The Public Gallery: Hustingsmania and a few minutes with the PM

By - Thursday 30th April, 2015

As the Citizen’s head-to-head debate between Barwell and Jones draws near, Tom Black takes the (rising) temperature of Croydon’s election and has a chat with David Cameron

The election is in one week. You’ve probably either just thought “how time flies!” or “thank goodness it’ll all be over soon.” Probably the latter, even if you’re into politics.

This has been an unusually long election campaign – six weeks, when they are usually four. Throw in the fact of the fixed term parliaments act and we were basically in the middle of an undeclared campaign as early as January.

And it’s been gruelling. The Conservatives have fought tooth and nail to claw back some of their traditional vote from UKIP, and Labour has seen off most of the ‘Green surge’ but faces potential annihilation at the hands of the SNP. In Croydon Central, the battle is a now somewhat old-fashioned straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives, with minor parties making little headway in the polls. That’s made it no less exhausting for the candidates and their teams.

Many Labour activists are now more confident than their Conservative counterparts

With only seven days to go, Croydon Central is still looking like a knife-edge race, with statisticians Nate Silver and Election Forecast (who were predicting a narrow Jones win two weeks ago) now saying Barwell will win with 40.2% of the vote to Jones’ 39.6%. Their model predicts a small but decisive swing back to the Conservatives possibly as late as polling day itself. However, other media outlets – including the Evening Standard – believe the seat will narrowly go to Labour’s Sarah Jones. Campaign morale, too, is higher among Croydon Labour – while local Conservatives are keen to applaud Barwell’s strong performances in local hustings and talk of ‘everything to play for’, increasing numbers of Labour activists are prepared to go further and say they feel they’ve won the seat.

“Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” one might say. Well – they might. But no-one likes egg on their face, and it can in fact be counterproductive to appear triumphalist – apathetic Tory-leaning voters might hear the news and head straight for the polling station to keep Labour out. Labour’s data from those famous doorsteps must be making its activists very confident.

There’s even the possibility that the demographic shifts in Croydon Central – so dramatically demonstrated at last year’s council elections when the long-safe Tory ward of Ashburton turned red overnight – have begun to make the seat much more Labour-leaning than previously thought. But that’s a subject to be explored after the election.

Cameron in Croydon

After chatting to Ed Miliband last week, I was able to spend a few minutes with the Prime Minister himself this week when he came to the Fairfield Halls to support Gavin Barwell’s campaign. As part of a ‘huddle’ in a side room along with Advertiser and Guardian colleagues, I found the PM on fighting form and brimming with praise for his local candidate. Like Boris Johnson, Cameron is known to get on with Barwell personally.

This was evident as the Conservative leader listed his acolyte’s achievements, banging the table slightly too hard each time he did so. Here’s an MP, he says, who changed the law on drug driving, changed the law on mental health, and can be trusted to deliver ‘Zone 4 Croydon’. Pre-interview briefing notes, or genuine knowledge of Barwell’s record? Maybe I’ve been watching too much Sorkin, but I believe it’s the latter.

Cameron also mentions the question of giving the Mayor of London more power over commuter rail lines – my beloved rail devolution! From a Conservative PM! If this is a dream, I don’t want to wake up.

Photo by Croydon Conservatives, used with permission.

As Cameron talks to the Advertiser about the danger posed to Croydon by Ed Miliband being propped up by the SNP (“how much do you think Alex Salmond cares about Croydon?”), I prepare my own question and am able to put my finger on what’s been bothering me since we shook hands. Cameron is smart, confident and speaks with conviction and an apparent command of the facts. But there’s something else.

There is something wrong with his eyes.

They’re just a bit too sincere. His forceful slams of the table and his steady gaze are the mark of a man sure of himself, but when I ask him my question – paraphrasing a famous Tory poster, “what does the Conservative Party have to offer a BME kid from Croydon?” – I realise that he’s not smiled once. He lists Conservative achievements in government that he is proud of, but never seems pleased about them. It’s all a bit corporate.

But it was 8:30am, and of course only an hour before he was cracking jokes to the press about football teams – and that didn’t go particularly well. His answer on BME youth is immediate and confident. Schools in Croydon have had a “pretty rapid rate of improvement” in the last five years, he says. The Conservatives promise 3 million apprenticeships, and already one-in-ten apprenticeships is going to a BME person. More BME students went to university last year “than ever in our history – ever” he says firmly. “People who thought the new fee structure would put people off have been proved wrong.”

It’ll be hard for Cameron to win the country if Barwell doesn’t win Croydon

“There’s no cap on aspiration for BME Britons in Conservative Britain,” he says, a good line, but one I again wonder why he doesn’t look a bit happier to deliver it. Ed Miliband may have given less precise answers than this, but he seemed positive and excited about what he did propose.

Cameron’s final point is on start-up loans. They’ve “disproportionately gone to people from BME backgrounds,” he says. 20% have gone to BME Britons – “including many here in Croydon.”

And with that, we’re done. The three of us are hurried out of the room – by this point I think I’ve worked out which of the ‘minders’ was the one whose job it was to pin us to the floor if we pulled out anything shiny or ticking – and I have some time to process the meeting. The Prime Minister is an impressive speaker, more so than on television – a statement usually made about Ed Miliband. He clearly sees Gavin Barwell as a success – and he admits it’d be hard to win the country if Barwell doesn’t win Croydon – and also sees his government as a success with much to proudly talk about. He could do with looking a little bit happier while he’s doing it, though.

Tempers fray and temperatures rise at Advertiser hustings

This week saw the Croydon Advertiser’s hustings for the Croydon Central constituency, which was expanded at the last minute to include the two ‘also-ran’ candidates for the seat. April Ashley of the Trade Unions and Socialists Coalition, and Martin Camden, founder of UK Progressive Democracy, joined their Green, Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP counterparts, who have done more than a dozen or so hustings already in the last month.

You can read an as-it-happened rundown of the hustings on the Advertiser site itself, but ahead of the Citizen’s head-to-head debate this Saturday between Jones and Barwell, I can offer a little insight into the debating styles and personalities of the various candidates. Ashley preferred the tried-and-tested ‘talk for a long time about things you would do without saying how you would pay for them’ approach, while Martin Camden injected life into the proceedings by regularly proposing unusual ideas for the town and the country. These included building Westfield on Croydon Airport, and placing more focus on home schooling and ‘unschooling’.

Barwell and Jones have been getting increasingly frustrated with each other

Green candidate Esther Sutton has always understood the power of a short, factual and to-the-point answer, aided by her softly-spoken and clear delivery. The Liberal Democrat candidate, James Fearnley, is very like a regionally-accented Nick Clegg, right down to gestures, tone and – on occasion – soundbites. It makes for an impressive performance, and he was able to recall detailed figures on occasion. He won’t have much luck in Croydon Central, but if he is looking to put himself on the radar as a Lib Dem rising star, he is doing the right things. Peter Staveley of UKIP continued his businesslike approach, debating a little like Gordon Brown in 2010 – a slow pace, not much passion, but at least an air of competence. Certainly an antidote to the antics of his essentially-disowned fellow Kipper in Croydon North, Winston McKenzie.

So what of our two prizefighters this Saturday? Not Mayweather and Pacquaio, but Barwell and Jones. The two have been getting increasingly frustrated with each other across the campaign, with negative, anti-Jones leaflets coming from Barwell’s campaign and Jones regularly condemning Barwell personally for a number of local and national issues. On Monday, their exchanges were heated, and Barwell was keen to ‘correct’ what he called a number of errors in Jones’ answer on education. A visibly uncomfortable Jones fought back, and both candidates became flushed. Matters looked like they were about to boil over when the baton was passed to Martin Camden, who stood up and declared: “I would put Jamie Oliver in charge of schools.” Well, there we are.

The atmosphere was defused. That task will fall to me this Saturday, at 7:30pm at Matthews Yard. Barwell and Jones will go head-to-head one last time, and take your questions. Time will be allotted for them to cross-examine each other’s answers, similarly to the format of the TV debates. If you have something to ask the candidates, come on down.

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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  • Robert Ward

    Very good article Tom, balanced and well expressed.

    One point on which I would like to comment is on confidence among the activists. As you can imagine I have a good knowledge of Team Tory, with little, mostly indirect knowledge of Labour.

    I agree the Conservatives are being very cautious. We have had a very good response on the doorstep (I have canvassed strong Labour, strong Tory and in-between areas). We hope that will transfer through to the ballot box but you never know.

    We have a great candidate with a great record but as the Council elections showed, UKIP support pulls mainly from the Tories. Any hope of a counterbalancing effect of 2010 LibDems coming back to them from Labour, or leaking of Labour support to the Greens has not happened as far as I have seen, at least not in Croydon.

    We think UKIP supporters are beginning, albeit slowly to realise that a vote for UKIP in Croydon makes a Labour government more likely. We are also getting more negative feedback of Labour canvassing. Over-canvassing of certain areas by out-of-town Union zealots is losing them support.

    But we are taking nothing for granted. It is all about getting people out on the day. Those same Union and other out of Croydon Labour activists will flood into Croydon on election day. Their sheer numbers may be a factor.

    If I may use a football analogy, we will leave it all out on the pitch. Then from 10 pm on May7th it’s squeeky bum time.