CROYDON NORTH ELECTION: Vote Ben Stevenson, vote communist!

The voters of Croydon North will be heading to the polls tomorrow - and they have the option, unusual in this country, of voting Communist, writes Ben Chacko in the Morning Star.

As the coalition's cuts put the squeeze on working people across Britain communists are at the forefront of resistance in campaigns to save local services. But for a small party aren't elections an expensive distraction at such a time?
 
Croydon North candidate Ben Stevenson doesn't think so.
 
"Of course we're not exclusively - or even mainly - an electoral party," he says. "Elections aren't the be all and end all and we're involved in local campaigning year-round. But they are an excellent opportunity to get our ideas out there, to present the party's policies to a wider audience."
 
He dismisses the idea that we should all be rallying behind Labour candidate Steve Reed to keep the Tories out.
 
"There's no chance of the Tories winning in Croydon North and without us to be honest there wouldn't be much politics in this by-election at all.
 
"Steve's a very professional politician - very good at talking at length without saying anything. And he hardly provides a progressive voice for the people of Croydon. In many ways he's a typical new Labour politician, a supporter of the Progress group.
 
"He hasn't signed the PCS pledge to defend jobs or oppose Tory workfare schemes. He's relying exclusively on hostility to David Cameron to win this election. We think he needs to work harder than that to deserve people's votes.
 
"No-one would be talking about housing and unemployment if we hadn't put it on the agenda."
 
These are big issues in Croydon. Long-term and youth unemployment are up. The overall jobless rate is double the national average.
 
"People see cuts as affecting only the public sector. Even if that was true it would be bad news, since it accounts for 27 per cent of Croydon's jobs," Stevenson points out.
 
"But actually the cuts affect everyone. They're sucking money out of the local economy.
 
"Other than the public sector what are the big employers in Croydon? Retail and leisure. People need money to spend for either industry to survive.
 
"Tesco's doing OK but the story for small shops and businesses is very different - they're closing down."
 
Housing's an equally big headache. "There are 9,000 households on council-house waiting lists in the borough.
 
"The situation's worse here than in many other places because for decades the council's been run by Tories. So we've never had the major council-house building programmes that took place elsewhere in the 1960s and '70s.
 
"And the problem's going to get worse when the Tories bring in the housing benefit cap in April. People are going to be forced out of expensive inner London housing and they'll come here. It's estimated that an extra 2,000 people have been added to the waiting list this year after being pushed out of other areas, and that's before the cap's even come in.
 
"How are we going to handle the increase? The council has no plans to build any more houses."
 
And the problem isn't confined to council housing. "More than a third of private housing in Croydon fails the decent homes standard.
 
"And the price of property goes up all the time. Private-sector rent rose by 7 per cent more than inflation in the past year. This at a time of wage freezes and growing unemployment.
 
"Buying a house isn't a realistic option. A two-bedroom house in Croydon averages at £208,000. To get a mortgage for that it's estimated you need a household income of £69,000."
 
How would he tackle the problem? "We need a massive council-house building programme. But that's not enough.
 
"We need the compulsory requisition of empty properties. Developers are keeping buildings empty, waiting for a turnaround in the market.
 
"That's not acceptable with such a chronic housing shortage. And we need proper rent control in the private sector."
 
This isn't something the mainstream parties are likely to go for, since it means placing curbs on the market - the golden calf of the British elite.
 
"We've really got to puncture this myth of 'private good, public bad' which has infected the big parties," Stevenson says.
 
"We're seeing it everywhere. Back in April Croydon University Hospital part-sold its accident and emergency service to Richard Branson's Virgin company.
 
"Anyone familiar with Virgin's expensive, unreliable rail services - which are in receipt of massive public subsidies - could see this was hardly a way to improve the service or even save public money.
 
"We only had to wait for the first quarter's results to have our fears confirmed. For the first time in three-and-a-half years the hospital failed to meet its target of seeing 95 per cent of A&E patients within four hours."
 
Pressures on the hospital are likely to increase as services in other parts of south London close down, victims of mountains of PFI debt.
 
Resisting the privatisation of the NHS can be a rallying point for a broader struggle against the Tory-Lib Dem assault on public services, Stevenson believes.
 
"We saw last weekend in Lewisham a clear demonstration of people's commitment to the NHS," he says. "But the poisonous influence of the market is felt elsewhere, in education for example.
 
"A lack of school places in Croydon has rightly become an issue in this election.
 
"But proposals to set up one of Michael Gove's 'free schools' in Norbury isn't going to help. The site, the old Age Concern UK building, lacks any outdoor space for playtime or sport and when it opens in 2014 it's only due to take 90 five-year-olds.
 
"That's aside from the broader concerns about free schools and academies, that they will undermine educational standards - they don't have to employ qualified teachers - and take education away from local authorities, putting our children's future in the hands of unaccountable business bigwigs."
 
Local Tories are also proposing a new grammar school. Stevenson isn't impressed.
 
"Resurrecting a system that labels four in five kids a failure isn't the answer," he says bluntly.
 
"If you want to know how much the Tories care about local education take a look at their recent decision to cut the £78,000 grant to the Croydon Supplementary Education Project, which provides extra teaching for black and ethnic minority children on Saturdays and in the evenings. This speaks volumes about their priorities."
 
Is Stevenson the right man to turn the situation around? His commitment to the area is clear - he's been involved in local labour movement politics since he moved to Croydon in 2005 and taken part in campaigns to save education and health services.
 
Along with the local Communist Party he's fought in Croydon Defend Our Public Services.
 
His local activism hasn't let up since he last stood for this seat in 2010.
 
"A fightback is beginning outside Parliament and the Communist Party will be throwing itself into that fightback all over the country," he says.
 
"But this is an opportunity to get that popular voice heard inside Parliament too. Croydon's issues are national issues. Workers are paying for the greed and recklessness of our rulers.
 
"We need a real, mass mobilisation in every corner of Britain, not just to kick out the Con-Dems but to reverse the entire neoliberal project and start moving this country in a different direction."
 
In the end the party's slogan says it all.
 
Britain needs socialism. And a strong Communist vote in Croydon North tomorrow will play its part in getting us there.
 
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