The Public Gallery: Is it Labour’s year?

By - Thursday 16th January, 2014

After assessing the Tories’ reasons for optimism last week, Tom Black takes a look at where Labour have cause for cheer – and caution – in 2014

The national picture

There is a growing consensus that the Conservatives are going to have a tougher time than Labour in the run-up to the May elections. Their engineered split over Europe this week may have been defused for now, but the issue is not going to go away – particularly as the European elections take place on the same day as the locals. Any bad economic news will hammer the Conservatives, and the recent spate of more positive figures has done little to improve the Coalition parties’ polling positions. While the Conservatives face all these pressures nationally, all Labour really have to do is be perceived as competent and ready to represent ‘ordinary families’/'hardworking people’/'working Britons’/'the man on the Clapham omnibus’/'carbon-based bipeds’.

But while the news cycles between now and May will be more focused on Labour, there is one event likely to attract attention and place Labour under scrutiny. It is the March special conference over ‘individual affiliation’ – giving Labour-supporting trade union members the choice whether to opt in to Labour affiliation. If it’s an ill-spirited affair with a less than cuddly outcome, the familiar albatross of ‘Labour in the pocket of the unions’ may be hung around the party’s neck again. Tony Newman and his colleagues will be reliant on Ed Miliband and his team to ensure this potential speed bump does not become a major pothole.

The continuing rise of UKIP’s support in the polls will place Cameron under pressure, and that’s without even considering the usual rule that parties incumbent in Westminster always take a beating in local elections. Even Labour at the height of Tony Blair’s popularity in 1998 did not escape a surprise drubbing in that year’s locals.

A general sense of ‘kicking the unpopular government’ will decide a lot of votes in May. But Labour have to be careful not to rely too much on this, in Croydon and elsewhere. With UKIP gaining traction, Labour are worried that they will be overshadowed as the default ‘anti-Tory’ option. A strong local campaign that shows an awareness of both UKIP’s support and the Eurosceptic party’s weaknesses will be vital.

The ground war

A well-oiled Labour campaign and rising membership figures across the borough are cause for smiles all round on the red team. The battleground of Waddon – likely to be the centre of the Labour offensive – is proving receptive to Labour activists, who are optimistic that ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) efforts in the ward will be more successful than those of the Tories. A Labour effort over recent years to bring Tory-held Ashburton into play has also borne some fruit, and even candidates and activists in Mike Fisher’s home ward of Shirley are optimistic.

In Labour-held Addiscombe, however, alarm bells have begun to ring. With a strong UKIP presence (local leader Peter Staveley is standing there) and a renewed Tory focus in the area, activists are getting worried. Rising Conservative confidence in Addiscombe makes for difficult reading for those whose nightmare scenario is a hard-won victory in Waddon that gets cancelled out by a loss of Addiscombe to the Conservatives. Such a result, if nothing else changes on the council, would see the Conservatives maintain control for another four years.

But there are brighter spots on the horizon for Labour -  some of their central issues are gaining traction. Party figures reassured me that the idea of cleaner streets and action against flytipping, championed by Steve Reed and made a central issue by Tony Newman, is very popular on doorsteps across Croydon. And as I outlined last week, almost all of Labour’s candidates have been selected well in advance of the elections on 22nd May. The Tories don’t believe this ‘head start’ will count for much. But this is an election that has, in the space of a year, gone from ‘Labour lean’ to ‘knife-edge’. Both parties need every advantage they can get.

Rumoured council tax cut may prove a curveball

Rumours are circulating that the Conservatives are aiming to reduce Croydon’s council tax in the run-up to the next local election. Such a move would be a powerful ace on the doorstep, and a useful counterweight to Labour’s claims of ‘cultural vandalism’ and cuts that are just too harsh.

If such a cut goes ahead, Labour will need a sophisticated yet punchy response if they want to avoid being upstaged by a narrative of ‘the Conservatives make tough choices but now taxpayers are better off in these trying times’. Labour’s own proposal on council tax, currently believed to be a continued freeze, may not make the cut.

It’s a familiar narrative to national observers, and one that the Tories are guaranteed to want to create in the run up to the 2015 general election. Osborne’s long-rumoured ‘giveaway budget’ in March 2015 looks less likely after he was forced to admit the cuts have not yet balanced the books this year. Croydon’s Conservatives, if rumours are to be believed, think the council is in a better position than the government.

This week, the first meeting of the Croydon Communities Consortium was held. I attended and livetweeted the event. Citizen contributor Sean Creighton has written a detailed summary of the meeting here.

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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