Ahead of the twelve-candidate Croydon North by-election on Thursday, sparked by the death of Malcolm Wicks MP, East London Lines visited the area to find out which issues are inspiring constituents to get out and vote, or not…
Opposite Norwood Junction station, David and Phil stand outside The Cherry Trees pub, smoking cigarettes and nursing half-drunk pints. Asked if they’ll be voting in the by-election, they look blank.
“Didn’t know there was one,” says David, a local mechanic. Do you know the name of the last MP? “Nope”. Malcolm Wicks? “That sounds about right.” So you won’t be voting? He shrugs. “I’ll probably give it a miss.”
By-election apathy isn’t anything new. And with Wicks bequeathing Labour candidate Steve Reed a majority of 16,483 – Labour’s largest in London — an upset looks unlikely.
But with high unemployment, no mainstream party opposing the cuts and Respect’s Lee Jasper and UKIP’s Winston McKenzie running highly visible campaigns – that have pushed Conservative candidate Andy Stranack into fourth place at the bookies – the story on Friday morning may be how much of Wicks’ majority Labour can hold.
After George Galloway took Bradford West for Respect from under Labour’s nose in March, the recent visits to the borough from Ed Milliband, David Milliband, Ed Balls, Diane Abbot, Chuka Umunna, Sadiq Khan and David Lammy, could be seen as nervy attempts to back up an uncertain candidate.
As leader of Lambeth Council, Reed has been both lauded and criticised for his transformative initiatives. Taking the reins in 2006, he pioneered the innovative Co-operative Councils Network, a locally-focused approach to public service delivery. But crime rose under his watch and the borough posted London’s highest unemployment rate last month, despite his claims to be a job creator. Top billing in Jasper’s campaign literature is that local unemployment amongst black male youth stands at 56 per cent – higher than Greece.
Social issues are key in a borough that felt the brunt of the 2011 riots. London Road, the borough’s main high street was badly damaged, largely out of sight of the media spotlight.
Asked what the most pressing local issue is, shopkeeper Haval Hussein doesn’t miss a beat. “Security. It’s really threatening around here and no one does anything about it. Only this morning there was a fight happening just here and the camera was watching but no-one called the police.”
He’s already cast a postal vote for Reed, but his dispirited tone is familiar: “To be honest, I’ve been voting for Labour since 1996, and I haven’t changed my mind and I’m not going to change my mind. They’re all the same. But Labour for me is a bit better than the others. Especially the Tories.”
UKIP candidate Winston McKenzie will be hoping to capitalise on this anti-Conservative sentiment. With his party basking in national media attention, evidence of his canvassing is strong. Clutching a copy of the Express, local resident John Norris explains why he’ll put an x next to McKenzie’s name on Thursday.
“I’m fed up with the two parties, Conservative and Labour. Labour were in power for 13 years and what did they do? They let the working class down. They didn’t build enough council homes. And at the end of the 13 years, the gap between rich and poor was worse than at the start of it! The system needs a kick up the backside.“
Up the road in Thornton Heath, Tara Harvey says she won’t be voting in the by-election because she “didn’t know there was one”. Asked what issues would inspire her to the ballot box, she looks down at the neat bed she’s been tending in her front garden.
“I tell you what it reminds me of [around here]. When I first moved to London 10 years ago, I lived in Clapham North. And that was all very run down and now it has a few bars and a few coffee shops. But I can’t see that happening here any time soon. But it’d be nice.”
Most of the post-riots regeneration funds bypassed this area for shopping centre developments, arts festivals and PR campaigns in Croydon proper. Looking around, as the first specks of rain appear on the grey pavement, it’s hard not to wonder when the fingers of gentrification may creep this far – and whether Steve Reed will be the one to oversee it.