CROYDON IN CRISIS: The alarm signals over the electoral fate of the Town Hall, and perhaps even the Croydon Central marginal parliamentary seat, saw the borough’s Labour councillors given a stern lecture last night.
By WALTER CRONXITE, political editor
Stuart King was duly selected by his Town Hall Labour peers last night to be the council’s new, and only, deputy leader.
But not before he and the borough’s Labour councillors were given a stern 20-minute dressing-down by the leader of another London council.
“It was unbelievable,” said one attendee at the virtual meeting. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Richard Watts, the leader of Islington Council, was given centre stage at the start of the latest meeting of the Labour group that controls Croydon’s crisis-hit council. It is the latest sign of the discomfort over the council’s parlous state among other Labour-run local authorities and Labour’s London regional organisation.
After six years under Tony Newman and his cabal, the borough has debts of £1.5billion and is unable to balance its budget for the current year after running down its reserves to dangerously low levels. Jo Negrini, the council’s chief exec, plus Newman and most of his closest councillor colleagues have all either left the borough, resigned or been sacked from cabinet posts in the past month.
The next Town Hall elections are not due to be held until May 2022, and there are few who would predict that even under a new leadership team Labour – which has held a 41-29 seat majority since 2018 – will retain control of the council.
But the growing concern within the party is the collateral damage the mismanagement of the council is doing to the Labour’s broader reputation, and to its parliamentary prospects.
Sarah Jones won the marginal Croydon Central parliamentary seat in 2017, surfing the wave of enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, and retained the seat last December.
“If Labour nationally want to take government, it has got to win the marginals,” a Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon. “If Labour don’t win Croydon Central, they won’t win at Westminster.”
The situation with Jones and her local Town Hall is further complicated because of the close working relationship that Jones enjoyed with Newman and his deputy, Alison Butler, having advocated on their behalf and being a staunch supporter of their Brick by Brick house-building disaster.
The silence of Jones, and the Croydon North MP, Steve Reed OBE, in the past weeks over the council’s plight has spoken volumes. And Reed is Labour’s front bench spokesman on local government…
Hence the lecture from Watts last night.
“Croydon councillors must be seen as utter dickheads,” said one after being on the receiving end of the 20-minute assault.
Watts set out the expectations for Croydon’s Labour councillors. His message was that this was a Very. Serious. Situation (“As if we didn’t know,” said another attendee).
The priority was to get out of the mess, and there was a reassurance that there would be help from other Labour councils. “The question is: how much control do you want?” Watts said, rhetorically. If Croydon is forced to issue a Section 114 notice, admitting the council is broke, “the Tories will destroy Croydon,” Watts warned.
“Of course, it’s a bollocking, but it is also all bollocks,” one disgruntled council figure said.
“The auditors’ report, and the Ministry taskforce announced this week have superseded all this already. We lost control of the situation long ago.”
Watts’ lesson on party unity over, the main business of the evening was able to commence.
A move to erase the position of second deputy leader (that held until this month by Stuart Collins) was agreed, to the apparent embarrassment of Stephen Mann, the only one to put themselves forward for the non-job. Under new council leader Hamida Ali, there are to be no deputy cabinet member appointments either, in an effort to save the council some money, estimated at around £200,000 over the course of a year.
“Or what I like to call ‘half a Negrini’,” said one disillusioned Labour councillor.
When it came to the vote for the statutory deputy leader (a post that cannot simply be rubbed out), the 41 Labour councillors had four candidates to choose from, three of whom had been members of Newman’s cabinet right through the period that caused the current crisis.
In first-round voting, it seemed that Newman and his inner circle were backing Alisa Flemming, the cabinet member who was in charge of children’s services when they failed their Ofsted inspection. Perhaps they hadn’t heard what Watts was saying?
Flemming drew 16 first-round votes, King 15, with late-entry Leila Ben-Hassel polling seven and Manju Shahul-Hameed eliminated after getting support from just three colleagues.
After Ben-Hassel was eliminated in the next round, her support appeared to shift to King, who won 21-18. It is the second leadership election that Flemming has lost in a fortnight.
King, a former Labour parliamentary candidate in Putney, has already been given cabinet responsibilities for the council’s rescue package. First elected to Croydon Council for West Thornton ward in 2014, although a long-time member of Newman’s front-bench team and firmly in the “Noo Labour” wing of the party, he has never been seen as being part of the inner clique.
Today, King said, “I am hugely grateful to my colleagues who have placed their faith in me and elected me as deputy leader.
“Working with them my priority is to support Hamida Ali in tackling the huge challenges our council and communities face.”
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