve for working class people. A union of some sorts between the political and start-up spheres would be beneficial to Croydon. One of CTC’s universally applauded goals is the creation of a Code Club in every Croydon primary school by 2015. An ideal opportunity for politico-technophile co-operation! But is it on the cards? Rose seems to find his help for Croydon Labour unrequited and the Tories have yet to attempt to co-operate with Tech City. I suspect the 2014 election will partially be decided by which party comes out in full-throated support for Tech City first. While that is good news for Jonny Rose (assuming he enjoys being wined and dined), it will be better news for Croydon – especially when our borough has a fleet of tech companies and a generation of code-literate children. White heat indeed.

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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  • bieneosa

    Another must-read installment! I’m looking forward to our collaboration on Croydon Radio.

  • Liz Sheppard-Jones

    Must read indeed!

  • Liz Sheppard-Jones

    Must-read indeed!