The Public Gallery: The Other Guys

By - Thursday 23rd January, 2014

So far, Tom Black has analysed the hopes and possibilities for the Tories and Labour in 2014. Now, in this bumper special, he turns his attention to the other three parties trying to make an impact in May’s local election

The tired veteran: the Liberal Democrats

As past TPGs (and a full-length article) have shown, the Lib Dems in their various guises over the years have never been particularly relevant in Croydon. I spoke to Ben Devlin, a local activist who believes that can change.

“We can point to Sutton as an example of what the Lib Dems can achieve,” he said. The Lib Dems dominate Croydon’s neighbouring borough, holding both its parliamentary seats and controlling its council. “In Croydon, we’re gaining traction.”

The last time that Liberals of any stripe had a victory of note in Croydon was in 1981

‘Gaining traction’ are the magic words for the Lib Dems, and have been since time immemorial. By slowly building up a base of support, the Croydon Lib Dems – who last year entered the nightmarish quasi-Thunderdome that is the Croydon Twittersphere – hope to emulate the success they have had nationally since 1988.

Lib Dem activists are hearing “the same old things on the doorstep,” Devlin told me. Flytipping and litter in the north and centre of the borough are major issues to voters, and the Lib Dem manifesto, finalised at an internal meeting yesterday, can be expected to address them.

One possibility open to the Lib Dems is presenting a third option (not a third way, Mr Blair, calm down) in the debate over how to properly respond to the Hammerfield development. It remains to be seen what shape this would take – Labour and the Tories are still hammering out their own positions. A traditionally Lib Dem approach to the development – ensuring that transport and housing are in place well in advance of the project’s completion – might reasonably be expected of the oranges.

As for target wards, Devlin was tight-lipped. There are expectations, however, that the Lib Dems will focus on Croham, and they have in the past proved they have a base of voters in Coulsdon, Addiscombe and Purley.

The feisty newcomer: UKIP

It may be surprising to learn that the leader of Croydon’s branch of UKIP is looking to a Lib Dem for inspiration, but that’s what Peter Staveley told me this week. It’s less a matter of policy – the most pro-EU and anti-EU parties of note in Britain have little to no overlap – and more a matter of tactics.

“After twenty years, UKIP have finally read Paddy Ashdown’s book,” Staveley said, paraphasing UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage. Like Ben Devlin, Staveley knows the value of Ashdown’s strategy. Stressing he wasn’t sure of the exact statistic, he pointed out to me that it has been a long time since anybody (apart from George Galloway) was elected as an MP without their party having at least six members on the local council.

So 2014 is to be a defining year in Croydon UKIP’s attempt to ‘build a movement’ in the borough. Was Staveley’s remark about MPs indicative of his own ambitions in 2015? He is UKIP’s candidate for Croydon Central. I asked him whether there was a plan to build momentum across the year and carry the party into May 2015. “Absolutely,” he replied.

But what does UKIP want to actually achieve – and what will it propose to voters? Long-regarded as a one-trick pony, the Eurosceptic party has insisted it has a full raft of policies. What are its local proposals? “We will act on one hour’s free parking,” Staveley told me, “littering, the prevention of building on open land, and high pay for Chief Executives of councils. For any council officer on more than £100,000 year, the question is ‘why?’”

One of UKIP’s candidates in Croydon compared the EU to the USSR – will that message ring true with voters?

Some of the policies he proposes will chime well with right-of-centre Croydonians unhappy with Cameronite conservatism and Fisherite apathy. UKIP wants a return to grammar schools, absent from Croydon for fifty years thanks to the Conservative council (and Labour government) of the 1960s – though it is unclear how they would be able to bring them back even if they had complete control of Croydon Council.

Another populist move that could work in their favour is a proposal to begin “a long term shift towards teaching people English, rather than translating documents into multiple languages.” While Staveley made the proposal on grounds of its “cost-effectiveness”, its dogwhistle effect is likely to have an impact on some Croydonian voters.

“Our goal this year is very much to gain a significant presence on the council,” Staveley continued, “but who knows? We will be putting up at least one candidate in every ward, though it is likely there will be some wards with a full slate of three. I will be disappointed if we get fewer than two councillors elected.”

The fact that the European elections are on the same day as the local council ones is going to boost UKIP’s turnout

No Overall Control (a scenario in which neither Labour or the Tories can run the council outright with a majority) would be the perfect situation for UKIP, whose councillors, however few, would now need to be wooed for every vote – or they could be given enough promises and positions by one of the major parties that their loyalty is effectively ‘bought’, of course.

UKIP also makes much of its commitment to having no local party whips. Staveley himself has written an article on the matter, which will be published on the Citizen at 5pm today.

Does Staveley feel his organisation can ‘deliver’ Croydon for UKIP in the European elections, to be held on the same day as the locals? While Croydon is not its own constituency in the European Parliament, it is a large part of the London constituency, and if Nigel Farage wants to top the national poll, he will need to win big in heavily populated urban areas.

“Maybe,” Staveley told me, admitting he had not given it much thought, “Croydon was the third most succcessful area in London for UKIP last time [in 2009], so we should do well.”

The fact that the European elections are on the same day as the local council ones is going to boost UKIP’s turnout. For this reason alone, they will be a wildcard that must be taken into account by political observers in Croydon this year. Nevertheless, I had a great many questions about the kind of relevant policies the party is going to propose to voters in Croydon (there is no chance of an EU referendum being unilaterally ordered by Croydon Council), and what it sees as realistic goals for this year. Peter Staveley provided me with many answers to those questions. I just made sure I avoided asking him about the weather.

The steadfast mediator: The Green Party

Shasha Khan is the co-leader of the Croydon Greens. When we spoke yesterday, he stressed the ‘co’, and was full of praise for his fellow co-leader,  Tracey Hague. Khan has long been the co-ordinator for Croydon Greens, but has in recent years been working as the head of the Stop The Incinerator Campaign, and as the elections in May draw nearer, he didn’t want to let one of his commitments detract from the other. I asked him what the Greens have in mind for Croydon, and for 2014.

First up was the issue of how to run the council. The Croydon Greens wish to emulate the tempestuous Brighton and Hove Council, which the Greens have controlled since 2010. There, a 1:10 ratio between highest paid and lowest paid council employees was imposed, leading to a de facto ‘maximum wage’. In Brighton, the Chief Executive took a pay cut and the lowest paid workers got as high a wage as possible – this kind of fairness may appeal to some in Croydon, and could be a useful differentiator for the Greens, as Labour are also seeking to turn Croydon into a ‘living wage council’.

In Croydon, voters respond very negatively indeed to proposals that would limit the usefulness of their cars

Other policies include a 20mph speed limit across all residential roads, to increase road safety, and encourage walking and cycling throughout the borough. It’s unclear how voters will react to the proposal to introduce more ‘Home Zones’ where absolute priority is given to pedestrians and cyclists. People generally respond positively to the idea of making places safer for children to play in, but in Croydon in particular, they respond very negatively indeed to proposals that would limit the usefulness of their cars.

Unsurprisingly, the Beddington Lane incinerator (an issue on which I cut my political reporting teeth last year) forms a central plank of the Greens’ prospective manifesto. Taking a hardline position, the Greens would pull out of the South London Waste Partnership, renegotiate the contract with both the SLWP and Viridor (the incinerator company), and work with colleagues in Sutton, Kingston and Merton to arrange a referendum on whether people want their waste sent to an incinerator or recycled.

A protest outside the Sutton Civic Centre on 24th April, the date of the deferral of the decision regarding the incinerator. The incinerator is moving forward now, but the Greens will place it front and centre of their 2014 campaign.

In my discussion with Khan, the problem of flytipping in the north of the borough reared its head again – but this time, a positive solution was proposed. Khan wants a carrot and stick approach – careful surveillance of the usual areas, as well as free bulk collection of commonly flytipped items. All this would be publicised in several different languages (he had better not tell Peter Staveley).

Other ‘red meat’ (or ‘green vegetable’?) issues included fracking, where the council stands to make £1.7 million if it permits fracking to go ahead in the borough. “There is no meaningful opposition to fracking,” Khan claimed, “it’s important for new parties to get elected and stand on principle to these things.” Green energy policy includes solar panels on housing estates, insulating houses and spending some of the much-discussed ‘climate change levy’ to encourage renewable energy.

But the Greens, like UKIP and the Lib Dems, are not in a strong position in Croydon. They’ve never had a councillor elected. What do they actually hope to achieve this year? Khan is optimistic. “In 2002, we only had two candidates standing in Croydon. In 2006, we had nineteen. In 2010, we had seventy candidates across twenty four wards. The aim this year is to do that again.”

The Greens plan on targeting Croham. It looks like the Croydon South ward will become a surprise battleground in May, as increase Labour activity there and the interest of both UKIP and the Lib Dems means that all five parties will be putting some effort into winning it. Other targets include the aptly-named Broad Green, downwind from the incinerator.

Khan was pleased to tell me that certain Labour figures are “quietly supportive” of the Greens’ policies on the controversial waste disposal plant. If this translates into public co-operation, it would be a long-overdue display of bipartisanship. In a borough where the third, fourth and fifth largest parties in the UK (leaving aside the SNP, who are unlikely to run candidates in Waddon) have little more than a snowball’s chance of winning more than even one or two council seats, it would be something we really ought to welcome.

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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  • David White

    I’m puzzled by Peter Staveley’s quote from Paddy Ashdown, as the victory of Bill Pitt (referred to in the photo in the first part of this article), came when there were no Liberal or Alliance councillors in Croydon.

    • Tom Black

      In fairness to Peter, he did say when we spoke that he was not 100% sure about that statistic. I actually should have made that clearer in the article, and have done so now. But well spotted (and good to hear from you again, David!).

      • Peter Staveley

        I am still trying to contact the people who mentioned that statistic to me to see if we can find evidence to back it up.

        I should have also stated “in recent times” since Bill Pitt won a by-election in 1981 (he came second in the General Election two years later).

        I should mention that the few independents (who were not Speakers) that have won have (in recent times and so far as I know) always received help from councillors in other parties. I am particularly thinking of Martin Bell, Tatton in 1997 and Dr Richard Taylor, Wyre Forest in 2001. Both of whom benefited from support from then major parties in their victory.

        • Peter Staveley

          I have contacted the Press Officer who made the original statement.

          He looked at the data and could not find any MP (apart from George Galloway) who had been elected during the past 10 years where there were fewer than 6 councillors already in that constituency. Those 6 (or more) councillors were either from that MP’s party or were from a party (or parties) that had stood-down in order to get that MP elected.

  • Tracey Hague

    Please can you spell my name correctly! Also, to clarify, Shasha explained that we Greens are again standing a candidate in all 70 seats across 24 wards (not 70 wards as quoted), something only Greens, Labour & Tories seem willing or able to do!

    • Tom Black

      I would be very happy to spell your name correctly, Tracey, yes! Ironically, I asked Shasha how to spell your surname but not your forename. Apologies.

      I will also edit that assertion from Shasha so it’s clearer.

  • Martyn

    I notice the UKIP group on Essex County Council has a whip…. just saying is all…

  • Robert J Brown

    oh – I do hope The Greens don’t want to emulate Brighton and Hove:

    • Brendan Walsh

      oh – I do hope The Liberal Democrats don’t want to emulate Sutton *cough, cough* etc. etc.
      As if any of the 3 parties in question are going to lead Council. The reality is that they all trying to break the mould of voter fear of the real “other guys” (Labour v Conservative). All 3 will be hoping to gain a Councillor and then prove themselves to the electorate.