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Gavin Barwell begins 'battle of ideas' with Labour in Croydon Central with high-profile campaign launch

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GAVIN Barwell fired the first salvo in what he described as the "battle of ideas" with Labour as he launched his campaign to be reelected next May with a high profile rally at Fairfield Halls.

The Croydon Central MP told the nearly 400-strong audience at the ticket-only event that a Conservative victory would transform the town into a place that is the "envy of people across the country, not the butt of comedians' jokes".

The rally included a typically bombastic speech by Mayor of London Boris Johnson in which he railed against "Brussels bureaucracy", cracked jokes about vacuum cleaners and championed "English votes for English laws".

Mr Barwell invited business, education and community leaders to speak at the launch in order, he said, to highlight the good things that have happened in Croydon since he was elected in 2010.

While some were upfront about giving him their support others, flanked by "Back Barwell" banners, insisted their involvement was not "political".

The presence of John Burton, Westfield's director of development, will raise questions about the impartiality of one of the key players in the £1 billion redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre, even if he insisted otherwise.

Mr Burton, who came on stage to Oasis's Morning Glory, said: "I'm going to quickly caveat that this is not a political speech. I am here really standing as an apostle of Croydon and one of the true believers."

He said Mr Barwell had tried to persuade Westfield to become involved in Croydon in the months before deal with Hammerson was struck.

"He had his ear to the ground and wanted to know what was going on, what we were up to and whether we were ready to commit to Croydon, because there was a lot of talk in the market about whether Westfield would do this and whether Hammerson would do that," he said.

"He kept urging me, pushing, but at the same time there was a man in central London who was doing same.

"The reason I mention both [of them] is people need to remember that when Boris stood up and announced the partnership between Westfield and Hammerson last January, we were two very competitive companies. The fact that we came together is incredibly important for the future of Croydon."

Mr Burton added: "My task this evening was not really to come and say vote Gavin. My job tonight is to convince you that two very experienced developers are convinced by this opportunity."

Jonny Rose, co-founder of Croydon Tech City, a group promoting the borough's technology businesses, barely mentioned Mr Barwell during his speech, appearing at pains not to endorse the campaign.

He had earlier posted on Twitter that speaking at the rally was "merely a case of @GavinBarwellMP endorsing Tech City".

Mr Rose told the crowd: "Thanks for coming out tonight to ostensibly see Gavin but, if you've seen the hubbub on Twitter, to come and see me before I am roasted alive."

He said Tech City was not only about the borough's growing tech start-ups but that it is "affecting infrastructure, affecting property, affecting education. It's absolutely permeating every single part of the borough's life."

Mr Rose added: "It's very easy for me to stand up and be that face and, inevitably my face is going to be next to 'Back Barwell' and everything but, actually, it's a community effort, it's not me. I'm just the presentable and loquacious one who likes getting up in front of bright lights. This is a community success story."

He then praised Mr Barwell for refusing to jump on Tech City's "bandwagon".

Eliza Rebeiro, founder of the Lives Not Knives campaign group, was also invited to speak at the event. She said Mr Barwell had supported her efforts since she was 14.

"Gavin's always answered the phone and been there consistently if I've ever needed anything," she said.

"He has always said well done and thank you. He has shown support when needed and also shown it behind closed doors…which is very nice to know, especially from a politician."

Cllr Sara Bashford, the compere for the evening, said Maureen Martin, head of Coloma Convent Girls', would speak about "how Gavin's support and success in lobbying for greater education funding has made school's in Croydon flourish" - even though the extra money won't be allocated until next April.

Mrs Martin, who came on stage to a track by rock band Muse, said Mr Barwell had been supportive of Coloma's involvement in Quest Academy, formerly Selsdon High. She appeared to have been invited to highlight Mr Barwell's belief that academisation has improved standards in education across Croydon.

Azhar Chaudry, Quest Academy's head boy and a Conservative activist, was one of Mr Barwell's most effusive supporters on the evening, claiming the politician has been at the "epicentre" of that improvement.

Azhar said the former councillor had "strived" for educational success, securing funding for the Quest's new building and "encouraging young people like me to make a change for the better".

"Over the coming election you, the people of Croydon, will face a clear choice. Vote Gavin and this drive for improvement will continue. Vote for any other candidates and this drive may not continue," he said.

Rosina St James, a former Addington High pupil, was awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen's Birthday Honours list earlier this year for services to young people, and stood as a Conservative candidate in May's local election.

She told the audience how a careers advisor suggested she "stack shelves in Tesco" rather than pursue a career in politics. 

"As you can imagine I felt really deflated. I mean, come on. She could have at least said stacking shelves at Harrods," she added.

Rosina said Mr Barwell had brought her into the Conservative fold after she featured in an Advertiser article describing her desire to become a politician.

"By Gavin throwing this pebble he unsettled the water and caused amazing ripples to form," she said.

"I know for a fact that Gavin has thrown a lot of pebbles in other people's lakes.

"Without MPs like this we risk losing a pool of greatness."

The biggest cheer of the evening, somewhat inevitably, was reserved for Boris, who immediately launched into a rant about the depiction of London during the Scottish referendum.

In fact, his speech concentrated on criticising Labour, bashing Brussels and wading into the devolution debate, stopping occasionally to point out what a "fantastic performer" Mr Barwell is.

He said Mr Barwell's "fantastic campaigning" had helped reduce offending including bus crime, knife crime, gun crime and the murder rate.

"That's been achieved largely by the police but also by your MP Gavin Barwell who came to me and said we need to have police on the beat in Croydon and he was instrumental in securing those 117 extra police [officers] which you have. We will make sure we work flat out together, he and I, to keep those numbers high."

He did not mention those extra officers would have had a hard time lowering crime rates as they won't be in place until 2015.

The rally began with an extract from a radio interview with Mr Barwell on the night of the riots in August 2011. Asked about the destruction, Mr Barwell said: "I'm sickened to see this happen to my town."

In the video that followed, Mr Barwell said the clip illustrates that Croydon Central isn't just his constituency but his "home town", making him a "better MP".

The video included photographs from his childhood, references to his education at Trinity School and extracts from his family life. It also features a video of him in a pub – The Windmill in St James's Road - drinking a beer with his friends.

He also spoke about being diagnosed with cancer when he was seven, his father's treatment for dementia and the care they both received from the NHS.

In his speech at the end of the rally, Mr Barwell said he wanted to give an "honest appraisal" of Croydon's problems, from a town centre "desperately in need of investment" to Croydon's reputation.

"If it's wrong to try and gloss over these problems, it's equally wrong to despair," he said, adding that the tide had begun to turn, from increased employment, falling crime rates and the Westfield/Hammerson development.

"My key message in all of this is Croydon's best days are ahead of us, they are not behind us," he added.

Mr Barwell said next May would be a "battle of ideas" and set out the seven "key differences" between the Conservatives and Labour, including the economy, education, and their "attitude to crime".

Again he attacked his Labour opponent Sarah Jones for describing his response to the illegal rave at the former Royal Mail delivery office in June as "macho". Mr Barwell had said those responsible should face the "full force for the law" while Mrs Jones said "youth was about exploration".

Unlike in his manifesto, Mr Barwell pointed out her comments were made before the death of 15-year-old Rio Andrew.

However, he added: "It was public knowledge that several people were seriously ill in hospital and significant criminal damage had been caused to the building."

Mr Barwell concluded that the party needed to reach out to people who "agree with them but don't think of themselves as Conservatives and convince them of our passion to build a fairer Croydon".

"If we win this battle of ideas we could transform Croydon into a place that is the envy of people across the country, not the butt of comedians' jokes." 

Gavin Barwell begins 'battle of ideas' with Labour in Croydon Central with high-profile campaign launch


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