The Public Gallery: Jones plays Jack Bauer and Barwell makes the front page as Labour’s Croydon lead narrows

By - Thursday 19th March, 2015

Black, you’re finally learning how to play the game. The Citizen’s Politics Editor on Jones’s all-nighter and how not to boost Barwell

Barwell makes front page of the Evening Standard over leaked templates for letters of endorsement

If you picked up the Evening Standard on Monday, you may have seen that Croydon was on the front page (we were on the front page on Tuesday, too, for more positive, economic reasons). The cause was Croydon Central’s Conservative MP, Gavin Barwell, and allegations that he had circulated letters to supporters asking them to write to their neighbours and endorse him as a local MP. Controversy erupted over Barwell’s phrase “I’m not asking you to write a political letter — in fact, it’ll be much more effective if it doesn’t mention the Conservative Party or David Cameron.” You can read the article here, and I recommend you do so: I’m not going to regurgitate all the details in this primarily analytical column.

The ‘scandal’ is a little bit overblown. Barwell’s response in the article itself makes clear that he is proud of Cameron’s record and sees the PM as an electoral asset – as indeed polling evidence suggests he is. Barwell is also far from the ‘awkward squad’ Conservative MPs who might seek to distance themselves from the outwardly moderate Cameron in an attempt to win over unsure right-wingers. We’re talking about a man considered to be second only to Cameron in terms of likelihood to defect to UKIP, after all.

Barwell also insists Cameron appears on many of his leaflets, and will continue to do so up to the election. The leaflets I’ve seen, and the answers given by Barwell on a regular basis, match his insistence. The Standard-constructed image of Barwell as a Conservative MP trying to hide his party allegiance doesn’t really make sense.

Trying to manufacture a grassroots endorsement is not the kind of thing you want to get caught doing

So what makes the matter problematic for Barwell is not really the ‘don’t mention the Tories’ aspect that Labour MPs joked about on Twitter. It’s the leaked template letters. Barwell’s explanation that they were all written by real people and his staff may have helped with the ‘drafting’ of one of them is vaguely satisfactory, but it’s still a bit of a stink that they were then sent around as templates for people to send to their neighbours. Trying to manufacture a grassroots endorsement is not the kind of thing you want to get caught doing.

But Barwell and the Conservatives will be somewhat relieved that the one-day story will have had a lower impact than most front pages of the Evening Standard. Many commuters don’t pick up a copy, but it’s always hard to miss the main headline, scattered as the paper is on seats, concourses and platforms. ‘London Tory MP: Don’t mention Cameron’ would be a bad phrase to have enter the zeitgeist.

On this occasion, however, it was obscured on unopened copies of the Standard by a wraparound for Virgin East Coast – the new private operators of the recently sold-off East Coast rail franchise. Barwell must be breathing at least a small sigh of relief, and perhaps appreciating the cosmic coincidence that, in a roundabout way, allowed his government’s policies to spare him a little extra embarrassment.

Labour maintains a lead in Croydon Central – but the Conservatives are catching up

As the national polls continue to sit at a dead heat (we shall see whether yesterday’s budget pushes either side back into a regular lead), Lord Ashcroft has done another of his helpful polls of specific seats. Croydon Central is one of them, and it has managed that rare feat of containing good news for both parties.

Labour, now on 41%, is still in the lead. Good news for Sarah Jones. But the good news for Gavin Barwell is that his party has begun closing the gap – a six-point Labour lead in October is now four points.

In an election that the media have been talking up as a five (or indeed seven) party system, it’s intriguing to watch the minor parties get squeezed in Croydon. Both major parties are now on vote shares that Ed Miliband and David Cameron would kill to get at the national level. But it’s notable that neither has gone down since October – the Conservatives have gained four points, ostensibly from UKIP, while Labour have gained two. UKIP have gone down a full six points, while the Lib Dems continue their slide towards a lost deposit, going from 4% to 3%.

Polling is not an exact science, particularly when it comes to small movements like this, but the figures below tell a clear story.

Data from Lord Ashcroft Polls. Graph from @MSmithsonPB.

Where will the polls be on polling day? What will happen to them in the next 49 days? Labour will be hoping they stay relatively static, but with the campaign formally beginning very soon indeed, Team ‘#BackBarwell2015′ will be revving its engines in an effort to maintain the momentum that appears to be moving its way.

As Lord Ashcroft himself always says: polls are snapshots, not predictions. We don’t have enough data to assume a trend, but it’s safe to say that this is no time for Labour to rest on its laurels.

Sarah Jones spends 24 waking hours in Croydon

The real Jack Bauer.
Photo by Rondo Estrello, used under Creative Commons licence.

Aware that she has an incumbency advantage to overturn, Sarah Jones and her team developed an innovative way to increase her name recognition, and meaningfully answer any claims that she may not understand the whole of the constituency she means to represent. She spent Monday – and some of Tuesday – travelling around Croydon and meeting people at various businesses and community venues. From 7am until 7am, she made a Jack Bauer-esque journey, flanked at different points by various members of her family and campaign team.

I caught up with Sarah when she visited ‘Knit And Natter’, a community group in New Addington. The following took place between 3pm and 4pm. Events occurred in real time.

Sarah was immediately welcomed to the meeting, and conversation occurred easily in the group of women – I and Jones’ husband were the only men in the room. Natter was certainly the word, and for some time the only politics under discussion were the amicable jibes about each other’s crocheting technique. By the end of the hour, Sarah had got people talking about their priorities for New Addington, including police presence and GPs. I had to head off at 4pm, but a brief chat with Sarah confirmed this had been the pattern of the day so far – relatively friendly, welcoming conversations, and similar priorities to do with crime and health.

Jones made it through the day, and thankfully was not required to disarm a nuclear bomb or expose a presidential conspiracy. I’m also pleased to confirm that none of Jones’ children was menaced by a cougar.

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

  • Marjorie Daw

    Is English not useful or not a language- or do you just write and not speak it?

    • Tom Black

      That’s the joke, Marjorie.