The Public Gallery: Adjusting to power (and to opposition)

By - Thursday 12th June, 2014

Labour is running our town again, for the first time since 2006. Tom Black looks at how the party is adjusting to its responsibilities and how the Conservatives are handling opposition

Labour claims a flying start on flytipping

Labour’s back. In more ways than one – the new cabinet contains faces familiar to those who watched the last Labour council, which left office in 2006, in action. The Conservatives were keen to hammer that home as a campaign message, and have been loudly pointing it out since the election.

But what’s undeniable is the zeal with which the left wing party has thrown itself back into the work of government. Fears of thumb-twiddling and a long summer of “‘erm, well, yes, here we are” proved unfounded as initiatives on two of Labour’s main manifesto prongs – flytipping and culture – built up a head of steam.

Culture now has a cabinet member and a deputy acting on its behalf and its budget is in the process of being restored. Labour’s manifesto commitments to libraries began to materialise when they announced a planned return to the old levels of co-funding for Upper Norwood Library alongside Lambeth Council.

The borough’s new ‘Don’t mess with Croydon’ campaign is also a product of the Labour victory. Tough messaging and the language of ‘crackdowns’ will likely impress those who demanded action on cleaner streets. Plans are already in place to establish ‘covert CCTV’ in known flytipping hotspots. All it takes is an image of a number plate and suddenly the bastards polluting our streets will have a fixed penalty notice coming their way.

However, in spite of the rhetoric used by some Labour figures (including Steve Reed MP) regarding the last council’s very low record of prosecutions for flytipping, don’t expect Labour to seek to do much better. A fixed penalty notice can be issued much more easily than a prosecution can be obtained. The on-the-spot fines that penalty notices carry are also a fairly strong deterrent in their own right. That said, promises to ‘do better’ than the 0.03% prosecution rate obtained by the last council may leave voters disappointed. Still, flytippers are going to face a tougher regime – something demonstrated by last week’s news that five fixed penalty notices were issued in one day after flytippers were caught in the act in the north of the borough.

Labour pledged to ‘clean up our town’. The administration is off to a good start and disappointments that may ensue are likely to be swept aside by the 12-18 month honeymoon period it is likely to be gifted. But the 2015 general election is only eleven months away. Tony Newman and colleagues know they need to have a slate of juicy achievements and promises fulfilled to present to voters in the spring of next year. If they can pull that off, Sarah Jones, Labour’s candidate, has a strong chance of replacing Gavin Barwell as MP for Croydon Central. If, on the other hand, they look like failures, Jones will face an uphill battle against a seat that is potentially hostile to Labour.

Yesterday’s men are planning for tomorrow

Individuals hoping for a 1997-esque implosion of the Conservative Party will have been disappointed by the behaviour of Croydon Conservatives since their defeat three weeks ago. Apart from a few bitter words flying under the radar here and there, the party has been relatively united.

Conservative leader Mike Fisher was unanimously re-elected the day after the election results. But this was only eight hours after the final result, so everyone will admittedly have been very tired, and not exactly in the mood for a debate on the future of the party. Furthermore, there’s a feeling in Katharine Street corridors that the Conservatives fear that their next electoral test – keeping Gavin Barwell in post – will not be as easy as was once supposed.

Local Tories have for years believed that a large amount of Andrew Pelling’s ‘Independent’ vote tally in 2010 will ‘come back’ to them in 2015, making Barwell’s small majority rather more secure. When Pelling joined Labour, many thought this was a sure thing. But two things have thrown a rather large spanner into these speculative works: the high UKIP vote last month and the scale of Labour’s council victory in the Croydon Central constituency. Five of the constituency’s eight wards are now Labour, which has put Barwell in an unenviable position.

But what does all this mean for Mike Fisher? Put simply, any potential ‘crown princes’ (to borrow the phrase used to describe Harold Wilson’s jostling would-be successors in 1976) are not going to be keen to seize the leadership when it’s about to oversee a defeat. If the Conservatives think they’re going to lose Central, likely candidates for the leadership like Tim Pollard and Phil Thomas won’t be trying to snatch Fisher’s poisoned chalice from him any time soon.

“Go back to your wards and prepare for opposition”

Which isn’t to say the Conservatives are sitting idle. The return of GLA member and councillor Steve O’Connell to Twitter, allegedly after a briefing from Barwell on ‘the war in cyberspace’, suggests the Conservatives are keen to gain the same kind of gadfly-esque presence Croydon Labour had in the run-up to the last election.

But it’s not just a matter of joining social media sites that less than 5% of Croydon’s electorate even use. On matters of policy, the Croydon Conservatives are already doing what they call “tearing into Labour for the good of the town”. Labour’s much-vaunted ‘saving’ of Upper Norwood Library, discussed above, is already attracting briefings from the opposition. It’s in Lambeth, they say. ‘People in Croydon use it,’ is not a good enough reason to fund another council’s library, they insist.

This response has not been widespread or particularly public – comments from the Conservatives are absent from articles announcing Labour’s pledge to return to matching Lambeth’s funding for the library. It’ll clearly take time for their media machine to get used to opposition briefings.

Incidentally, one thing you can definitely say about Upper Norwood Library is that you can pick up copies of the Citizen‘s print edition there. If that’s not a good enough reason to keep it funded, I don’t know what is.

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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