The Public Gallery: Three little letters

By - Thursday 15th January, 2015

Refreshed after a Christmas break, Tom Black takes a look at an issue close to millions of Britons’ hearts, and what it might mean for Croydonians

Croydon Central MP asked to dial down his constant petition launches

At the end of last year, the Croydon Advertiser launched a campaign with a simple goal: to stop Gavin Barwell launching campaigns. “We get it, Gav, there’s an election on”, the paper said, in a story that attracted national attention. Barwell seems unbowed by the experience (he plans to launch more campaigns and petitions this year), while his staff insist the story was good news for their man, making him appear hard-working. Hmmm.

The clash between Barwell and the Advertiser led to a good-natured exchange on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme, with editor Glenn Ebrey and Barwell himself trading pleasantries. Ebrey admitted there was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone to the piece, but stressed that it was making a serious point: that the MP has been launching lots of very public campaigns to boost his profile and harvest email addresses in the run-up to the election. Barwell himself responded that he did not feel he was working any harder now that there was an election looming, and that he had campaigned alongside the Advertiser itself for Lillian’s Law – a change in drug-driving penalties – over the last several years.

The story was basically filler for Daily Politics, and didn’t see either Ebrey or Barwell raked over the coals for anything in particular. What was most interesting for Croydon viewers was a story that broke live on air – Croydon University Hospital had just declared a major internal emergency.

The NHS issue comes to Croydon with a bang

In 1995, a bowl-cut sporting Michael Portillo told the Conservative Party conference that “three letters send a chill down the spine of the enemy: SAS”.

The oddly macho speech was met with cheers from the audience, but mockery from everyone else. The phrase’s notoriety dogged the civilian Portillo for many years, but has these days entered political legend without doing much harm to the man himself, nowadays rebranded as a pastel-shirted, erudite godfather to the nation’s trainspotters.

Why do I bring this up now? Because in 2015, there are three different letters that send a chill down the spine of the Conservative Party: NHS.

The Conservatives want the next election to be about the economy. Labour wants it to be about the NHS. Neither of these facts are a surprise: the Conservatives want to reap the benefits of being in power during an economic recovery, and Labour knows that it is lagging behind the Conservatives when it comes to ratings of  ‘economic competence’.

But the NHS story goes both ways as well. Lord Ashcroft (he of those local polls of Croydon Central) has just released a new wide-ranging poll exploring the NHS as an issue. The results make worse reading for the Tories than Labour, though neither party has much to unequivocally celebrate.  Crucially, though, Labour is 18 points ahead of the Conservatives when it comes to “having the best approach to the NHS”.

Labour has been on the back foot after a series of fumbles at the end of last year – this could be its chance to retake the initiative

David Cameron himself is more personally trusted than Ed Miliband when it comes to the NHS, but the Prime Minister’s party lags well behind Labour on the same issue. We can therefore expect Gavin Barwell to find more opportunities to remind people, in almost every answer he gives, that a vote for Labour or UKIP is a vote for Ed Miliband.

What will the NHS issue – now ranked as the most important matter facing the country by a bare majority of voters nationwide – mean in Croydon? With the CUH ‘major internal emergency’ declared over the following day, the issue is no longer as live as it once was. But the scare factor is still there, and the increasing strain on the hospital – formerly known as Mayday – gives Labour’s Sarah Jones, on the back foot thanks to a series of fumbles by the Labour council at the end of last year, the chance to retake the initiative.

A rare testy exchange between Barwell and Jones on Twitter suggests the Labour candidate intends to do just that. Quite how she’ll do so remains to be seen – with Barwell in the news for too much campaigning, Jones has earned the nickname ‘Silent Sarah’ from the local Conservatives. Sure, they’re biased, but with the election only fifteen weeks away, Jones will want to do everything she can to make sure it doesn’t stick.

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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