The Public Gallery: Reshufflemania in the Confederate States of Croydon

By - Thursday 10th October, 2013

Reshuffles bring joy – and consequences – for Croydon MPs

As Cameron and Miliband reshuffled their frontbench teams this week, two of Croydon’s MPs were promoted within their parties, and a third became a Privy Councillor. The recipient of this last honour is Richard Ottaway, Croydon South’s long-serving MP who plans to retire at the next election. Croydon Central’s Gavin Barwell found himself elevated to the position of Assistant Whip, gaining responsibility for making sure Tory MPs toe the line on bills relating to foreign affairs and education matters. Steve Reed, Labour’s MP for Croydon North, was made a Shadow Home Office minister. He may find himself sparring with the new Liberal Democrat Home Office minister, Norman Baker, who found himself the subject of headlines this week when the press realised he was the first conspiracy theorist (though he’d rather we didn’t call him that) to be on the front bench since – well, since ever.

But what does this mean for little old Croydon? Will the allure of the buxom Westminster bubble keep them from their loyal, Croydonian sweetheart back home? With regards to those with their careers ahead rather than behind them, Barwell and Reed are popular locally for their surgeries, and are perceived as hardworking local MPs. The pressures and commitments of a frontbench career have scuppered many a similar reputation.

Barwell’s new role as a whip may also cause him some difficulty as he attempts to set out his stall as a ‘local champion’ who votes with his conscience. For a man who has faced criticism in the past for taking an oppositional position in the company of constituents and then voting with the government anyway, taking a job whose sole responsibility is the maintenance of the party line may prove problematic. A day after Barwell’s fellow Conservative Chloe Smith resigned from the frontbenches so she could concentrate on working to keep her marginal seat, Barwell has done the opposite.

Barwell may use his promotion to present himself as a professional operator at the heart of government

Alternatively, Barwell may use his promotion (or another, if he is in a different role by 2015) to present himself as a professional operator at the heart of government, and stress his experience. This could play well against the probable ‘insurgent outsider’ campaign of Sarah Jones, though may equally backfire if voters connect with her ‘ordinary person, not a politician’ message.

In Labour-held Croydon North, Steve Reed faces little meaningful risk of defeat, so is likely to be able to concentrate on his ministerial prospects – tipped by many to be extremely good. Similarly, Ottaway’s seat of Croydon South is not only safe as houses for the Conservatives, but Ottaway himself is stepping down at the next election. His elevation to the Privy Council is a more personal affair that is unlikely to affect Croydon’s voters.

Some wider national issues prominent in the reshuffle also have relevance to Croydon. Ed Miliband’s repositioning of Labour’s frontbench has been described as a ‘Blairite purge’ by the uninitiated but is notable for the number of its new intake who are hostile towards the HS2 high speed rail link to Birmingham. Croydon’s economy would be a knock-on beneficiary of the line, which in recent weeks has come under more fire than usual – with Labour hardening against it and the Tory commitment to it waning, the possibility of Croydon Tech City being able to promote a ‘one change to Birmingham’ slogan is getting slimmer.

“A Borough divided against itself cannot stand” – Cllr A. Lincoln (Illinois West)

What do Coulsdon and Ashburton have in common with 19th century South Carolina? More than you’d think.

You can put the pitchfork, tar and feathers away. I’m not about to accuse anyone of supporting slavery. While a belief that men had a right to own other men was the spark which ignited the secession of the Confederate States of America in 1861, its wider political goal was to get away from the federal authority of Washington DC, which the southern states saw as not acting in their interests.

Such perspectives will sound familiar to some residents of Ashburton and Coulsdon. In the latter, the Coulsdon West Residents’ Association (CWRA, not to be confused with the Colombian Workers’ Revolutionary Army) has dug up an old issue by stating a desire to secede from Croydon and ‘rejoin’ Surrey. They cite neglect from an uncooperative and uninterested council, and there’re plenty of reasons to sympathise with that view. The myriad issues regarding Coulsdon’s stalled regeneration will be explored by me in a forthcoming Citizen piece.

Coulsdon residents return Tory councillors time and time again, get angry when they don’t listen, then vote for them again

Croydon UKIP leader Peter Staveley (who has this week been facing some internal troubles of his own) will doubtless be very excited at the possibility of a rising disgruntled, traditionally Tory but anti-establishment vote in Coulsdon. But there is another possibility – although it is more than a few extrapolations away from the CWRA’s current announcements. In some larger councils elsewhere, local residents facing similar levels of perceived isolation and neglect from their councillors have taken more drastic action. The Morley Borough Independents, for example, came about after years of discontent with Labour in the south Leeds town. Morley’s electorate felt alienated and ignored by Leeds City Council’s Labour group, yet could not bring themselves to vote Conservative – similarly, Coulsdon residents return Tory councillors time and time again, get angry when they don’t listen, then vote for them again.

The ‘Morley Independents’ have five council seats and have proved good at holding onto them. The CWRA will doubtless be intrigued by their success, but it is residents of Ashburton who already seem to have been somewhat inspired. Rumours are circulating that groups of locals are clubbing together to run on a platform of not claiming council allowances, which they believe are extravagant and unnecessary. As Ashburton becomes a political battleground in 2014, this independent factor (should it materialise) may be a curveball nobody is quite sure how to strike.

For years, tribalism and the cycle of ‘vote x, complain about x, vote x again’ has made shouting at public meetings a common pastime among those Croydonians in need of blowing off steam. If Croydon Council continues to appear out-of-touch, monolithic and uncaringly federal, then maybe, just maybe, we shall see an altogether more electoral outlet for people’s frustrations. Yee-haw.

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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  • moguloilman

    Labour reshuffle “described as a ‘Blairite purge’ by the uninitiated”.

    Clearly I am uninitiated so into what does one need to be initiated in order to see it otherwise, and does one’s initiation make for a clearer or less clear view?

    • Tom Black

      The political bubble, I suppose – though the jury is very much out on whether that’s a good thing to be initiated in. In this instance, however, an awareness of the Labour bubble points out the promotion of Blairite Tristram Hunt to the key brief of education, as well as greater responsibilities for De Piero and Alexander. LabourList explained in more detail why the ‘Blairite cull’ or purge label is too simplistic here:

  • Mario Creatura

    If Sarah Jones is genuinely considering running an ‘ordinary person, not a politician’ campaign then that will likely backfire.

    First, Jones went to the fee-paying school Old Palace of John Whitgift. Her mother is a governor on the Whitgift Foundation. Jones’s son goes to Trinity School (the same school that Barwell went to as a child). Does that tie into the ‘ordinary’ message?

    Second, she couldn’t be more of a professional politician if she tried. Jones has held roles in policy support for Labour MP Mo Mowlam and the generally disliked former Croydon MP Geraint Davies. Jones is also up front no her website about being employed as a spin doctor for the London Labour Party.

    Whilst I have no personal problem with ‘professional politicians’ (only 15% of current MPs fit that category) for Jones to even begin to think she can claim in her campaign that she is ‘not a politician’ is frankly ludicrous.

    Friends of mine in Labour HQ quietly tell me that, although on the face of it numerically Croydon Central is a target seat, that in reality it’s really not a priority for them.

    They are aware that a progressive Conservative like Gavin is very appealing to Blairite Labour Party voters. Labour HQ quietly accept that Gavin will have had five years of very good national media performances (e.g. Mental Health Bill and Lillian’s Law). They get that even Labour voters in Central accept that he is a very strong constituency MP (constant canvassing/strong activist base/public meetings/increasing hospital and schools funding etc.). Labour HQ are also electorally realistic – they are acutely aware in private that many on the circa 3,000 Pelling/independent votes of 2010 were likely Conservative in origin and many of them are therefore (with Pelling’s defection to Labour) likely to return to an incumbent Barwell in 2015 (incumbency historically also increasing an MPs majority).

    With the national polls indicating that Labour have a long way to go to gain an outright majority (historically improbable at this stage but still possible), if Tom is right and Gavin is made a senior Minister by then, then his profile will be even bigger than it is already. This private admission from Labour HQ and the electoral math coupled with a faux ‘woman of the people’ campaign from Jones may see the Central election being not as close as some local commentators would have you believe.

    • Tom Black

      I didn’t imply Gavin will become a senior minister, I suggested there’s a possibility he’ll have ‘another role’ by the election. I think a senior ministerial role for Gavin this side of the next election is unlikely, for the record.

      I’d also be wary of briefing against Sarah Jones so forcefully just yet, as she’s not yet begun to indicate the tone of her campaign against Barwell. My speculations are simply on the strength of her internal campaign within Croydon Labour, where deliberately or otherwise she ended up as the anti-establishment candidate. Let’s see how she goes in to position herself for the general before we get too analytical (or indeed personal).

      • Mario Creatura

        Nothing personal meant, merely pointing out the fact-based problems she’d experience were she to go down that route.

        Interesting times ahead…

      • Guest

        Are there no boundaries when it comes to attacking political opponents? I personally find it abhorrent when reference is made to a person’s family. Play the ball and not the [woman].

    • bieneosa

      Are there no boundaries when it comes to attacking political opponents? I
      find it abhorrent when reference is made to a person’s
      family. Play the ball and not the [woman].

      • Mario Creatura

        I complimented the impressive Old Palace and the excellent Trinity school. There was no insult and no lie in the above post. I was merely pointing out that if Jones was to choose to use the ‘ordinary person’ campaign message to contrast herself to Barwell then it would not be right. As as comms specialist, I’m sure you would agree that is a false narrative and bad campaigning.

        It’s not an attack – I’m representing my own views on campaign messaging and no-one else’s. Everything you object to above is fact and meant in the best possible spirit.

        • Christian Wilcox

          I also went to Trinity. And I am VERY in-touch with the common man because of my work & family origins ( and poverty due to disability ).

          The proof of the pie will be in the policy. Trinity has a 40% Bursary rate after all.

          • Mario Creatura

            Trinity is an excellent school – no question – and it’s a testament to her position on education policy that she acknowledges that. But I want all state schools to be like Trinity, until they are that makes the school by definition ‘uncommon’.

          • Christian Wilcox


            If she paid then fair enough. But if she scored a Bursary then…

            The world is bigger than just a name. What you do outside of that school is also part of life. And, being honest, Croydon was cheaper to live in back in Sarah’s school-days. So her family may not be that wealthy either.

          • Tom Black

            I also went to Trinity, and while I earned a scholarship, I was not granted a bursary. My parents and background could, however, hardly be described as well-off or excessively privileged. So I’d be wary of saying absolutely anyone who could (just) afford to be sent to private school is from a wealthy background.

            Besides, great figures of compassion and integrity when it comes to ‘ordinary people’ (itself a problematic term) have themselves been privately educated. George Orwell was an Old Etonian, lest we forget.

            The point I’m making is that while the main thing we should remember is that criticising someone for where they went to school is below the belt and unfair, it also certainly doesn’t necessarily make them a heartless or out of touch ivory-tower-dweller. This is what you initially said, Chris, and I agree – but I do have a problem with your attachment of the qualifier of ‘if she paid, then fair enough’. I don’t think it’s as simple as that, as what I said above seeks to show.

    • CroydonResident

      You only need to look at the biographies on both Gavin Barwell’s and Sarah Jones’ websites to see who is part of the Westminster elite looking after big businesses such as the energy companies rather than normal people who are dealing with increasing prices.

      While Sarah has worked in jobs outside of politics in housing, health and the Olympics, Gavin Barwell’s biography starts with “After graduating, he joined the Conservative Research Department” and became the Conservative Director of Operations and worked “closely” with leaders Michael Howard and David Cameron.

      Apart from four years working as an unspecified “consultant” from 2006 to 2010, Gavin Barwell’s wikipedia entry says that he worked with Lord Ashcroft on the Conservative’s targeted seat campaign and “significantly contributed to the Conservative’s 2010 general election plan”.

      Somehow, I would find it hard to believe that somebody who is part of the Westminster Conservative elite would be appealing to Labour voters like you say.

      • Christian Wilcox

        Blair appealed to Compassionate Conservatives.

        Some people still think Conservatism works. And in Croydon many of those are in the swing vote you need onside to win.

        Business acumen will be a big one people will be watching for. And faaar too many are bamboozled by high ranks ( even though those are easy to rig if the boss is iffy ).

    • Anne Giles

      She did lie about police cuts, though.

  • Rosa Napolitano

    I worked with Sarah when she worked for years in health. Don’t recognise the image this Mario is trying to create’. Sarah is just passionate about supporting the community she has lived in all her life- in my book there is nothing wrong with that.

    • Christian Wilcox

      Mario is opposition. He’ll happily mislead people if it gets people voting Tory.