The Public Gallery: The aftermath

By - Thursday 14th May, 2015

Continuing his appalling record with predictions, Tom Black gives the lowdown on Election 2015 as the dust finally settles

Well, that was a surprise, wasn’t it?

Tonight at 10:00pm will be exactly one week since the BBC published that exit poll. One week since David Cameron spat out his coffee and Ed Miliband opened up LinkedIn on his phone. One week since Gavin Barwell thought: ‘I might be alright, you know.’

For the Conservative result of 316 seats – as was then predicted – was surely going to include Croydon Central. In the event, very few seats went from blue to red, and Barwell’s constituency was indeed not one of them. Instead, Barwell is one of the 330 Conservative MPs forming the first majority Tory government since 1992.

Chris Philp became Croydon’s newest MP in Croydon South, while Steve Reed comfortably held Croydon North for Labour. But while the country had clearly decided not to provide the knife-edge result the pollsters expected, Croydon Central certainly delivered in that regard. While not the closest seat in the country, Barwell’s majority of 165 was an agonisingly bitter pill for Croydon Labour to swallow, and earned Croydon Central the title of ‘fourth most marginal seat’.

So while national expectations were not quite met (take it up with YouGov, not me), here at least we got the photo-finish we’d been promised. And speaking of expectations…

The elephant in the room

I hope Sarah Jones doesn’t consider my prediction last week to be a jinx that cost her the election.

In seriousness, my prediction – that Jones would win due to her bigger and better ground operation, but Barwell’s personal vote would be high – was only really wrong on the first of these criteria. (Yes, I know that’s the one which matters – be quiet at the back.)

The Croydon Central result in full.

The Labour ground operation was indeed strong, and – while figures are hard to come by – it looks like it was bigger than Barwell’s on the day. Barwell’s personal vote, too, is difficult to pin down, but when you look at the raw numbers, he gained 3,096 votes on his last performance in 2010. How much of that was ‘the Pelling vote’, which could have uniformly gone to the Conservatives but seems to have at least partially gone to UKIP? How much of it was ex-Lib Dems, who we now know broke for the Conservatives more than Labour in far larger numbers than pollsters anticipated?

We can’t know without more detailed polling than we have available, but it seems a fair bet that a chunk of his increased vote (but not overall vote-share) came from Barwell’s personally-focused campaign, capitalising on what we now know to have been a high first-term incumbency boost for Conservatives elected in 2010.

Labour’s problem nationally has been explained as ‘we spoke to more people than the Tories, but people weren’t buying what we were selling’. That does seem to have been true in Croydon Central, but all the same, the tiny margin of victory for Barwell makes me wonder. It was so close, and Croydon’s direction of travel was leftward. In vote-share, Croydon Central saw a 2.8% swing to Labour. Steve Reed increased on Malcolm Wicks’ majority in Croydon North from 2010 (by elections are usually ignored in swing calculations). More people voted Labour in Croydon South than at any election ever.

The country rejected Labour on the whole. But the above shows Croydon did not do so with anything like the vehemence of the rest of England, to say nothing of Scotland. Why, then, did Croydon Labour fall slightly short in the one contest they absolutely needed to win?

Was it Twitter wot lost it?

Since the election, Conservatives have been keen on pointing out that Twitter is not, as it happens, representative of the British electorate. It certainly wasn’t representative of voters in Croydon Central.

In the days since the result, I’ve been looking back on the campaign – and the last five years – and marvelling at the difference between the mood on Twitter and the electorate’s final verdict. Croydon’s Twitterati seemed to by and large be uniformly opposed to Barwell. The voters… well, they didn’t choose him by much, but choose him they did.

#BinBarwell became a popular hashtag, eventually brought perfectly to life by an oft-retweeted photo of a Barwell placard discarded in the back of a Croydon Council refuse truck. But it seemed that while there were lots of people prepared to retweet pictures and hashtags, and even set up painfully unfunny parody accounts, far fewer were prepared to actually head out and deliver leaflets in the campaign against Barwell.

If just 83 people had changed their minds, the #BinBarwell brigade would have got its wish

Of course, Twitter can be a great way of engaging and encouraging your activists. Committed operatives on both sides – such as activist David White or councillors Mario Creatura and Stephen Mann – showed that it was perfectly possible to hit the streets for your candidate by day and fight the ‘air war’ on Twitter by night.

But there were also those who chose only to do the latter: people who seemed dedicated to spelling out their vitriol against Gavin Barwell in 140 characters – or more, if they were bloggers – but not taking to the doorstep to actually meet undecided voters.

Gavin Barwell held on to the seat by 165 votes. If just 83 people had changed their minds, the #BinBarwell brigade would have got its wish.

I wonder how many doors could have been knocked on in the time it took to engage in slanging matches with Conservative activists? How many leaflets could have been delivered by hands otherwise engaged writing puerile attack blogs?

There were two types of campaigner: the tweeters and the doers

For reasons that are presumably obvious, I tend to leave my personal politics at the door when writing the Public Gallery. But for context, I’ll confirm something that many of you probably guessed: I campaigned for Sarah Jones. In fact, on at least one occasion, my phone was filling up with angry yet baffling messages from individuals directing their anti-Barwell rage at me while I was knocking on doors for his opponent. If I was out doing that, where were they?

I’m not omniscient – I don’t know exactly what everyone did or didn’t do during the campaign. But a pattern emerged: with some notable exceptions such as the aforementioned David White, there were two types of campaigner in this election – the tweeters and the doers.

Like many Labour activists – and perhaps the party as a whole – in hindsight, I have to admit that my foot wasn’t quite on the accelerator. I took too much for granted, and could have attended more canvassing sessions. When the result came in, I wished I had done more. I can’t imagine how those who didn’t knock on a single door felt.

Probably like writing another tweet.

Politics continues – and so does the Citizen

The next general election is now very far away. The possibility of a second election caused by an unclear result disappeared the moment a clear result appeared.

But that doesn’t mean politics stops. Reed, Philp and Barwell now have to represent a divided borough during its most substantial period of development in several decades. Our councillors continue to do the work of local government, and they too have a mammoth task in making sure Croydon changes for the better, but leaves none of what is currently good behind.

On the electoral front, we have an EU referendum to prepare for, perhaps as soon as 2016. There are council elections in 2018. And of course, Croydon joins the rest of London in electing a new Mayor and Greater London Assembly next year.

With Europe, regeneration and the changing state of the economy guaranteed to spark debate and discussion in Croydon’s political sphere across the next parliament, the Citizen will surely be home to much lively discussion. If you’d like to be a part of it, submit an article today. If you’re a reader, not a writer, then strap yourself in – we ain’t seen nothing yet.

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.

More Posts - Twitter

  • Robert Ward

    Musings on why Labour lost are hard to avoid, both online and in the press. Most are wide of the mark, in my opinion. I will not add much to the already significant volume of words already written, both because I see no reason to help the opposition and because I do not wish to intrude on private grief.

    Suffice it to say that any analysis that ignores policy and blames tactical voting, failure to wear out enough shoe leather or not selling hard enough is plain wrong.

    • Tom Black

      I do agree with you there, Robert – personally my views on why Labour lost nationally are rather more complex than those outlined in this article and in your comment. In hindsight I think it’s clear the fundamental point the Conservatives kept hammering home – ‘don’t give the keys back to the party that crashed the car’ – was much more powerful than Labour realised and they failed to respond satisfactorily. Whether a satisfactory response was even possible is another matter.

      In Croydon Central, however, the size of Barwell’s majority does mean some discussion of shoe-leather is worth having – locally at least, Labour’s operation was big but, agonisingly for the Jones campaign, not quite big enough. But ultimately, that’s spilt milk.

      • Robert Ward

        The line on not giving the keys back, etc may have been in peoples’ minds, but should not have been a surprise given the Tories lead on economic competence. Nationally the entirely justifiable fear of an SNP influenced minority Labour government also had an impact late in the campaign.

        Regarding Croydon Central, Gavin B has let it be known that he had 300 activists on the street on election day, whereas I understand Labour had 500. In the days running up to the election my impression is that Labour had a similar advantage in numbers. How much more of an advantage would you like?

        • Tom Black

          Enough to change 83 people’s minds ;)

          • moguloilman


            My secret predictive model calculates there aren’t enough Unite and Unison members combined to make that happen.

  • Pass The Deutschy

    Labour lost because the kids that voted for them in the 90s now have a bit of money and don’t want to be the victims of a class war and secondly remember first hand how they ballsed up the country. Sarah Jones lost because she’s clearly incompetent and that is why I refused to vote for her, the people who DID vote for her voted blindly because there is no way that you’re telling me that someone who cannot tell the difference between a free school and a grammar school should be an MP, I also found her very rude and she is not the kind of person I’d have liked to represent me and Croydon in parliament. I hope she never runs again, if that’s all Labour’s got to offer us God help us all.

  • Stephen Giles

    Perhaps Labour may have lost because enough voters disassociated themselves from its unprecidented amount of locally orchestrated nastyness, venom and spite.