The Public Gallery: Boris and Lucas on the campaign trail ’14

By - Thursday 15th May, 2014

The polls open one week from today. In another bumper TPG (there is an election coming up, after all) Tom Black reviews another intense week of campaigning – with ‘celebrity’ guests

Caroline Lucas MP raises Green spirits even further than usual

Shouts to Andrew Pelling of ‘are you going to join the Greens next, Andrew?’ were the first thing I became aware of when I joined the Croydon Greens on Park Hill. The former Conservative MP, who joined Labour in 2011, was beating a hasty retreat as I arrived. The righteous might of the ever-numerous and forthright Croydon Greens was just too much for him.

The local Greens are a spirited bunch. For this photo op with former leader and current MP Caroline Lucas, they were on even brighter form. Citizen contributor Shasha Khan had asked me along to survey their ‘awareness campaign’, which involved (as always) a giant banner. When the pictures were taken, I managed to grab a few words with Lucas and Khan.

The fracking protest in Park Hill this week.
Photo by Green Party of England & Wales. Used with permission.

Lucas was keen to stress the issue they’d come to Park Hill to talk about. “I’m sure many people in Croydon don’t realise that this is an area that could be targeted by those companies that want to frack,” she said. This park specifically? “This sort of area…” she began, before Khan explained further. “Yes, this is a license area. Green fields, even ancient woodland could be considered.”

Lucas nodded. “That’s why I think it’s important to send a message that fracking companies aren’t welcome in Croydon. Experts are saying we need to leave up to 80% of all known fossil fuel reserves in the ground – it’s pretty perverse to try to reach even harder-to-access fossil fuels.”

For the first time in history, the Greens have a council they can point to for a record in local government – Green minority council Brighton & Hove. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jason Kitcat’s administration in the city has had a rough ride from many in the media. There’s a wealth of websites out there criticising a perceived ‘Green betrayal’, as cuts are imposed in the city. I asked Lucas if she’d encountered much hostility toward the idea of Greens in local government during this campaign. Her response was confident.

“I think, actually, most people are delighted that there is now a Green council that can show Green policies in action. For example, it’s been at the forefront of bringing the living wage to Brighton & Hove. We’ve got more private companies involved in the living wage there than in anywhere outside London. And one of the first things the Greens did was reduce the wages of the council chief exec, and increase the pay of council employees on the lowest wages.”

“But,” she said with a knowing grimace, “to get more to the heart of what your question is probing at, any council which is facing a government ourtsourcing its cuts strategy to such an extent is going to face some challenges. Brighton & Hove is facing 25 million pounds of cuts. Any administration facing that level of brutality is going to find it difficult. But they’ve managed to keep libraries open, and they’ve managed to keep social care in council hands.”

Related to council funds, I asked Khan about the Greens’ plans for council tax. “We’ll keep it in line with inflation. But there are lots of savings to be made – the incinerator that’s been approved will cost us a lot more money over twenty-five years. The actual cost of waste to be sent to an incinerator is in the region of £90 per tonne, reuse and recycling would be £30. There are savings to be made, and this cuts agenda is not necessary.”

“I look forward to looking at the paper,” said Lucas as we parted. Perhaps she and Ed will compare notes. 

The Face That Launched A Thousand Selfies

One politician who won’t be thumbing through a copy of the Citizen (due to his zealous minders) is Boris Johnson. The Conservatives, not to be outdone by Labour or the Greens, got the Mayor of London to visit Croydon on Wednesday. It remains to be seen whether Norman Lamb or Tim Congdon will be doing walkabouts with John Jefkins or Peter Staveley next week.

Boris arrived at East Croydon wearing an enormous backpack. I’m not sure how, but once he and his Conservative vanguard had left the station, said backpack had disappeared.

What happened next was a display of political celebrity of near-messianic proportions. During Boris’ ‘walkabout’ of Croydon (which essentially amounted to the mayor doing a lap of the town centre), there were occasional shouts of ‘the Conservatives are crap’ or words to that effect. But by and large, Boris was greeted with shouts of joy, cheers and young men and women being overcome with excitement. You’d think the Mayor of London was Justin Timberlake.

Image by Wikipedia. Used under Creative Commons Licence.

In between all this, I did manage to grab a few moments with Boris. As we strode through the Whitgift Centre, he was pleased to tell me he “just can’t keep away from Croydon”. He’s not wrong – he visits quite often, although any correlation between such visits and elections is surely coincidental. But what is it that keeps him coming back, I ask.

“Well, Croydon is one of the key economic powerhouses of London, and it has an amazing future. One of the reasons we helped to build that bridge is to open up all the area we’re standing in now, it’s going to be the new Westfield and Hammerson. So it’s about jobs, it’s about growth and it’s about getting people into work in Croydon.”

An economic powerhouse is all well and good (and more power to those who want to help Croydon become one), but it doesn’t sound particularly fun. I asked Boris what he really liked about Croydon. What’s his favourite aspect?

“Croydon has many, erm, well, there’s… well, what’s the best thing about Croydon? Hmm. There’s… there’s so many wonderful things, it’s hard to… Steve, what’s the name of that pub?”

Steve O’Connell, councillor and GLA member, had arrived to assist. “A journalist has asked me what the best thing in Croydon is,” said Boris, to which Steve replied: “Well, there’s the cultural stuff, the restaurant quarter, Surrey Street market of course…”

Boris still couldn’t make his mind up, so I suggested the trams were probably a really good thing about Croydon, surely? The Mayor leaped into life once more.

“Yes! The Croydon tram, which we took over and expanded.” Any other expansions on the horizon? To Crystal Palace? “Going ahead with that.” Any idea of when? Boris turned to face me for this bit – he’s quite an intense fellow when he wants to be. “It’s… it’s on its way.” I know what that means, I said, and he realised what I was getting at. “No, no,” he said after a moment, and then very earnestly and quietly, added, “we are doing it. We are gonna do it.”

I very much hope so. O’Connell, at this point, told me it was time to move the mayor on – he was here to meet Real Hardworking People, not journalists. Fair enough. I shook Boris’ hand again as a farewell, and he gave me a parting gift of knowledge : “You know who did love Croydon – the French president loved Croydon. Nicholas Sarkozy, he said Croydon was the place to imitate.”

I already knew that, but it was nice to be reminded of it all the same. Boris remained in Croydon for another forty-five minutes or so, and by the time we got to North End he was unable to walk more than a few feet without someone demanding a selfie. The man has a popular appeal that any other politician in the UK must envy. He’s a celebrity first, and a politician second. The Croydon Conservatives, like their colleagues in Labour and the Greens, must be hoping some of his star power rubbed off on them. I just wish he’d been able to name something he loved about Croydon.

Who won Croydon Decides?

The Advertiser‘s election debate was held on Tuesday night. Tracey Hague (Green Party), Peter Staveley (UKIP), Tony Newman (Labour), Mike Fisher (Conservative), and John Jefkins (Liberal Democrats) spoke on behalf of their respective parties, taking questions from Advertiser editor Glenn Ebrey, and from the audience.

So who won? I have my biases (see bio below) but while trying to be objective, I was genuinely impressed with Tony Newman’s performance. He didn’t bluster or shout, and came across as a man in command of the facts and full of ideas – he reeled off a machine-gun of policies on more than one occasion. The Conservatives regularly accuse Newman of not knowing how to pay for or implement his proposals. The impression he gave on Tuesday will have done much to shield him from such criticism.

That being said, it will be no surprise that the other most experienced candidate, Mike Fisher, came across fairly well too. Also coming across as ‘in command of the facts’, he looked like he belonged in the driving seat. However, he had a tendency to appear patronising (particularly toward John Jefkins, who at one point looked like he was going to clothesline the leader of Croydon Council).

Jefkins himself was not on great form, coming across as grumpy and, at times, quite bitter. Some strong defences of ‘policing by consent’ and calls for action on flytipping were this Lib Dem’s zenith. UKIP’s Peter Staveley was also not hugely inspiring – though he steered well clear of the inflammatory rhetoric pursued by his colleagues around the country. A good writer and thinker, I can’t help but feel that Staveley would make an able backroom boy or cabinet member – our modern politics demand a certain charisma from its leaders, and I’m not sure he has them.

By contrast, the Greens’ Tracey Hague proved a strong public speaker and kept the audience’s attention whenever she spoke. More appealing than Fisher, and at times Newman, she would have benefited from more policies and proposals directly aimed at Croydon – although those local ideas that she did have came over well. In contrast to the tenseness between Jefkins and Fisher, Hague also aided a surprised Peter Staveley by lifting his glass of water out of harm’s way while the UKIP leader wrestled with a microphone. It’s not such a greasy pole after all.

But who I think ‘won’ the debate is immaterial. What matters is what the candidates proposed. You can find out, in detail, by reading the Citizen’s livetweet of the event here.

Narrowing national narrative is negative for Newman

A few weeks ago, I ran through the national polls and their likely impact on Croydon. Those of you who are pollwatchers of any regularity will have noticed that the lie of the land is rather different now.

Labour’s lead, which has been diminishing for some time, has apparently evaporated in the past five days. At time of writing, the UK polling average is 33-35-9. Taking into account margin of error, it seems that the Conservatives and Labour are basically tied somewhere around 34% each.

Croydon Labour Party presents its new contract with trade unions, and shows the Greens do not have a monopoly on banners. But will it be enough?
Photo by Labour Party, used with permission.

If this isn’t just a flash in the pan – and it could be – by the middle of next week, we could be looking at a national polling average that has Labour and the Conservatives not only neck-and-neck, but also both in the low thirties. This would be unprecedented, and it would make the outcome very tricky indeed to predict, considering Croydon’s usual status as a follower of the national trend.

Neck-and-neck might sound like it’s no worse for one side or the other, but it is in fact slightly worse news for Croydon Labour. Tony Newman may have performed well on Tuesday night. Croydon Labour’s contract with local trade unions, promising a living wage borough and other commitments, will probably shore up their base vote. But ultimately, Labour is the opposition seeking to win control. History shows that they, not the Conservatives, are the ones more in need of a convincing lead. Neck-and-neck means no swing, and no swing means the status quo.

But a week is a long time in politics.

See you next Thursday.

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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