Why Croydon's Conservatives Lost The Faith

The leafy south London borough of Croydon has always been a bastion of conservatism. The party's middle-class mainstream of office clerks, data processors, and technicians are evident everywhere at lunchtime in the busy shopping mall. But last year, voters in this peaceful district with its tidy rows of semidetached homes and lace curtains installed a Labor-dominated city council--its first in 100 years.

What happened is that Croydon was hit disproportionately hard in the 1990-92 recession, and it still has not recovered. Unemployment, at 10%, remains above the national average of 8.4%. Now, Croydon's three Conservative MPs are worried that they will be ousted by Labor candidates in national elections before mid-1997. To keep its 17-year hold on power, the Conservative Party has to recapture the hearts and minds of voters in Croydon, population, 300,000, and hundreds of cities and villages like it. But it is divided over how.

"SCARY." There were a lot of reasons for last year's big upset, says Mary Walker, the Croydon Council's Labor leader. But she thinks the fear of finding oneself unemployed and getting a cold shoulder from the Tory government was the biggest. "We have a lot of midlevel managers here, and suddenly companies started downsizing. People in their 50s, with children in university or private school and older parents in need of care, found themselves out of work. It was scary."

The Croydon experience may show that Britons are tiring of "stand-on-your-own-two-feet" Thatcherism and yearning for a more caring government. The Tory party leaders are consumed with Britain's position in Europe, but none of this seems to have played much of a role in Croydon voters' decisions.

Conservative MP Richard Ottaway, who represents south Croydon, tries to put the best face on recent events. To him, Conservative economic policies--the bitter medicine Britain needed to end repeated boom-to-bust cycles--have made the economy healthy again, but voters feel less wealthy. "The reason we've lost support in areas like Croydon is because of the difficulty adjusting to a low-inflation era." Homeowners aren't seeing rapid increases in the value of their investment. And living standards are falling because wage increases have been zero or below the inflation rate.

Croydon has turned the corner, Ottaway says, and his constituents soon will reap the benefits of Tory economic policies. "The full effect of the upturn will be felt in about 12 to 18 months. Wages are rising, business optimism is up, and Croydon has a high rate of business startups."

But Sir Walter Verco, 88, is not impressed. Verco, who works in Queen Elizabeth's household as an adviser on naval heraldry, says: "People are tired. We've been in the doldrums for too long. Britain is losing its way in the world. There is no sense of direction. We need a leader to say: `This is the way."'

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