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Conservatives release joint election manifesto for Croydon, but how much of a team effort is it really?

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CHRIS Philp was teased on Twitter earlier this week when he misspelled Vidhi Mohan's name while promoting the joint manifesto they have released alongside Gavin Barwell ahead of next May's general election. In his defence, he may not have typed it many times before if the manifesto is anything to go by.

Vidhi, the party's Croydon North candidate, is mentioned just once during the 20,000-word document (discounting his signature and a picture caption). That's half as many mentions as the late Labour politician Malcolm Wicks, who passed away in 2012. Chris Philp, who is standing in Croydon South, doesn't fare much better, with three references in 37 pages. In contrast, Gavin Barwell is mentioned 17 times.

That might not be surprising given Mr Barwell is an incumbent MP in the only marginal seat of the three, but it does nothing to dispel the impression that this is a joint manifesto by name only.

Writing on his blog this week, the Croydon Central MP said a decision had been taken to publish a "joint vision" because "too often in the past politicians have favoured one part of the borough over others". 

"We believe we should focus on what is best for the town as a whole," he said.

But why does the manifesto contain so few references to areas in Croydon North? For example, there's no mention of Upper Norwood (aside from the name of a school). Broad Green features three times, twice in reference to crime. Thornton Heath gets the most attention, with four mentions. The phrase "town centre"? 27 times.

There is some merit to the argument that improving the town centre holds the key to Croydon's overall prosperity. But that's no excuse for how little there is here about the rest of the borough, especially the north. Making that point isn't pitching one area against another. It's about holding Mr Barwell to his word when he said, after the Conservative's local election defeat, that making inroads in Croydon North was the biggest challenge facing the party.

If counting up references seems cheap, it's not just about the numbers. There are so few ideas – innovative or otherwise – which specifically relate to areas beyond the town centre.

If this was Mr Barwell's manifesto alone, it would be fine. But that's not what we're being sold. This was supposed to be the culmination of three people's vision for Croydon's future, but it's difficult to see where two of them contributed.

There's nothing in the manifesto that would convince someone to vote for Vidhi Mohan over Labour's Steve Reed, save for the usual reasons given by Conservative politicians as to why they would do a better job running the country.  It feels like a disappointing step backward for a party whose last candidate in the constituency – Andy Stranack – was selected because he had something different to offer. Equally, there's nothing to suggest the Tories are anything but convinced of victory in Croydon South.

None of this is to say, however, that the manifesto doesn't have anything to offer. Many of the points on the 33-strong list of things the candidates want to achieve are perfectly reasonable. Whisper it, but some wouldn't look out of place in the manifesto published by Labour ahead of the local elections in May. It suffers from a similar problem too: while you would be hard-pressed to argue with many of its aims, it feels a little too well-meaning and a little too short on detail.

The list covers areas MPs have little influence over but, in fairness, the three candidates recognise that "MPs don't run local services" and, if their party is in opposition, "they don't have much of an influence over government policy either". The result? "We can't make any firm promises".

Large sections of the document are given over to listing the government's – or the previous council's – achievements, such as lowering unemployment, convincing two retail giants to rebuild the Whitgift Centre and securing extra money for school places and police officers. Yet the focus on the feats of the Tory council makes it is even more glaring that the manifesto doesn't highlight any of Cllr Mohan's personal achievements.

A good proportion is given over to rising standards in education, including hailing the Conservative cabinet for its "brave" decision to convert several failing state schools into academies in 2008. Six years later, only one local authority-led secondary school remains in Croydon.

Interestingly, the manifesto features the latest GCSE and SATs benchmark scores for every school in Croydon, figures the council has previously refused to release because they were un-validated.

Among the promises in the manifesto is an end to the town's "Punch and Judy" politics and a laudable pledge to work across the political divide.

For the most part, it sets a more positive tone than the cynicism and negativity of the party's local election campaign. The existence of a manifesto in any shape or form is an acceptance, as Mr Barwell now concedes, that refusing to publish one in that campaign was a mistake.

He also told the Advertiser that there would less negative campaigning this time and, though the manifesto doesn't stoop anywhere near as low as some of the party's election literature, it's still more than happy to tell voters where Labour is wrong, at times to the detriment of its own message. How preoccupied is it with these 'failings'? The manifesto includes 62 mentions of Labour compared to 38 of the word Conservative.

There is one section, however, where the report resorts to point scoring and, in the process, drops the ball.

Under the section about zero tolerance of crime, it criticises the "Labour candidate for Croydon Central" (Sarah Jones, though she isn't named) for comments made following the illegal rave in East Croydon in June. The manifesto points out that a significant amount of damage was done to the building, the lives of those living in the area were disrupted [and] one young man tragically died". "By any definition, this was a serious incident," it concludes.

It then contrasts Mr Barwell's call for those responsible to face "the full force of the law" with his "Labour opponent's" response, on Facebook, that "youth is about exploration, pushing boundaries, seeking out fun and moulding your personality".

The clear implication is that she trivialised not just the violent disorder but also the death of Rio Andrew, the 15-year-old who collapsed during the unlicensed event and passed away two days later.

Aside from the ethics of using a child's death, however unintentionally, to score political points, it's simply not true. Mrs Jones made those comments a day before it emerged anyone had been seriously hurt. While it may have been a mistake to downplay the behaviour of the crowds who attacked the police, she did not infer a schoolboy's death was "youths…seeking out fun" and it is grossly unfair to infer otherwise.

The manifesto also attacks Labour over its proposed selective licensing scheme, which would see private landlords have to pay £200 a year to the council for each property they rent out.

Labour says the charge would combat rogue landlords and drive up the standard of accommodation. The Conservatives say the cost of the "stealth tax" will be passed on to vulnerable tenants.

"It's beneath contempt and we will vigorously oppose it," the manifesto says.

The manifesto extols the government's decision to put local health services in the hands of GPs rather than the managers who ran primary care trusts (PCT).

It points out that Croydon PCT spent millions of pounds more than it had budgeted to, but "the officials in charge disgracefully refused to be questioned in public about how this had happened".

What it doesn't mention is that a Conservative councillor was among those who refused to answer questions about the scandal, yet none of his colleagues – including Mr Barwell or Cllr Mohan – described that decision as "disgraceful". By the time the lack of cooperation with the scrutiny investigation had been raised at the highest levels, it was Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who said he was powerless to do anything about it.

There other areas, too, that will prompt similar responses. One of the more tangible promises in the manifesto is to lobby the council to increase the amount of time people have to have lived in the borough before being eligible to go on the housing waiting list. The Conservative council were in power for eight years. If this was so obvious, why hasn't it already been done?

It attacks Labour on fly-tipping (a subject politicians on both sides of the divide should admit they do not have the answer to) and questions why they failed to prosecute the travellers responsible for dumping huge amounts of waste in three playing fields during the summer. It fails to point out the council didn't prosecute any travellers for fly-tipping in the eight years the Conservatives were in control.

Elsewhere, there's a less than ringing endorsement for controversial plans for an incinerator in Beddington Lane, described by the manifesto as the "least bad option".

"We agree," the candidates add, "but our focus should be on trying to increase the proportion of our waste that we do recycle and on pressing retailers to use less packaging, reducing the amount of waste we produce in the first place."

At the very least the Conservatives have stolen a march, particularly in Croydon Central, on their rivals by setting their stall out as early as possible. Next week, Mr Barwell's campaign will be officially launched by Mayor of London Boris Johnson during a high-profile event held at Fairfield Halls.

Both the rally and the manifesto are as much about drumming up support for the campaign trail as they are about winning votes. Whatever you make of them, the ball appears firmly to be in Labour's court. 

Conservatives release joint election manifesto for Croydon, but how much of a team effort is it really?


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