What can the party’s history tell us about its current predicament?
Croydon, UK – Despite strong winds and thrashing rain showers, Labour activists in the southern London borough of Croydon are out campaigning for a seat they must win if their party is to stand a chance of victory in the general election on Thursday.
Croydon Central is one of the tightest marginal constituencies in the country, with the Conservative
Party’s Gavin Barwell winning the 2015 contest by just 165 votes.
“I don’t want to predict it,” Labour campaigner and councillor Carole Bonner says, adding that she could not hold back tears after the defeat two years ago.
She hopes this time will be different, and her local party has doorstepped or phoned around 25,000 constituents in the hope that they will vote for Labour’s Sarah Jones.
Sandwiched between the Labour safe seat of Croydon North and the Conservative stronghold of Croydon South, Croydon Central is considered a toss-up due to its unique demographic make-up.
“We do have very different areas. The ward I represent in New Addington was almost entirely a council estate and is still mostly social housing. It’s one of the most deprived wards in the country, so that’s one end of the spectrum,” Bonner explains.
“We have areas around East Croydon, which has fast links to London, plenty of really expensive flats being built.
“Then we have areas like Heathfield, that have multi-million pound houses and have golf courses … so it is really mixed.”
According to Robin Pettitt, a lecturer in comparative politics at nearby Kingston University, the constituency will be “a bellwether for the two parties’ fortunes”.
“Croydon Central is an extremely interesting constituency,” Pettitt tells Al Jazeera.
“It really straddles the boundary between the affluent southern suburbs and the more deprived ring around central London, that’s what makes the constituency an ultra-marginal.”
With such a small margin between the two leading parties, the success of each will depend on how they “squeeze” votes from other parties, he explains.
Labour's approach in the campaign as a whole has been to focus on 'normal' political issues, rather than Brexit.
For Pettitt, the Conservatives would look to capitalise on the collapsing UKIP vote, while Labour would try to focus on voters who previously backed the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.
“I would think that neither of those parties would campaign very hard there, leaving the way open for Labour,” he says.
“Labour’s approach in the campaign as a whole has been to focus on ‘normal’ political issues, rather than Brexit.”
In the lastest YouGov poll from May on the issue, 44 percent of respondents said they thought leaving the EU was the right decision while 45 percent said it was the wrong one, with the rest answering “don’t know”.
British Prime Minister Theresa May called the election ostensibly to give herself a bigger mandate to pursue the kind of “hard Brexit” deal she wants, but in Croydon, Bonner has found the fate of the UK’s membership of the bloc is not the biggest issue for voters she has doorstepped.
“Brexit was being brought up at the beginning but seems to have gone away now …. You still get the odd thing about immigration,” she says, adding that most people have accepted the result of the vote.
I think people care about local issues more, even when we're going door knocking for a general election ... we still get people complaining about missed bin collections and so on, so really hyper local issues.
Instead, Bonner has found voters are interested in issues closer to home.
“I think people care about local issues more, even when we’re going door knocking for a general election … we still get people complaining about missed bin collections and so on, so really hyper-local issues.”
That relative disinterest in big manifesto promises even extends to promises made by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to increase public spending and nationalise key industries.
On the ground, those big ideas are secondary to local problems or only thought about in their local contexts, so Labour teams on the doorsteps have focused their talking points accordingly.
“We’ve had cuts to school funding, the local hospital is under threat of being downgraded or closed down … in Croydon, there’s a shortfall of 36 million pounds [$46.5m],” Bonner says, describing the topics activists talk about when meeting voters.
That is not to say there is no appeal in the big pledges.
At an office block near Croydon East station, Bill Paine, who is enjoying a cigarette break with his colleagues, tells Al Jazeera he does not know who he will vote for yet, but Labour’s pledge to bring key services into public control has caught his attention.
“I would take the nationalisation of the railways and more money to the NHS and teachers. My wife is a teacher and my mum’s a nurse and they haven’t had a pay rise in seven years,” he says.
|Labour lost the 2015 contest for Croydon Central by just 165 votes [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]|
The local chapter of the Conservative Party did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The party’s big presence in Croydon is noticeable by way of the bright blue banners bearing Barwell’s name.
For lifelong Croydon local and Conservative supporter Alex Lyons, the protection of public services is just as important, but only Theresa May’s party can guarantee a sustainable way of protecting them.
“We need to fund police to make sure we live in a secure society and we need educated children that are going to be future leaders,” he says, adding that Labour could not be trusted to spend responsibly.
“I think whoever gets into power needs to protect spending on the police, NHS, and schools but like the rest of the world we’ve got a lot of the problems and one of those is debt.
“With Labour governments, they just keep spending and spending without a care.”