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7 June 2017

“Jeremy Corbyn is the man“: can Momentum help Labour take Croydon Central?

Tory incumbent Gavin Barwell won by just 165 votes in the 2015 general election

By Julia Rampen

On a residential street in Croydon, Thomas Jefferson rolls down his window and calls out to me. No, not the Founding Father, but the 47-year-old chauffeur and lapsed Labour supporter.

“Last time I didn’t vote,” he says. “But Jeremy Corbyn is the man to take this country. He’s the one who makes me want to vote again. He’s got the best ideas. He’s the best man for the job.”

Croydon, a town within the M25, may be best known for London commuters, Peep Show and trams, but it is something of a testing ground for Labour ideas as well. Gavin Barwell, Croydon Central’s Conservative MP, saw his majority shaved to 165 votes in the 2015 general election (he is the author of the book How to Win a Marginal Seat). Hours after the general election was officially approved, the Labour leader was taking selfies in the town centre. 

Sarah Jones, the Labour candidate who almost beat Barwell in 2015, is also back on the prowl. When I joined her for a door knocking session on Friday evening, the red-headed working mum of four is striding down a street of pastel-coloured terraced houses with a team of volunteers in her wake. 

“There’s some shifts going on,” she tells me between doors. “We’ll see if they are enough. One thing is young people getting interested in Labour. Whether they vote on the day is key.”

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How many young voters turn out will also be a test for Momentum, the grassroots organisation set up by supporters of Corbyn. Local members have been organising voter registration drives, making Jones campaign videos, and leafleting the local college.

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Jones, who supported Owen Smith in the 2016 Labour leadership election, says “absolutely tonnes” of Momentum volunteers have turned up. “People have come from all over London.” 

I meet a Labour party activist from Tooting who prefers to canvass for Jones than his own MP, who he views as being too divisive during the Labour leadership battle. Other Labour activists, lured by the prospect of a marginal seat, have come all the way from Wiltshire. 

In this neighbourhood, at least, there is no doubt about the popularity of Momentum’s man. Chris Ramos, an accountant, voted for the Tories in 2015, but prefers Labour’s manifesto this time round.

“Jeremy Corbyn, when he was on TV, said money doesn’t grow on trees, it comes from raising taxes on corporations,” he recalls. He thinks the Labour leader has done well: “He stuck to his guns. A lot of his party wanted him out. I wasn’t much of a big fan of him but he’s strong.”

In a two-hour session, the canvassers may knock on 500 doors, and there are often three two-hour sessions a day. On this evening, Jones speaks to a mother about the school funding cuts, and extracts promises from Labour voters that they’ll go to the polls. 

Although Jones lost narrowly last time, she does not consider 2017 a case of picking up 166 more votes. In 2015, Ukip received 4,810 votes, but support for the party has collapsed, and these votes are now up for grabs. 

One elderly man who opens the door says: “I lost a brother in the navy, he was killed just after D-Day. My father volunteered at Dunkirk and got wounded in the leg. What did we do it for?” He has lived in this road since just after the war ended. “Now they’re building all these blocks and putting all these people in. Where are they from? All the foreign people bought them and put other people in them.” He has not decided how he’ll vote.

Dusk is falling. Hanahn Qayyum, 25, is playing with a cat on the road that leads to the station. A student who voted Remain, he still thinks Brexit is a bad idea but doesn’t believe either of the main parties will stop it.

He took a photo with the Labour leader when he came to Croydon, but he is unenthusiastic about the options on the ballot paper. “I am not convinced by Theresa May so I’d go for Corbyn,” he says eventually. It may not be the zeal Momentum activists are hoping for, but it’s a start.