On the outskirts of the Croydon Central constituency, New Addington represents one of South-East London’s furthest reaches.
Built by the First National Housing Trust in the 1930s (when Conservative governments still built houses) to relieve the slums that had overflowed in Croydon, and expanded extensively in the ’50s and ’60s, New Addington is essentially a 4 km² housing estate split into two wards.
Once known as ‘Little Siberia’ because of its noticeably colder temperatures, the area suffered for its geographical remoteness until the arrival of the Tramlink greatly improved the area’s connectivity in 2000. Across the decades the area cultivated a reputation for impoverishment, low academic attainment, unemployment, poor health and antisocial behaviour. Tony Blair’s New Labour government designated the area an Education Action Zone. In 2013 a survey by the Croydon Advertiser named it the ‘worst place to live in Croydon’.
The two wards, originally New Addington and Fieldway, were renamed New Addington North and New Addington South in 2018. Both have voted Labour consistently (at odds with the constituency in general, which has returned a Tory to Westminster on all but two occasions since 1974). In Theresa May’s snap election of 2017 Labour’s Sarah Jones unseated the Conservative, Gavin Barwell.
I have had the great pleasure of canvassing for Sarah Jones since the launch of her 2019 campaign. Through Sarah I’ve met John McDonnell and Owen Jones and a number of committed activists, councillors and party members. The vibe on the doorstep has been pro-Labour by enlarge, especially in the wards at the heart of the constituency.
Sarah Jones, Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Housing Minister – a Croydon local, inspired to join the Labour Party by the Conservative Peter Lilley’s infamous tirade against single parent mothers, is a very popular M.P. Many people mention meeting her, liking her and appreciating the work she’s done for Croydon, particularly with regard to Housing and knife crime.
New Addington, though, is very much a tale of two wards, with one in particular – New Addington South – being of particular importance, I think, to the 2019 General Election’s wider picture.
Both Wards voted Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Canvassing New Addington North, considerably more multicultural than its counterpart, the voter intention remained majority Labour. I spoke with only two people in the ward who were intending to vote Conservative. In conversation, Brexit rarely came up at all.
The ward of New Addington South, though, told a different tale and it’s an important one because its demographic is almost identical to the traditional Labour strongholds in the North of England that it’s said we risk losing in the wake of the Brexit referendum. It was in New Addington South that our canvassing team first experienced aggression on the doorstep. The voter intention was predominantly Conservative (this despite a Brexit Party candidate standing in the constituency) and Sarah Jones’s personal constituency-wide popularity seemed to hold no sway.
You might think I was describing another part of the country, but, no, I’d literally crossed the main road where, every Friday, throughout my childhood, my Grandmother had brought me to New Addington Market (which I’m told still exists, though in a much diminished form). The landscape, in terms of housing and facilities is essentially identical to the North ward; the ethnic demographic is significantly more white (in fact, not a single Person of Colour answered the door at any address I visited) and far more people own their own home.
Women in the South ward typically closed the door immediately upon hearing my, “Hi, I’m from the Labour Party,” introduction, usually with a “bloody Labour” epithet. Men were more likely to engage. Though they rarely named Brexit as a particular concern, their rhetoric came directly from Nigel Farage and from time to time echoed shades of Tommy Robinson. One of my team did find himself propositioned quite angrily by a man who regarded it an outrage that Labour intended to ‘rerun’ the referendum. “You can’t keep having referendums until you get the result you want,” he’d said. An easy position to understand, I think. The area had voted to Leave by a substantial margin. Very obviously, having won the vote, they must have felt robbed by Parliament’s inability to deliver it.
I can empathise with Leavers very easily. My personal opinion of our country’s E.U. membership began on the Eurosceptic Left, where my heart most naturally beats, in tune with the likes of Tony Benn, George Galloway and a certain Jeremy Corbyn. As consecutive governments led us into a deeper, more complex integration with Europe, I came to regard myself as a ‘reluctant Remainer’. I’ll never be a Federalist, and I regard the E.U. as a fundamentally flawed concept; I simply feel that our entanglement with it is too convoluted to safely unravel.
Though I mention the Farage/Robinson rhetoric, I should point out that there’s no blatant ‘Far Right’ political presence in New Addington at this time (neither U.K.I.P. nor the B.N.P. made any impression in the 2018 council election). These ‘angry white men’ were most definitely asserting an intention to vote Conservative. I think it’s fair to say that for some time there’s been a simmering right wing undercurrent in the ward. In 2006 Labour councillors had to fight very hard to beat a significant challenge from the B.N.P. In 2010 the ward elected a Conservative councillor for the first time since the 1960s. Though Labour councillors subsequently won back the wards and have thus far held on to them, I believe that a festering dissatisfaction with the Left has remained in New Addington South throughout this time, and it seems most likely to me that it owes itself to the commonly held perception among this demographic that the Labour Party has deserted the working class.
I can empathise very easily with this as well, though I don’t believe for one minute that it’s true. In my youth I absolutely identified the Labour Party with a working class resistance movement. I look at Labour’s manifesto today in the run up to the most important General Election since Attlee terminated Churchill’s first Prime Ministerial reign in 1945, and I see an amazing raft of transformative policies that will lift working class people up from the hopeless despondency that the Tories and the Liberal Democrats have inflicted upon them .
New Addington South would stand to benefit massively from a Labour government. Labour will inject £1 Billion into Youth Services, abolish tuition fees, giving youngsters from impoverished homes a shot at a university education without the intimidating prospect of a colossal personal debt, double spending on adolescent mental health services, put an end to bogus self-employment and ban zero-hour contracts. Labour will hire 4,500 more health visitors, rebuild police numbers (surpassing the Conservatives’ pledge by 2000 officers).
It’s a sad irony. A Corbyn-led Labour Government would be the best thing that has ever happened to New Addington South, but the people of New Addington South are choosing to vote for a Conservative manifesto that offers them nothing.
In my opinion, it’s wrong to say that the Labour Party has deserted the working class. Our policies prove the assertion to be wrong. What’s happened is that the Labour Party has stopped speaking a language that this particular branch of the ‘white working class’ desires to engage with. We’ve experienced a communication breakdown. Our progressive nature has taken us to a place that the ‘white working class’ voters of New Addington South simply didn’t want to go.
It’s into this ‘language void’ that Farage and Robinson have implanted their rhetoric. The reasons that the former Labour-voters of New Addington South typically give for turning their back on the Left issue forth like a tabloid editorial. They don’t like Corbyn. Their reasons for not liking Corbyn represent a narrow array of disinformative exaggerations and lies. Narrow though this array of disinformation is, it has left no room for the knowledge, for example, that Jeremy Corbyn has been decorated by the International Peace Bureau, or that he sits on the Privy Council (having been cleared by the security services), or that he’s spoken of in favourable terms by big-hitting Jews like Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky. They don’t want to know that the Labour Party intends to give soldiers a pay rise and improve their housing conditions, or that Sarah Jones is currently campaigning to have the names of Croydon’s War-dead brought together on a commemorative monument.
Why is this important? Because of the demographic similarities between New Addington South and those wards in the North of England that we’re in danger of losing. I can well imagine that the reaction on the doorstep in those wards is very similar to the one that I’ve described here. I’m told that Brexit comes up far more as an issue in the North of England and that for some voters it’s the defining issue. While Labour’s Brexit policy is an easy sell with Remainers who very much like the idea of a second referendum, it’s very difficult to sell the policy to Leavers because the second referendum facilitates the possibility of a Remain victory. I’ve no doubt too that traditional Labour voters in these Northern Leave seats feel similarly deserted by the party. Like the people of New Addington South, I suspect they see the Labour Party being dominated by middle class academics who they assume will never speak their language again (and in all likelihood they’re entirely correct). The ‘white working class’ who hanker for the sound of their own lexicon in the mainstream turn, inevitably, to those people who’ll speak it unashamedly. Enter the populists…
The Far Right have hijacked the conduit through which the ‘white working class’ formerly communicated with the Labour movement. These unscrupulous right wing hijackers have stylised working class identity as a thuggish, nationalist stereotype. They often tell working class people that the ‘middle class’ Labour movement despises them, regarding them as a brutish, poorly educated band of hooligans. It’s actually the Right (Farage/Robinson) who assert this stereotype by telling the working class that the Labour Party no longer represents them, implying that the language of the ‘middle class academic’ should be of no interest to them and that they should be speak and behave in a very particular, stereotypical manner. None of this need be the case.
The true measure of the Labour Party’s connection to this disenchanted subdivision should be the manifesto and the many great things that it can do to improve their lives. If our progressive ethos dictates that we can never speak their language again, then that’s the way it has to be. The consequence will be that we almost certainly lose their vote for good, unless the ‘language barrier’ can be bridged or, for some reason, ceases to matter.
I’m confident Croydon Central will return Sarah Jones to Westminster, though it is a marginal seat and the Tories will contest it. I very much doubt she’ll receive a significant number of votes in New Addington South. Although this shouldn’t be a problem for her (if the rest of the constituency votes as the canvassing has suggested it will), it represents, perhaps, a very serious problem nationwide, given how closely the demographic resembles our problematic Leave wards in the North of England.
A local Labour councillor put it to me like this: “We should be winning New Addington South. If we can’t win New Addington South, we can’t win the country.”
These are the seats we have to win. These are the voters with whom we have to reconnect. If it is a fact that we can no longer speak their language, we have to show them the transformative nature of our manifesto. So, let’s get out there and show them the many ways in which a 2019 Labour Government can bring real change to their lives.