Communist Party Croydon North candidate BEN STEVENSON talks to the Morning Star about the campaign trail, his plans for council homes and stamping out the cabals of City conmen.
IF IT weren’t for the communists, there’d be no politics in this election — so Ben Stevenson told the Star during his Croydon North by-election campaign in 2012.
In the event Labour candidate Steve Reed held the seat for his party, pulling in nearly two-thirds of the vote (even after losing 13,000 votes from 2010).
Since then he’s done little other than “trumpet whatever front-bench jargon is being used to justify Labour policy,” says Stevenson, who points to Reed’s enthusiastic embrace of the One Nation brand and the so-called co-operative council approach he pursued while leader of south London borough Lambeth.
It is, Stevenson believes, essentially a way to “do more with less” eerily reminiscent of David Cameron’s recently resuscitated “big society.”
Talking to me amid the busy hubbub of Communist Party (CP) HQ — where the 30-year-old has worked as National Organiser for the last decade — he says it’s once again left to the CP to put forward the policies for the millions, not the millionaires.
“Croydon Communists produced a pamphlet on housing in 2010 and we found that it really piqued people’s interest as we were going door-to-door in 2012. Since then we’ve made housing a major part of our campaigning, but if anything the crisis has intensified,” he tells me.
“Across Britain, around two million families are stuck on council and housing association waiting lists despite the Tories viciously striking 113,000 people off the lists through changes to how people qualify for what we — Communists are clear — is a basic right. In Croydon alone, over 5,000 people are waiting on council lists, many of them officially homeless.”
But Labour has failed to take the issue seriously, he says, with a central manifesto commitment of building “200,000 new homes by 2020” — although the party itself doesn’t seem to think this will end the crisis, merely saying it would “close the gap between the number of homes we build and the number of homes we need.”
Stevenson says: “This pledge seems to have caused considerable confusion locally, with the candidates making different commitments to different people. In Croydon South (a Tory stronghold) it’s 250,000 homes by 2020, in Croydon North (a Labour stronghold) it’s 200,000 ‘affordable’ homes per year and in Central (a marginal) there’s no policy commitment at all.
“Their commitment apparently seems to extend to a vague promissory note without any detail, which they only use where it’s electorally desirable. It’s also based on an expectation that the market will itself magically deliver a solution.”
In contrast, the CP makes no bones about what’s needed: “We’d quickly return to levels of house-building not seen since a decade before I was born — at least 250,000 social homes a year — and scrap the policies that caused the crisis in the first place: right to buy, help to buy, the bedroom tax and the free range given to private landlords.
“Unfortunately Croydon, like a lot of outer London boroughs, has never had a massive programme of social house-building, so our immediate priority has to be first of all to tackle private landlords. I’d want to see an immediate rental cap of 50 per cent of average local earnings, driving it down until it’s 25 per cent.
“But we do have to put the positive case for a programme of social housing across Britain. Just 37 per cent of accommodation let privately meets decent homes association standards compared to all council properties. We urgently need an inspection team with the power to actually force landlords to act and to take properties into democratically accountable hands when they don’t.”
But, while housing is a major concern for people, particularly in London, the slogan emblazoned over the CP billboards around the country is the emphatic “tax the rich.”
“Labour’s made some positive noises about tax, and of course we welcome the pledge to tackle non-doms as a tentative step to move the party back in a vaguely social democratic direction, but with the likes of Ed Balls in the Treasury we can’t expect to see socialist economics over the next five years.
“We don’t even expect them to close the loopholes the Blair and Brown governments created which has allowed companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Apple to effectively pay 0 per cent tax.
“If Labour was really serious about taking on the tax havens then the obvious place to start is a few miles up the road in the City of London.”
The City, he explains, is essentially an alien entity granted the right to ignore regulation from any democratic institutions by William the Conqueror, which also acts as a kind of mothership for other tax havens around the globe from the Cayman Islands to Hong Kong.
“Quashing the tax haven status of Britain’s 28 overseas territories would be a major step in ending the criminal conspiracy that deprives the Treasury of tens of billions of pounds a year.
“As would raising the pitiful 20 per cent corporation tax rate that serves no apparent purpose other than to remind us in whose interests successive governments serve.”
But with nine candidates standing across Britain, Stevenson can’t be under any illusions that the CP is likely to figure heavily in the coalition horse-trading that seems likely to dominate politics on May 8 and after.
“I’m not standing because I’m desperate to cash in on an MP’s salary,” he says, pointing out that at the last general election Labour had a majority of more than 16,000. “We’re standing partly to make sure there’s a proper injection of class politics into the election, but mainly it’s to make sure the people of Croydon North, and I apologise for the wanky cliche, have a voice in this election.
“When I turn up on someone’s doorstep, it’s not to tell them how they should think. It’s about getting them to put forward their problems and encouraging them to get involved in being part of the solution.
“The Establishment parties only do this every five years — although they seem to think Croydon North is such a foregone conclusion they’re barely even bothering now — but we’ll be continuing to hit the streets all year round.”
Stevenson’s electioneering got off to a slightly rockier start than he would have preferred though. A back injury confined him to his bed for several weeks.
“Obviously it was far from an ideal start to the campaign,” he tells me. “But then every crisis presents an opportunity and I’m fairly confident I’ve spent more time talking to the borough’s doctors and nurses than anyone else running, whatever their whirlwind photoshoots might suggest.
“Down the road in Thornton Heath we’ve got Croydon University Hospital, which is a typical example of the damage being wreaked by privateers. Just a few years ago it was getting the highest ratings possible from government watchdogs but fast forward to today, via a bizarre decision to flog off part of the A&E to Richard Branson’s Virgin, and the place is in chaos.
“The rot set in immediately with the A&E failing to meet its waiting time targets for the first time in years in the first quarter of Virgin’s involvement. In January the hospital was forced to declare a major internal incident because of the huge pressure on the A&E.
“Croydon Central’s Tory MP Gavin Barwell could only tell the local paper that he would ‘hope’ that the clinical commissioning group would plough some money into the emergency services. This Tory-Lib Dem sell off — which is just a continuation of new Labour’s policies of creeping privatisation and deregulation — means we don’t have any democratic control over our local services.”
Reeling off a list of national policies — scrapping the Health and Social Care Act, kicking the privateers out of the health service, and building more hospitals without private finance — Stevenson also sees a local way forward.
“Instead of Virgin Health, we’d set up a board with unions, doctors, nurses and other health professionals all represented alongside patients. The A&E was forced to fly in a bunch of nurses from Italy recently to plug its staffing gap.
“Instead I’d want to see that board pay the tuition fees (if it can’t scrap them completely) of anyone in the borough wanting to study medicine — providing they spend the first few years once they graduate working in Croydon, of course.”
Finally we turn to what people can do to help.
“There’s not long left ’til polling day but we’ll still be pounding the pavements and you can get involved by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Tweeting @CROcommunists, phoning (020) 8686-1659 or through visiting our website
More importantly, we’ll be keeping up our presence in Croydon — and around Britain — after May 7. So whatever hue or shade of government we end up with, if you want to fight the cuts and build a better future, join the communists.”