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Mile End Institute

Many Croydons: Labour's Challenge in South London

Reflecting on this month's local elections, Dr Daniel Frost considers the significance of the Conservatives' victory in Croydon's first direct mayoral elections and explores the differing interpretations of London's southernmost borough in 2022. 

Photo of Croydon from the air including train station
Estimated Reading Time: 3-4 minutes.

In May 1994 - less than a week after the first democratic elections in South Africa - Labour won a majority on Croydon council for the first time. It was a coincidence which was not lost on observers. Croydon had long been a Conservative stronghold, and the result was a sure sign of the parties' changing fortunes: two Labour MPs were elected in the Borough in the 1997 landslide. In the 2017 General Election, too, the victory of Labour's Sarah Jones was one of the stories of the night. And yet, in this month's local elections - despite a strong showing elsewhere in London - a Conservative became Croydon's first directly-elected mayor, and Labour lost a majority held since 2014. What had gone wrong? 

There are obvious local explanations. That there was a directly-elected mayoralty for Jason Perry to win (following a referendum at the end of last year) owes much to the problems which the Labour council has faced since its 2020 bankruptcy. Though Croydon's financial problems went beyond them, a series of risky investments and growing antipathy about the Council's planning decisions saw the downfall of virtually an entire generation of Labour councillors - many of them first elected in the euphoric years of the early 1990s. As with Lutfur Rahman's win in Tower Hamlets, Croydon is a reminder for Keir Starmer that unpopular Labour councils are as likely to lose the party votes as popular ones are to win them. And the very importance of local factors, in one of the relatively few places where Labour topped the polls even in the 2019 European elections, is an indication of the broader challenges which the party still faces in shoring up its vote. 

Croydon is a strange place and means different things to different people. For some, it is still the suburban hellscape of 1980s sitcom Terry and June, and winning there in the 1990s was about as significant as Labour's 2022 victories in Barnet. The party has never made much of a dent in the Conservative-voting south of the Borough, but Pat Ryan's win in the Upper Norwood by-election in 1992 had signalled that Labour could win in the 'leafier' bits of South London around Crystal Palace Park. He stepped down in 2022, and his old ward elected a Liberal Democrat alongside two Labour councillors; it's the first time that a Liberal has won in the north of the Borough since Bill Pitt's parliamentary by-election victory in 1981. Upper Norwood voted 66 per cent for Remain, and planning decisions have been controversial locally. Labour will need to do something about its fractured vote

Labour's 1990s wins, of course, also owed something to the Borough's changing demographics. Nowadays, Croydon is more likely to be thought of as Stormzy's hometown than it is the birthplace of the National Front. The Borough, and particularly areas like Thornton Heath and South Norwood, are a prime example of what Stuart Hall called 'multicultural drift'. It is in exactly those places, however, that turnout is dwindling, and that the problems which caused the 2011 riots seem barely addressed. Labour's hold on the Borough's north might be enough for its MP, Steve Reed, to sit comfortably, but the loss of the mayoralty shows that Labour needs more. And even there, the (currently unsuccessful) campaigns of the Taking the Initiative Party - founded by Black Lives Matter activist Sasha Johnson - are perhaps a sign that the upset produced by Lutfur Rahman's Arise in Tower Hamlets could be repeated elsewhere if Labour takes its voters for granted. 

For other readers, Croydon will have a different significance, as the home of Peep Show's Mark and Jez. If Croydon's iconic trams did not feature in the show, its former office blocks certainly did, rapidly transformed into apartments which made the town emblematic of 'permitted development'. To their credit, the Labour council did try to put a halt on this, but through the late 2010s it undeniably benefitted from the votes of their residents, and of the young commuters in the new builds by East Croydon station. It was the town centre ward, Fairfield, with its trendy(ish) bars and cafes, which was to elect prominent local Momentum members in 2018, and a full slate of Momentum-member candidates was selected again for 2022. This time, however, two of them were defeated by the first Greens ever to be elected in the Borough. Local factors were salient, but the loss of enthusiasm (and canvassers) which was accompanied by Keir Starmer's leadership of the Labour Party cannot have helped.

And then there is the Croydon of the 'Croydon Facelift' and the group of kids that berate Mark in Peep Show's first episode. There's a good chance that they would've travelled from New Addington: Croydon's Croydon, the sprawling housing estates way out on the Kent border. Turnouts in New Addington have been abysmal for a while, and what was once a Labour stronghold (their unsuccessful mayoral candidate, Val Shawcross, got her start as a councillor there before she joined the London Assembly) has elected three Conservatives for the first time. The Tories have been prodding away in the south of New Addington for a while - Tony Pearson, a councillor from 2010 to 2014, was re-elected as a Conservative councillor after a brief foray in the 'Democrats and Veterans Party' - but their success on the Fieldway Estate, in the north, is virtually unprecedented. New Addington voted for Leave by large margins, and it's close to 'Red Wall' as you'll find in London. Still work to be done for Starmer, there. 

Similarly, in Waddon - a more socially-mixed area just to the south of the town centre, but with a long history of council housing - Labour has experienced mounting problems since the 1970s. If Waddon was never so secure as New Addington, in the mid-twentieth century it was reliably won through the hard-fought campaigns of Viterbo Burgos, a refugee from Francoist Spain, who was as much a thorn in the side of the Labour Group as the council itself. Council house sales and a certain amount of support for the Far Right ate away at Labour's votes in Waddon as they had in New Addington, but in recent years it still elected three Labour councillors. One of these, Andrew Pelling, a formerly Conservative (and then Independent) MP about as popular with Croydon's Labour Group as Burgos had once been, was suspended from the party in the aftermath of his support for the directly-elected mayoral system. He stood as an independent, both in the mayoral race and in Waddon, and that was enough to let one more Conservative slip into his old seat in the council chamber. Again, a local result which still speaks to the difficulties faced by Labour nationally. 

There are many Croydons, then, and the results in all of them are a reminder of Labour's challenge. In the 1990s, when there were also many Croydons, Labour found a way of rising to it. After the recession at the beginning of the decade, the rise of the Docklands, and the growth of ICT - all of which hit Croydon especially hard - voters that might once have been comfortable found themselves warming to the critics of Thatcherism, and Labour benefited. It might do so again; its recent results are hardly as bad as 1982, when it had just five councillors. But its local reputation will take some rebuilding. 

At the same time, Labour's losses in Croydon cannot be reduced to local factors alone. If anything, they reveal how little Labour has succeeded in papering over the divisions of a fractured borough. These multiple Croydons, as so often, are a synecdoche for the situation in the country as a whole. The Labour Party - with sometime Croydon councillor David Evans as General Secretary - would be wise to pay attention to them.

Dr Dan Frost is a Visiting Fellow at the Mile End Institute and is the Co-Convenor of the Contemporary British History Seminar at the Institute for Historical Research



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