The Public Gallery: Seventy days

By - Thursday 26th February, 2015

After a short sabbatical, Tom Black returns to cast his eye over Croydon’s politics ten weeks before the general election, and to make a special announcement

National issues dominate Croydon’s campaigns as general election looms

Ten weeks from today, Croydonians – and their fellow Britons – will go to the polls and elect a new government. It might look a lot like the current one, it might not. It might be one colour, it might be many. The only thing the polls can currently tell us is that ‘it’s very close’. Small Labour leads are more common than Conservative ones, but a few polls began to show healthy Conservative leads this month. Then, this week, Ashcroft had Labour back in with a four point lead and Opinium put Labour six points ahead.

So Labour is marginally more likely to come out on top – at the moment – but with the polls so close that a majority for either party is very unlikely. What does that mean for Croydon?

For starters, Croydon Central is a marginal seat. As discussed here ad nauseam, it tends to ‘go with the country’. For all the local upheavals recently over Purley Pool, publicly-funded posters and goodness knows what else, a lot of voters in Croydon will vote based on their personal economic situation, and who they believe will improve – or maintain – that situation. Others will vote based on Ed Miliband’s voice or David Cameron’s Etonian background. Tip O’Neill once said ‘all politics is local’, and I would obviously like to apply that phrase to this election. But there’s a reason both major parties are now using slogans like ‘long term economic plan’ and ‘are you feeling the ‘recovery?’ on leaflets that once talked of playing fields and incinerators.

2010 was an economy election, and 2015 looks to be the same again. And one aspect of the electoral cycle looks certain to make Croydon Central less about the local candidates and more about the national narrative…

The debates are on – what will that mean for Gavin, Sarah, Peter, Esther et al?

After months of hand-wringing, bluffing and a rare superb piece of political manoeuvring from David Cameron, the debates are happening. While there is still a bit of wriggle-room (Cameron himself could refuse to take part in debates that happen after March, which he has threatened before), it seems to be all over bar the shouting.

Unless the Democratic Unionist Party has success in its legal challenge, two debates involving seven party leaders – from the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, the Green Party of England and Wales, Plaid Cymru and the SNP – will take place in the formal campaign period prior to May’s vote. A third will feature only Ed Miliband and David Cameron. Dates have been agreed, and while I have for a couple of years been saying that debates will most likely not happen at all in 2015, I have to admit it looks like I was wrong. I still won’t quite believe it until the first opening statement is given, however.

So what do these debates mean for our local candidates? The Conservatives nationally are known to be in two minds about the debates – they relish the chance for Ed Miliband to look silly and damage his party’s image further, but are known to be painfully aware that David Cameron himself underperformed in the 2010 debates. A bad performance from a sitting Prime Minister can be dangerous for a government – just ask Gordon Brown.

Croydon Central’s sitting MP Gavin Barwell, therefore, must be cautiously optimistic about the chance for his leader – the former PR man from Carlton television – to set out the ‘long term economic plan’ to millions of viewers. Cameron must project an image of total confidence and assurance without falling into his common trap of arrogance and entitlement. If he manages to, Barwell will be very grateful indeed.

Labour challenger Sarah Jones, meanwhile, must be aware of her own leader’s image problem. Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for five years will know that Ed Miliband does not set the nation’s hearts on fire – though he has had a handful of moments, to give him his due. Miliband just isn’t great on camera, though nuanced commentators have played up the format of the debates as favouring his speaking style. Miliband doesn’t deliver a great setpiece speech, but he can deal with Q&As quite well, and talks well off the cuff. But the debate format will also involve opening and closing statements – the first impression and the last word – where the Labour leader may struggle. If Miliband manages not to come across too badly, expectations are so low that he may be considered a surprise victor. But if he performs as Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps would like him to, Sarah Jones may find her current small lead in Croydon Central rapidly eroded.

What of the other parties? Plaid Cymru and the SNP don’t stand in Croydon, but Peter Staveley of UKIP must be thrilled that ‘our Nige’ is getting his moment in the sun – indeed, two moments in the sun. While all leaders run the risk of being drowned out in the seven-way debates, Nigel Farage is a man who rarely fails to make an impression. A barnstorming performance from Farage won’t carry him to Downing Street, and anything other than massive electoral fraud isn’t going to carry Peter Staveley to parliament – but with the Winston McKenzie saga winding down at last, Staveley himself will probably be grateful that TV viewers in Croydon will have someone else to associate his party with, rather than a man who called Croydon ‘a dump’.

Croydon’s Greens – who often give the impression of being far more capable of running the Green Party than the people who actually run it – were ecstatic when their party’s campaign to be included in the debates succeeded (with a little help from the Prime Minister). However, this week saw Green leader Natalie Bennett subjected to a gruelling and humiliating interview in which she didn’t seem to have any idea how her party’s flagship housing policy would work.

Esther Sutton, standing for the Greens in Croydon Central, is popular and likeable, with a history of local successes. Shasha Khan, in Croydon North, is respected across (most of) the political spectrum for his personally principled stand against the incinerator. But the advantage of the local credentials held by both would be cancelled out if their party comes to be seen as a national joke. Rumours of a last minute resignation by Natalie Bennett and the re-coronation of Caroline Lucas may be just that – rumours – but they are probably offering some hope to some Croydon Greens.

As for debates closer to home, there are a number of hustings taking place around the borough as polling day draws nearer. Watch this space.

The Public Gallery takes to the airwaves

Thanks to the excellent and welcoming team at Croydon Radio, I have been able to set up The Public Gallery as a new monthly radio show, broadcasting at 7pm on Sundays. My first show is on 8th March, so tune in if you’d like to hear thoughts on recent events, along with reports and interviews. The show will also be available as a podcast, like all Croydon Radio broadcasts.

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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  • Daniel Aldridge

    Well this is quite interesting, I have actually been reading the Croydon
    Citizen for some time and will continue to follow these sorts of
    stories with interest, particularly as Croydon and the rest of the UK
    build-up to the 2015 election in May. Or as some might call it, the 2015
    General Election: Hung Parliament and Stressful Coalition Negotiations
    and Shenanigans II. Personally plan to vote Labour atm but will also
    have to view the local candidates as I still haven’t received any
    campaign leaflets or material through my letterbox yet, oddly enough
    considering the area where I live appears to be a key marginal seat, or
    Croydon North.

    By the sounds of it though, Croydon Central
    appears to be a key marginal, and it is interesting to see the Greens
    gaining on Sarah Jones in this seat, this wouldn’t be great news for
    Labour voters if they won but the Bennett business looks like it’ll put
    paid to their chances so probably irrelevant anyway.

    Btw, is
    your podcasts for Croydon radio going to be available to purchase on
    the Apple Store or iTunes, just asking as I don’t listen to that much
    radio, although that’s prob because it’s difficult to find decent
    political content and discussion on Radio, so I get most of my info from
    TV and online news sites.