The Public Gallery: Happy Blue Year?

By - Thursday 9th January, 2014

Croydon Conservatives are more optimistic about May’s elections than their colleagues in the European Parliament. In the first Public Gallery of 2014, Tom Black tries to find out why

What have the Conservatives got to look forward to this year?

The Conservatives tried to end 2013 on a high. And why not? They had selected a highly electable candidate for a highly safe seat in Croydon South. They had begun the sale of the Riesco porcelain, which while raising less money than hoped, closed the book on legal challenges or further hand-wringing. Their Council Leader, Mike Fisher, had apparently seen off attacks from Tony Newman at the final full council meeting of the year, and received a standing ovation from his councillors. Unity at last from the party that knifed Eden, threw Heath onto the scrapheap and even stabbed Mrs Thatcher in the back. Truly, it was a great time to be blue.

Except, it wasn’t. 2013 was a tough year for the Conservatives, both nationally and in Croydon. But this rising optimism at the end of the year seemed to point toward a sense that the May 2014 local elections – now only four and a half months away – were not a lost cause for the Tories. As the year gets underway, I’ve taken a look at some of the reasons the Conservatives seem to be optimistic.

This week started well for Croydon’s Conservatives. In Old Coulsdon, a debate was held between Croydon South Tory parliamentary candidate Chris Philp and former Conservative MP (now Labour council candidate) Andrew Pelling. After a humorous but occasionally barbed exchange, the motion ‘Conservatism is good for Croydon’ was carried 17-11, with four abstentions.

What a way to begin 2014! At last, the guardians of the one, true ideology had been vindicated. The voters of Croydon know what is best for them. Seventeen people in a heavily Conservative area of the borough had voted to affirm the belief that the way of Disraeli, Baldwin and Macmillan was what Croydon needed to survive and thrive. Truly, there could be no stronger indicator of the coming Blue Tide.

I’m being facetious, of course. The Coulsdon and Purley Debating Society is a fine organisation and should be applauded for what they do – and I have no way of knowing how far any of the attendees had traveled. But the Conservatives ought not pop the champagne corks just yet.

UKIP may be a mixed blessing for both parties

Interesting news from Peter Staveley, leader of Croydon UKIP: he plans to stand one candidate in each ward. We should remember this won’t necessarily apply to Croydon North, as he has no jurisdiction there. The north of the borough’s UKIP organisation is the fiefdom of the eccentric Winston Mackenzie, whose clashes with Staveley were well-documented last year.

In wards in which Staveley’s ‘one candidate, no more’ plan goes ahead, however, the UKIP candidate could draw enough votes to mean one of the three ‘dominant party’ candidates does not get enough votes to join his or her colleagues. This won’t mean a UKIP councillor, either – what’s more likely is a ‘two Tories, one Labour’ or vice versa split. The Conservatives seem quietly confident this will work out more in their favour than Labour’s, but UKIP do tend to take more votes from the blues than the reds.

The ground war

Local elections are won on the doorstep, or so they say. National issues are likely to decide the makeup of Croydon’s next council (as I’ve said ad nauseam), but in order to swing or keep marginal wards  - such as New Addington, Addiscombe and Waddon – a party needs a canvassing presence. The local Tories have instituted a plan whereby in order to be considered as a candidate, you must embark on a certain amount of canvassing in target wards. The Conservatives are pleased with the results so far, and believe every household in those three wards will be visited by a Conservative five times before polling day.

In Waddon, Tory activists are encouraged that Labour’s apparent ‘big issues’ – the unclear cost of new council HQ Bernard Weatherill House and the Beddington Lane incinerator – don’t seem to be coming up very often the doorstep. Conservatives, meanwhile, are able to wax lyrical to voters about concrete achievements like Croydon getting the third most funding for new school places in the country (though it remains to be seen whether this will mean new schools or Portakabins parked on playing fields).

But crucially, the Tories have still not yet announced when they will be selecting their candidates for May. Rumblings have been coming out of Katharine Street that suggest this delay is to prevent a disgruntled deselected councillor from resigning right away and triggering a dangerous by-election – when a councillor resigns within six months of an election, the by-election is deferred until then.

A savvy (if underhand) move, if true. But at what cost? Labour have got almost a full slate of candidates already, and have been in such a position for some time. It’s all very well and good for the Tories to be canvassing regularly and in numbers, but if the people they meet on the doorstep aren’t shaking hands with at least some people who are definitely going to be on the ballot, the whole thing loses effectiveness somewhat.

Some Conservatives in Katharine Street are nervous about the head start this may give the red team, but one Tory source was more relaxed. ‘A few months don’t matter,’ they explained, ‘Labour will have the same struggle we have with name recognition – and we have more leafleters and more money.’

The point about money is indisputable. Labour may well have something to say about the leafleters claim however, particularly as the party’s membership continues to grow at a far higher rate than the parties of the Coalition. Ultimately, I stand by my belief that if Ed Miliband has a particularly good week, or if David Cameron or Nigel Farage does, the result of May’s local elections will be out of the hands of our local parties. The Conservatives may have more reason to be optimistic than a cursory glance suggests, but I doubt that Mike Fisher is counting any chickens until the votes are in.

Next week, I will explore Labour’s chances, hopes and difficulties for 2014.

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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