With two days to go until the general election, Croydon Central remains on a knife edge.  Tomorrow we will publish an in-depth interview with Conservative MP Gavin Barwell about his fight to hold on to the seat. Today, his Labour rival Sarah Jones tells us why she believes she will oust him.

It all started with a song.

Sarah Jones was 19 and pregnant when home secretary Peter Lilley treated the 1992 Conservative Party conference to a flourish of a showmanship. 

Aping the Lord High Executioner of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, he rounded on society’s "scroungers" – among them "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue and and dads who won't support the kids of ladies they have kissed".

It touched a nerve in Jones, then studying history at Durham university and soon to give birth to her first son, Joseph.

"That was quite defining," she recalls. "If you are running the government, if you are the men in charge, you should not be treating people like that and putting them in a box.

"It was when the Tories were relentlessly attacking teenage mums and single parents at the time. 

"It was teenage mums and bogus asylum seekers at the time who were getting all the blame for everything, and I knew that I wasn’t to blame for anything and I had loads to offer and would be able to contribute very well to society. 

"So that’s why I joined the Labour party."

In doing so she began a two-decade journey that could culminate in her election to Parliament in Croydon Central on Friday morning.

Given the origins of her hardened political resolve, it is perhaps fitting that victory for Sarah Jones would make her Croydon’s first female MP.

She says: "I don’t think people are going to be voting for me because I’m a woman so I don’t think a core issue, but it is an interesting one. We haven’t had a woman before and I think women see things from a slightly different perspective. 

"I think everybody accepts that in Parliament the imbalance is still there. There are not enough women, there are not enough BME backgrounds, there not enough people with disabilities.

"Parliament doesn’t reflect the people that they are there to serve and I think if you have all those different perspectives in the room, you will have a better conversation and better quality results."

Your Local Guardian:

Sarah Jones canvassing in the Shrublands estate on Saturday

First, however, there is the small matter of ousting Gavin Barwell. Jones is the bookies’ favourite, and opinion polls have consistently put her ahead.

But Barwell’s 2010 lead is larger than it looks– former Conservative MP Andrew Pelling, standing as an independent, took votes that would otherwise have been his.  And on Friday came unwelcome news for the Labour camp.  Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll gave a four-point lead to the Conservatives in Croydon Central – the first such poll to put them ahead in months.

Jones, however, seems almost relaxed as her campaign hits the final stretch. 

"I'm feeling good," she says. "We’ve got huge momentum. We are getting big teams out every day, all day, lots of new people joining us every day and a lot of positive feeling with the campaign.

"We know that we’ve run a better campaign, that we’ve been more positive and that we’ve had more people. There’s a lot of young people coming out now. We know we’ve done what we can."

She sees first-time voters as key to her success and has targeted young people online, including in a 24-hour flurry of tweets as she toured the constituency in a round-the-clock slog to launch her campaign in March. 

Her Cherry Orchard Road campaign office, its floor almost invisible under piles of leaflets, is full of enthusiastic young faces when the Croydon Guardian visits (although, charmingly, it is Jones’s father David who collects to drive to her next stop.) 

On doorsteps, she talks of tuition fees, help for first-time buyers, house-building and apprenticeships.

And Steve Coogan and Eddie Izzard have brought showbiz sparkle to her campaign through a revolving door largely reserved for shadow cabinet members. Izzard posed for dozens of selfies with passing fans at a Labour rally in North End, each time making sure Jones squeezed into frame alongside him.

Your Local Guardian:

One of the many selfies taken by Eddie Izzard during his visit to Croydon

Jones says: "We’ve tried to reach out to young people as much as possible, we have done some quite interesting things on social media and we’ve tried to make sure with our canvassing we’ve gone as wide as we possibly can.

"You are seeing first-time voters, which is always really exciting. We have got a really positive message for young people.

"People are engaged and want to have a conversation. In the past you 'would have had more people who didn’t want to talk but actually people want to have a conservation with you about what you and hear what you have to say about the election because they are genuinely not sure how they are going to vote and they’re trying to work it out."

The bigger challenge is convincing voters her credentials match those of Barwell, who has the ear of Mayor of London Boris Johnson and has made much of his role in bringing together Westfield and Hammerson. 

Jones, who left a job on the Gatwick Airport expansion campaign to run for election, rejects any suggestion her influence would fall short by comparison. She points to her positions on the board of Wandle housing association and as communications director for Government Olympic  Executive, which co-ordinated the 2012 games.

"I understand housing development – that’s what I do," she says. "I’ve worked on the Olympics, where we actually delivered the whole of the Olympics and the Westfield project. So I’ve had lots of conversations with John Burton, Westfield director of operations, about what he’s planning.

"I understand business, having worked in the private sector. I understand a lot of the issues in much more depth than my opponent. My first job would be banging on the door of the secretary of state to get the CPO sorted, which Gavin doesn’t seem to be doing."

She accuses Barwell of "not doing enough" to ensure new housing developments benefit local people.

"It is absolutely scandalous that housing developments are only 10 per cent affordable and we have had an 80 per cent increase in homelessness," she says. "

"I have met so many people, many of whom have tried to get help from their MP and not, where they are in massive overcrowded housing, really awful private rented accommodation or in council housing waiting for something appropriate, have disabled children and are going up stairs.  There is a massive range of people with problems with housing.

"Nobody can aspire to own their own home on any kind of average income in Croydon at the moment. It is beyond the reach of anybody. 

"To be standing in Croydon Central and not have any offer to people who are in bad housing, I think is just shocking."

She cites protecting the NHS as the election’s biggest issue, and it is partly a personal one.

 In 2011 she gave birth five weeks early to twin boys Arthur and Gabriel. Both had premature lung disease, which meant they could not breathe, and barely survived.

After two weeks of operations, incubators and drips, they were well enough to leave Croydon University Hospital’s special care baby unit. 

Your Local Guardian:

Ian Lloyd, Sarah Jones's husband, cradles their critically ill son Arthur at Croydon University Hospital

Jones says: "I don’t think any more or less than anyone else in that everyone has got experiences of the health service, but what was just extraordinary was the black and white nature of the fact they would have died had the NHS not been there. 

"They need teams of different people with different specialities to be able to make sure they were okay and seeing those teams working together was just incredible. And also the nurses, who held us together as well.

"I know there are a lot of issues about the hospital and a lot of people who haven’t had good experiences, and there is a lot to be done, but the special care baby unit is particularly outstanding."

Arthur and Gabriel are now four and will start school in September. The family – completed by Jones’s husband Ian Lloyd, who she married last year, and five year-old daughter Isabel – live in Shirley, where Jones grew up.

Joseph, now 22, still lives at home and has avoided any awkward political discussions over the dinner table: he is a Labour supporter. He joins his mum canvassing, although he keeps quiet about the family connection on doorsteps.

The younger children still have a little learning to do. 

"They know I’m going out to do stuff for the Labour party but I first started they thought that was an actual party so when they came to the shop they thought there’d be cakes and balloons," says Jones.

"Now they know it’s something to do with who runs the country and they know that it’s important. And taking up all of my time."

Soon, that time – hours, days, weeks  - spent traipsing the streets of Croydon will be over. It remains to be seen if the corridors of Westminster await instead. 


Date of birth:  20/12/1972

Place of residence: Shirley, since birth

Election history: First-time candidate

Hobbies/interests: Watching House of Cards, walking with her children in Coombe Woods and catching up with The Archers on a Sunday.

Family: Married with four children: Joseph, 22, Isobel, five and four-year-old twins Gabriel and Arthur. Husband Ian Lloyd is from Sutton Coldfield and works in communications for a hospital.

Employment history: First job after university was working on the peace process with Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam. Later worked for the homelessness charity Shelter and for the NHS working on health policy before spending six years working on the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Currently sits on the board of Wandle housing association and has worked in communications for Gatwick Airport on their expansion campaign.