Croydon Central’s last Tory MP wrote the book on how to win a marginal constituency. At the 2017 election, Gavin Barwell subsequently lost his seat. Now Barwell’s ex-Downing Street colleague is determined to win it back. So what went wrong last time? And will things really be different for the Tories two years on?
Mario Creatura says the mistakes at the last snap election were made in SW1, not CR0 and he is optimistic there won't be a repeat. While the election night result came as a surprise to many, Creatura says the warning signs emerged in the fortnight before Britain went to the polls:
‘There was a clear turning point about two weeks before polling day. All the data we had been gathering up to a certain point had been showing a very strong, solid Conservative set of voters. We were knocking on doors and people were quite happy and positive. We went back a week or two before the election and it is hard to define but rather than…them (typical Tory voters) being like ‘yes, of course, I’m voting for you’… those same people, many of them (said) ‘Oh well, thanks for coming round. I’ll take your leaflet’.
If apathy among Tory voters wasn’t problematic enough, Barwell's campaign also found itself badly outnumbered on the doorstep in 2017. Some 300 Tories – an unprecedented number – were out banging on doors in Croydon but the Momentum surge was bigger still. Creatura says the flood of Labour ground support two years ago meant that sometimes five or six activists were knocking on a single door urging voters to back Jeremy Corbyn. It paid off: Sarah Jones, the current Croydon Central MP, won with 29,873 votes, the highest number of votes for any candidate in the seat's 45-year history.
If Corbyn is to make it to Downing Street, Croydon Central is the sort of seat Labour must defend come 12 December. Yet while Momentum is again turning out in Croydon to campaign for Jones, its focus this time appears to be on ousting Tory MPs (including Boris Johnson) in marginal constituencies, rather than defending Labour-held seats.
Could it be Labour, not the Tories, who are heading into the election feeling complacent? Creatura says the level of Labour support in 2017 feels like a ‘high-water mark’. A recent council by-election in Fairfield in the centre of Croydon, suggests he might be right. Labour held on but their vote share plummeted by ten per cent; many of their voters turned instead to the Lib Dems.
With a better-run national campaign, Creatura is confident Croydon can turn blue again. A key part of the party's pitch, of course, is Brexit.
On this issue, Creatura couldn’t ask for a more favourable opponent than Jones. The Croydon Central MP was laughed at on Question Time last month for trying to explain the Labour party’s Brexit position. To make matters worse, the episode was filmed in Wallasey, a Labour stronghold where the sitting MP enjoys a thumping 20,000-something majority. Jones, who has voted repeatedly against the withdrawal bill in its various forms, is sure to find her party's Brexit pitch an even harder sell on the doorstep in south London. ‘Local people who do not follow politics too closely will know that. They are not stupid,’ says Creatura.
Of course, that's not to say some voters in Croydon won't prefer Jones's Brexit reluctance to the Tories' policy of 'Getting Brexit done'. But while Croydon only backed Leave by a small margin of 0.3 per cent, the good news for Creatura and the Tories is that pockets of Croydon backed Brexit much more heavily and are likely to come over to the Tories as a result.
The neighbouring wards of New Addington and Fieldway, home to large council estates, have traditionally favoured Labour. These areas also voted Leave by substantial margins (65 per cent and 62 per cent) at the EU referendum. In 2017, both areas turned out for Labour. But a combination of Corbyn's Brexit confusion and Boris Johnson's leadership means things look different this time.
Brexit is allowing the party to cut through to voters in these areas; plenty say they are considering voting for the Tories for the first time ever. Creatura says the reception Tories are getting on the doorstep there is warm:
'(these) communities...have traditionally voted Labour. All the evidence we are seeing, from the conversations we are having, is that they are frustrated at not being listened to. They feel they are not represented.'
While the Brexit party has vowed to stand down in Tory-held seats, this won't apply in Croydon Central though. This, of course, risks splitting the 'Leave' vote, a nightmare scenario for Creatura. But he might ironically be rescued by those on the opposite side of the Brexit divide. In 2017, the Lib Dems had a pitiful showing in Croydon Central, picking up only 1,000 or so votes. But the party has not always had such dismal support in the borough. Back in 2010, Nick Clegg's party won over 6,500 votes, in the process effectively handing victory to the Tories' Gavin Barwell. A repeat this time around would mean a Tory win in south London.
As Labour is keen to make clear to voters, it isn't all about Brexit though. Croydon has been in the news for the wrong reasons recently. Crime in the 12 months to September spiked by seven per cent and a spate of stabbings in the borough hit the national newspapers. Residents are worried, in particular, about gang violence, meaning Boris's pledge of new officers is likely to go down well. Creatura says the borough should get an allocation of 100 to 150 officers. But it remains to be seen whether this boost will be enough to spare the Tories being blamed for a reduction in overall numbers of police officers in recent years.
There has been some criticism of the Tories for parachuting in CCHQ-approved candidates into seats where they have no local connection. This isn't the case in Croydon, where Creatura makes a virtue of being born, educated and staying in the borough.
‘I am a local guy. I was born locally, I grew up locally, I went to local state schools. I still live locally. if you want someone who represents your community – I think they should be from your community – I drive on the same roads, I use the same trains to get into London….if you listen to people and get where they are coming from…’
The key campaign pitch on his electoral leaflet is testament to his knowledge of the borough. Nowhere is Brexit mentioned. Instead, he has a plan to woo commuters, of whom there are plenty in Croydon: he wants to reclassify East Croydon station from Zone 5 to Zone 4. It sounds mundane but it's a pitch that could save the thousands who live in Croydon and work in London every day hundreds a year.
At East Croydon station, Creatura gets encouraging messages from passers-by. This is certainly a seat that looks winnable for the Tories. At around 3.50am on 13 December, we'll find out which way Croydon has voted. And in an election of fine margins, the result in south London could prove crucial for determining Boris Johnson and the Tories' wider fortunes.