Labour will struggle to even take London's most marginal seat from the Tories

  • Croydon Central is London’s most marginal seat — incumbent Conservative MP Gavin Barwell won by 165 votes in 2015.
  • Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn kicked off his campaign trail in the south London borough last week.
  • Tory MPs Michael Gove and Chris Philp say the party cannot be “complacent” about how well the Conservatives are doing in the polls.
  • The Tory campaign is well underway while Labour has yet to field a candidate in Croydon Central.

LONDON — The fight for the capital’s most marginal seat — Croydon Central — will not be as straightforward as Labour might have expected. 

On paper Croydon Central looks like an easy target for them. In the 2015 general election Conservative MP and housing minister Gavin Barwell won his seat by just 165 votes. He received 22,753 votes while Labour’s Sarah Jones got 22,588.

But the state of the national polls means Labour cannot be complacent and despite the Tories being seen as on course for a landslide victory nationally, the Tories are not complacent either.

“We won Croydon Central with just 165 votes last time so whilst we absolutely we need to fight, we definitely need to make sure Chris [Philp] is back and I am confident we will achieve both those things,” said Barwell at a Consrvative conference in East Croydon last weekend.

Prominent Tory MP and a key campaigner for Brexit, who at one point vied for Conservative party leadership, Michael Gove, was also there to lend support to Barwell. He helped him campaign in the 2015 general election and he intends to do again.

“Not one of us can be complacent. We can never be complacent and we must not give the impression that we are taking anyone for granted,” said Gove, MP for Surrey Heath since 2005 and who was formerly the Secretary of State of Education from 2010 to 2014 and the Secretary of State for Justice from 2015 to 2016.

“I particularly agree with Michael’s point of the importance of not being at all complacent in the coming election because elections can be uncertain,” said Chris Philp, MP for Croydon South.

“And given how catastrophic a Jeremy Corbyn premiership would be we can’t even take a scintilla, even an iota of risk that Jeremy Corbyn gets anywhere near the doors of number 10 Downing street. It would be catastrophic for our country.”

Croydon Central is up for grabs — but a lot has changed since 2015

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn started his campaign trail in Croydon on Wednesday, saying “this election is going to be fought on the streets of this country, up and down, in town halls. in streets, on beaches, on seafronts we are taking that message of the kind of country and the kind of society we want to be.”

“I’m delighted to start the campaign in London, right here in Croydon. I’ll be back in Croydon Central when we have a Labour MP to deliver to the people of Croydon.”

Jones, the former Labour candidate for Croydon Central spoke to the Croydon Advertiser and also put up fighting talk saying “we got Gavin’s majority down from several thousand to just 165 votes last time, so there’s no reason why we can’t now [win the seat].”

But a lot has changed in two years:

So Croydon Central, being such a hotly contested seat, is going to be a real litmus test for how much support the Conservatives have really gathered.

Barwell and his constituents have already laid out a battle plan. Canvasing already started at the weekend and on Sunday, over 100 people delivered new election leaflets:

Meanwhile, Labour has not even fielded a candidate yet for Croydon Central and reportedly thousands of Labour election leaflets were allegedly pulped after being printed with the wrong date.

Theresa May

Christopher Furlong / Getty

‘It’s about getting a good Brexit that works for everyone in the country’

Britain is going to have a Brexit no matter what and this is where it could get sticky for the Tories — especially in the marginal seats.  

The Tory party itself was torn in who campaigned for ‘Remain’ and who campaigned for ‘Leave.’

Even Prime Minister Theresa May campaigned for ‘Remain’ but is now leading the country into a Brexit by March 29, 2019.

But the Tories seem lazer-focused on unity and even those like Barwell and another Croydon politician Chris Philp who voted ‘Remain’ are keen to show that they accept that Brexit is going ahead, so now it is more about getting a deal that would hopefully satisfy both sides of the debate.

However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn eventually ruled out a second EU referendum after Shadow Chancellor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme previously that a Brexit deal should be “put to parliament and possibly the British people.” Labour MPs are also still split on what they want and even former Labour leader and prime minister Tony Blair said he “wasn’t totally sure” what Labour’s position was on Brexit — even though he told people not to elect politicians who “back Brexit at any cost.”

This does not bode well for Labour.

“We’ve done a number of canvas sessions already and my reading will be is that the Labour vote is well down and very soft, the UKIP vote has all but disappeared,” Barwell told BI at the weekend.

“What we do have an issue with is capturing Conservatives that were strong Remain supporters — they’re still Conservatives, they like me as their MP, but if they perceive that the election is another referendum, they will feel uncomfortable if they are asked to vote for Brexit [again]. 

“The argument we need to make to them is that Brexit is happening, this election is about getting a good deal that both addresses concerns that led people to vote for ‘Leave’ and ensures those who wanted to ‘Remain’ that we’ll continue to trade with Europe and will work together on issues like organised crime, counter-terrorism and all those things they feel are important and it’s about getting a good Brexit that works for everyone in the country.”

How ‘hard Brexit’ affects Croydon workers — most work in the City

May is taking Britain into a “hard Brexit” — relinquishing membership of the Single Market in exchange for full control over immigration. 

The loss of financial passporting rights is one of the biggest worries for the City.

If the passport is taken away, London could cease to be the most important financial centre in Europe, costing the UK thousands of jobs and billions in revenue. Around 5,500 firms registered in the UK rely on the European Union’s passporting rights for the financial services sector, and they turn over about £9 billion in revenue. 

As some Tory members pointed out at the weekend, lots of Croydon locals work in the City, so while a Brexit deal will shape the whole country, it will acutely impact on constituents who work in central London. It is not just a question over whether people voted ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ — it is all about the deal. Those who voted for Brexit may not have known that a “hard Brexit” deal is what they were getting.

But prominent Brexiteer Gove told BI it is for that reason that you need those with influence and understanding in the government to help shape that deal.

“If you do want to influence the shape of Brexit there is no one better placed than a minister like Gavin [Barwell] who is respected across the party, who has Theresa’s complete confidence, who will be able in private but clearly, to influence the shape of the eventual deal we will get in the interests of people in this constituency,” he said.

Other major issues that affect those living in Croydon include the Southern Rail strikes and the NHS.

The issue over Southern Rail is a huge one. Croydon is a commuter borough into the City and central London. While West Croydon now has the overground line, which is effectively part of the tube network, many still rely on the Southern Rail network.

But it is not an understatement to say the Southern Rail network has been in chaos over the last year. Half a million Southern Rail passengers were hit by a total shutdown of the service in the worst train strike since the 1990s back in December. But this was just one in a long line of regular strikes that affected how people could get into work. It did not just delay trains, it actually shut down complete lines in some cases. 

The strikes were by members of train drivers union Aslef and the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT). Locals are fed up of the unions. They are fed up of the lottery of whether trains will be running one week to the next.

This could be a big sticking point with voters.

Barwell and Philp have both been very active on the issue. “Chris and I have lobbied very hard with the secretary of state for transport and the PM [about Southern Rail issues],” said Barwell.

Back in December Philp was pushing for a change to union laws because “disproportionate” strikes were bringing Britain’s infrastructure to a standstill.

“There are two things we should do. It should be a legal requirement for public sector strikes to go before a High Court judge, who would determine whether the strike was unreasonable and disproportionate for it to continue,” said Philp in December.

“The second point should be that we follow what Canada, Italy, and Spain do by making sure that even if there are public sector strikes, 50% of the services should still be running.”

“I understand that there may be grievances from unions but they always have to be reasonable and proportionate. The judge should balance up the injury suffered from workers versus injuries suffered by the general public [to determine this]. And if unions had a problem with this, they are effectively asking for the legal right to strike disproportionately and unreasonably.” 

They said if you elect a Tory government, the NHS won’t be here in five years and it’s still here

But Labour leader Corbyn said on Monday, Labour “will never, ever apologise for the closeness of our relationship with the trade union movement. You are family.” If you talk to people living in Croydon who depend on getting the train into work, you’re likely to find them pretty unsympathetic to the transport unions right now.

The NHS is a natural hotpoint for Labour and will undoubtedly be brought up during the campaign. But again, it is not going to be easy for Labour. Barwell is attuned to helping fund the NHS and has a powerful personal story to go with it.

“Labour always run on the NHS during the elections for as long as I can remember. They said if you elect a Tory government, the NHS won’t be here in five years and it’s still here,” he said.

“But on the NHS, I had cancer when I was 7 years old, the NHS saved my life, my wife works for the NHS and I have been crucial in lobbying for the £21 million into the state of the art NHS A&E department in our local hospital.”

So Croydon Central may seem marginal right now but it is anything but a slam dunk for Labour.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.

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