Recently promoted in the cabinet reshuffle, Gavin Barwell is the model homegrown activist MP but, with a majority of less than 3,000 in Croydon Central, he tells Paul Nizinskyj he is far from complacent about next year’s election – and how ethnic minority voters will be key.
Gavin Barwell is passionate about Croydon. In fact, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say he’s downright obsessed with the place. To many, it might have no more significance than the home of the infamous ‘Croydon Facelift’ but, for Gavin, it has been home for the best part of his 42 years on this Earth. A Croydon councillor before he became an MP, he cites the late Bernard Weatherill – Croydon North East MP and the last bewigged Speaker of the House of Commons – as his political role model and even allowed his love for Croydon to dictate where he would go in David Cameron’s so-called Night of the Long Knives reshuffle.
“I’ve gone from being a junior whip to a senior whip,” he says. “The chief whip asked what our ambitions were and I said I wanted to stay in the whip’s office because you don’t have to be in Westminster in recess. The most important thing I can do for the party is to hold this seat.” As one of the outlying London boroughs, it is easy to understand why many Londoners will know relatively little about the place; there is little to attract people so far out in a city that is notoriously insular but visitors, like those who descended en masse for RoadTrip2015 last month, will find a pleasant, cultured, town with some stunning historic architecture residing alongside its regrettable concrete monstrosities.
Like many parts of London, however, Croydon is changing. Not only is the employment market shifting (Croydon was, until recently, home to Nestlé’s UK headquarters) but the population of the town is also changing. “There’s an interesting generational observation,” Gavin says. “Senior civil servants assume Croydon is an affluent, Conservative, area but demographics are changing in different parts of the city. In the 1970s and ’80s it was relatively affluent outer London borough but, since then, the process of change has seen the gentrification of Inner London and increasing levels of deprivation in Outer London.
“Demographic trends are also suggesting that no one ethnic group will be in the majority and I’ve long been passionate about building support among black and Afro-Caribbean community here. A third of the votes in the general election were from BME voters and many of them voted Labour by default but, when you talk to them, they’re not Labour in their values. People who cross the world to build a better life are natural Conservatives and we need to build on that.”
For someone so recently promoted and so clearly on his way up the greasy pole, Gavin is surprisingly frank about where the party has failed to do this. It is not an aspect of the party’s history many are proud of today but it is important to learn these lessons if we are to win next year’s general election, he says. Key to the Canadian Conservatives’ breakthrough into a majority in 2011, for example, after two terms of minority administration, was properly reaching out to first, second and third generation immigrants.
“In the ’60s and ’70s and part of the ’80s, the party wasn’t happy about them being in this country which has done some damage but, if we put effort into it, we can break Labour’s coalition. I think the problem is that, too often, the short-term trumps the long-term in the party if you are looking at how you can win the next election but it can take time to turn that perception around. The party needs to think long-term, not just how we can win in 2015, but 2020 and 2025 as well.”
Thinking short-term for a moment, however, Gavin is confident the party will win a majority next year – far from a given in Conservative ranks at the moment – though says he does not underestimate the challenge it faces. Margaret Thatcher, he says, never had to face a split in the Right – the split was, helpfully, on the Left in those days – but he nonetheless thinks she and David Cameron have something in common. “The truth is, she was a pragmatic politician; her primary job was to turn around the British economy, to take on the trade unions, tackle inflation, privatise, take on the Soviet Union and regenerate Britain’s standing in the world. The idea that she was some sort of ideologue who took on the Left at every turn was not true.
“As far UKIP are concerned, to me they are the party of easy answers; everyone would like to believe that we could go to a world where all our problems would be solved if we withdrew from Europe or we could go back to a world of individual states that don’t have to work together but the world is much more interconnected than that of our grandfathers. I think quite a lot of people like what UKIP are saying but, in their heart of hearts, they know it isn’t the real world.”
As for the reshuffle, he did rather well out of it, but what does he think about Hague and Gove’s surprise movements? “The politicians that really impress me are the ones who tell people the things they don’t want to hear, which is why I’m such a big fan of Michael Gove, who was my boss when I was his PPS. I think he was a great education secretary but the PM had good reasons for what he did; he probably felt he wanted Hague and Gove as his key lieutenants on the front line supporting him and leading the media campaign. It was a reshuffle to get the right people in the right places for the election campaign.”