Steve Reed: A favourite in Croydon North but not in Lambeth?
Croydon North goes to the polls on Thursday with Labour the strong favourite. In an in-depth feature, reporter Gareth Davies speaks to the party's candidate Steve Reed and discovers that some people in Lambeth will not be sad to see him go.
"I AM doing things Blair never did," said Steve Reed amid a flurry of reasons why he is nothing like Labour's former Prime Minister. The comparison has come up during our interview and he is clearly not fond of it.
"If people want to put me in a box then put me in a box that's linked to my own record. I don't need to be judged on other people's records," he bristled.
"I was in Labour before Blair or (Gordon) Brown were ever heard of and I'm in Labour now, running a council with a very different agenda to what New Labour was doing.
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"I'm happy to be called a 'Reedite' but I don't need to be put in a box that other people define."
What would constitute being a 'Reedite'? For that matter, who is Steve Reed, Labour's candidate for the Croydon North by-election and what is the record of the man who, barring a political reversal to eclipse Bradford West, will be elected when voters go to the polls on Thursday?
Before he beat former Croydon Council leader Val Shawcross by three votes at the party's selection meeting, Reed would have been unknown to most of his potential constituents, even though he has been leader of Lambeth Council, just over the border, since 2006.
Neither his blog nor his curiously well managed Wikipedia page give anything away about the background of the man most likely to succeed Malcolm Wicks. It has been suggested the 48-year-old tends to avoid questions about his past, but today he has been forthcoming.
Reed, it seems, has the perfect Labour background. He grew up in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and his family worked in Odhams a printing factory in Watford until it closed down in 1983. "Under a Thatcher government," he pointed out.
"It had a devastating impact on our family. We were part of a very strong, hard-working community. It felt very stable. So to have that factory close down as a major local employer, it ruined an awful lot of people's lives.
"That was one of the things that got me into politics. I felt other people shouldn't have to suffer that kind of experience just because the government wasn't prepared to stand up and defend jobs."
It was around that time he joined the Labour Party before he went to Sheffield University to study English. He skips his story to 1990, when he started work in educational publishing. He remained in the industry until 2008, when the responsibilities that come with being a council leader led him to give up his job and become a full-time politician.
Questions about his life outside politics stem from the suggestion that the slick, confident and clearly very ambitious Reed is a career politician.
"Given I worked for 18 years in something that had nothing to do with politics that would seem an odd thing to claim," he said.
"I think it's important that politicians have had some experience outside politics and 18 years in a different job has given me an insight into how ordinary people live their lives, because that's how I was living my life."
So what about this record he speaks so proudly of? He first stood for election and won in Town Hall ward (now Brixton Hill) in 1998. "I thought the council was abysmal and I wanted to help turn it around," he explained.
In 2002 Labour lost control of Lambeth to a Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition. In response Reed, who had been gradually building up allies within the group, was elected leader of the opposition. He set about a root and branch analysis of the party's failings and tried to recruit more councillors from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. In 2006 Labour won Lambeth back by what Reed describes a "landslide" (while Labour's seats increased significantly its share of the vote did not).
Reed hopes the legacy of a six-year stint as council leader will be his attempt to turn Lambeth into the country's first 'co-operative' council, where residents run services. His plan saw the media dub Lambeth a "John Lewis council" and Labour spoke of offering council tax rebates to those who took part.
If asking residents to take more responsibility for services traditionally provided by local authorities sounds familiar, it is with good reason. Reed announced the co-operative model in The Guardian in February 2010 and, two months later, David Cameron gave his first speech on the The Big Society.
I read a section of that speech, where the Prime Minister talks of "giving people more power and control to improve their lives and their communities". The rhetoric is remarkably similar to Reed's vision for his co-operative council. "By empowering people, we can give them back the power to change their lives," he wrote in the New Statesman. I asked him why the two ideas sound so similar.
"Cameron uses a lot of language that sounds quite like Labour but what he is doing is the absolute reverse of it," he replied.
"I've noticed before there's a lot of similarity. It's very bizarre. Why would he use language which was progressive? Of course it's because he's trying to pitch to the centre ground of politics.
"I think they are stealing our language and we must not let them do that. It made me more determined to show this was a Labour agenda. The fact that Labour councils are delivering it and the Tories in local and central government are not, proves my point."
This is not entirely true. Nearly three years after it was first launched, the majority of Reed's co-operative council remains on the drawing board. He cites the "hugely regenerative" impact of the Weir Link, a disused launderette asset-transferred to the community and now used as a resource centre, and the Youth Services Trust, which will see areas with the highest levels of youth crime receive a share of £3 million of funding. The project goes live in April, which doesn't really prove his point. In the end, Reed grudgingly admits most people in Lambeth will not yet have noticed they are living under a co-operative council.
There are other concerns. The public consultation for the co-op explains how a 'citizens' commission' would be set up to consult local people on the changes. A closer look revealed the commission was actually made up of Reed and two Labour colleagues, as Lambeth blogger Jason Cobb points out in his critique of the re-branding.
Lambeth Council has also been criticised for its protracted attempts to evict families living in housing co-operatives.
The first of these groups were set up in Lambeth during the late 1970s and saw tenants move into poor quality accommodation, known as 'short-life' housing, in exchange for low rents. Over the last thirty years the cooperatives have worked together to improve the homes, and what began as a way of arranging repairs and setting rent, has become a number of well-established communities. As a result of their work the value of the houses has increased significantly. Now the council wants them back.
The cooperatives face the threat of eviction and recall. Members accuse the council of "intimidation and coercion" as well as threatening unreasonably high unauthorised occupation charges, removal of the offer to rehouse and imposition of full legal costs.
Reed's heavy-handed approach provoked criticism from Vauxhall MP Kate Hoey but the sell-off continued. This month protesters looked on helplessly as the first property on Rectory Gardens Housing Community was sold for £500,000. How does that sit with Reed's belief in handing power back to the people?
"We're trying to bring in investment to upgrade 15,000 substandard homes and build high quality new accommodation," he replied. "We need to find capital to fund that work.
"The co-operative council isn't about giving people free homes. There are something like 20,000 people on the housing waiting list. The government has cut funding for upgrading homes and building new ones in half. What you are faced with as the leader of a council is a choice.
"You can either let a small number of people who always knew they were on short-term tenancies, and who would not necessarily have been at the top of the waiting list, keep their properties or you can get the money out of those homes and create many more for the people already on the list.
"Kate Hoey will, on the one hand, tell you these people have to stay where they are, and on the other, that we have to house people on the waiting list. She tries to play it both ways, I'm afraid."
Such reasoning has done little to placate short-life residents, however. Within minutes of his selection in Croydon North, Lambeth United Housing Co-op contacted the Advertiser to express concerns about the constituency's prospective new MP.
Reed's critics also highlight his record on cuts. Park rangers, school crossing patrols, library budgets, discretionary freedom passes and adult social care were either scaled back or cut completely. His campaign literature is plastered with anti-Tory vitriol but the list bears more than a passing resemblance to the services cut by Croydon's Tory led council.
Reed's response is the same as the answer he gives when asked whether Lambeth's position at the top of London's unemployment table damages his claim to be a "jobs champion". He is doing the best he can with the hand the coalition government has dealt him.
It is this willingness, and ability, to take the fight to the Conservatives that led Reed to pip strong favourite Shawcross at Labour's selection meeting. Members were won over by talk of defending constituents from what he described as the "worst excesses of the Tories" and his pledge to help win back the council for Labour in 2015. They were convinced by an impressive CV which includes roles on Local Government Labour and co-chair of the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea regeneration board.
They were not put off, as some had grumbled, by his lobbying for votes before Malcolm Wicks' memorial service. A few years ago Reed faced similar accusations over his integrity amid suggestions he was trying to undermine Kate Hoey in the hope she would be de-selected and he could take her Vauxhall seat.
It's a claim the Streatham-based politician dismisses offhand, though he has publicly described his Labour colleague on Twitter as a "Tory sympathiser" and described her voting record as "anti-gay" (Reed, as it happens, is openly gay).
Reed plays down talk of his fervent ambition ("I never aimed to become council leader"). Running in Croydon North is not about becoming an MP, he insists, before citing his narrow loss to Chuka Umunna for selection in his home area of Streatham in 2008 as the only other time he has put his name forward for Parliament.
But there is a ruthlessness to the way he furthers his own, and Labour's, objectives. As those who have crossed him have discovered.
In 2010, Reed became convinced that one of his councillors, Kingsley Abrams, was leaking information to the Liberal Democrats, which was in turn making its way into the press. To prove his point, Reed concocted a 'sting' in which he sent Abrams an email telling him the leader of Lambeth Living, the organisation which runs the borough's housing department, had resigned. Instead of leaking the news, Abrams sent the email to Kate Hoey.
Reed claimed the information reached the South London Press and Abrams was suspended pending a disciplinary hearing. During the investigation his council emails were accessed without his consent. Abrams claims Reed personally led the hearing, a job usually taken by the chief whip, because he "takes things personally". Reed denies any involvement, but does not regret trying to set up his Labour colleague.
"If you're living in a house, and there's a leak in the pipe, you test the pipe to see where the leak is," he said.
"There was a whole string of leaks coming out of the Labour group and I suspected it was Kingsley. I passed him a piece of information to see if it would get leaked and it was. Did it get personal? Not at all."
A year later, however, Reed faced similar questions about his professionalism after he was censured by Lambeth's standards committee for publishing private information on his blog and Twitter about Betty Evans-Jacas, a Labour councillor who defected to the Tories.
In one blog, titled "Turncoat councillor betrays local people", Reed revealed that Evans-Jacas had been barred from voting on financial matters because she was in council tax arrears.
The standards committee decided the disclosure of confidential information broke the code of conduct because it was not in the public interest, made in good faith and "not in compliance with the reasonable requirements of the authority". Reed, who sent Evans-Jacas a written apology, escaped punishment, although councillors were reminded about their "tweeting and blogging responsibilities".
He rejects suggestion that his behaviour in either episode gives the impression that he is unprofessional.
"Firstly, I acted to stop someone from damaging the interests of Labour and in the second case it was someone who was breaking the law to such an extent that she was no longer able to represent the people who voted for her," he replied.
"As leader of a council do you let anyone get away with whatever behaviour no matter how dreadful, or do you challenge it?"
Such spats may make voters think there be something more than mischief-making behind George Galloway's claim that Reed's name is "mud" in Lambeth.
One person to have personally felt his wrath put it in less flattering terms: "Steve Reed is appalling. Lambeth is glad to get rid of him. We feel sorry for the people of Croydon North. You can have him."
Politicians, Reed said, are bound to make enemies and he dismissed Galloway as a "busted flush" , brushing off suggestion that Labour is concerned about a potential upset. "This is a two horse race between us and the Tories," he added.
"I've knocked on thousands of doors during this campaign and not one person has mentioned Respect to me."
Labour remain odds-on to hold on to a seat in which they enjoy a 16,000 majority, which is why Reed's decision to remain as council leader (and continue to claim his allowance) was interpreted by some as betraying a surprising lack of confidence.
The suggestion clearly riles him: "Why would you leave one job before you got the next? I'll resign as leader if and when I am elected as MP. I think it would be a bit arrogant to take the election result for granted.
"I'm council leader and I am currently being paid as the council leader. I've saved up some annual leave for Christmas and I'm taking it now."
When it was suggested he could waive the money as a gesture, he replied: "But why? I'm entitled to annual leave."
Whether or not Croydon North's likely MP is "more Blairite than Blair" or just a "Reedite", there is one comparison he cannot escape. Which is why the words of a member of the audience at the Advertiser's public debate last week may be ringing in his ears.
"Steve Reed," the undecided voter wrote, "is no Malcolm Wicks".