Sunday, 26 July 2009
Reflections on Norwich North by Your Man On The Spot
So now the dust has settled I thought I’d reflect on the local factors that shaped Norwich North from the start. As Bunnco – Your man on the spot, it was clear to me from the outset that this was a poll in two parts.
In the red corner we had the northern half of the Labour-run Norwich City Council area.
Local people were scandalised when it was revealed that last year that old-dears were evicted from their sheltered housing complex where they paid about £70 per week and Council employees, including the head of Housing, moved in at £50. As the ‘Greyhound Opening’ scandal was reported in excruciating detail, tenants passed a motion of no confidence in their Council landlord as a string of other damaging stories followed including the need for £8m cuts to balance the books – a real achievement for a council with a net budget of £16m. Labour were beaten locally before they started.
In the blue corner there was Tory-controlled Broadland Council looking after the leafy northern suburbs.
District council tax is about half what the City pays. Last year they won The Times ‘Best Council’ award and are consistenyly in the top-3 nationally for recycling. In the ipsosMORI ‘place survey’ in Norfolk published 2 weeks ago, satisfaction with the district was a staggering 94% and yet the Government had plans to abolish Broadland and absorb it into the City. There isn’t a single Labour councillor in Broadland.
So, the Tories simply had to turn-out their vote in the Broadland part whilst they knew Labour voters would stay at home or lend their votes elsewhere. It was always going to be a Con-gain…. But by how much?
Let’s turn to the candidates….
Chloe Smith had been chosen for 18 months and Conservatives had delivered three leaflets before the others even selected candidates. And when they did, both Labour and LibDems botched it badly.
Labour chose a former leading light in the local university Young Conservatives, who Labour activists knew was the weakest candidate on their shortlist. Insodoing, they punished the national party for the shoddy way in which Dr Ian Gibson was treated. Revenge was the motivator there.
The LibDems thrashed around and eventually chose April Pond as 3rd choice after the retiring editor of the EDP told them to get stuffed. Then it became clear she didn’t live locally like her leaflets said. She lived in some style in a mansion on the Suffolk border. With a moat. Oh dear.
UKIP’s man blotted his copybook with the local media on Day One with a clumsy press release that tried to capitalise on an armed siege with the predictable ‘send all the foreigners home’ line. The BNP had a “vicar” standing and Craig Murray lost credibility by nailing posters to lamp-posts and telegraph poles [frowned-on round here] then refused to take them down when told to do so by the Returning Officer. You can’t get elected on the platform of ‘put a honest man in Parliament’ when you’re caught breaking the rules.
The Greens flapped-about and eventually dumped their existing candidate in favour of the photogenic but bonkers Dr Rupert Read. I thought the Greens would do rather well but they faded fast, outgunned in the leaflet and money stakes and Read blew it in the TV debate when he made too much of the northern-bypass issue designed to relieve gridlock [and pollution] in the northern suburbs.
Now, to the campaign….
All the Tories needed to do was avoid the banana skins but when it came to Labour, with friends like these who needs enemies?
The National Party did everything they could to make it difficult for Labour to succeed in NN. They actually went out of their way to make things worse. Announcing an EcoTown on the edge of the constituency with one week to go could be described as ‘courageous’ but then to tell locals the next day that the money to pay for the infrastructure would be reduced just smacks of incompetence. Local Govt minister John Denham had a chance to call time on the unpopular Local Government reorganisation issue in Norfolk when Mr Justice Foskett quashed the process in Suffolk with ten days to go. But he blew that chance too. And then the Labour Candidate got “suspected” swine flu in the final days. Not many locals are buying that story.
The Greens and LibDems just attacked each other as they fought for the places and it seemed to me on the ground that UKIP were filling the vacuum. And so it turned out to be to a certain extent with Labour supporters disproportionately backing the party.
The Greens are the largest party in the Norwich South constituency but the Greens were shrewd in targeting their canvassing in the Norwich City part of the NN in preparation for the local elections May 6th next year. They’re only 3 seats behind on the City Council and now have full pledge details for the wards they need to win to take control.
And the leaflets, the bloody leaflets. In fact the low turnout is partly due to the forest of leaflets backfiring on all parties. You’ve never seen so many. It just turned people off. And the LibDems must wonder whether delivering 5 different leaflets to some houses on the polling day alone backfired contributing to the depressing result.
I think the leaflet that did make the most difference though was the one distributed by the Tories in the Broadland area two days before polling day highlighting the threat to their council as a result of Labour’s Council Reorganisation plans. It didn’t change minds but it motivated the Tories in the suburbs to come out. And that’s all that was needed.
As the polls closed I posted my prediction “My gut feel is that we’re talking about 40 16 16 16 16 [Con Grn LD Lab UKIP] + others. Or 38 17 15 14 13…. it’s a lottery for the places. And in these scenarios 40-16 is better for Chloe than 38-17.”
I got the percentages almost exactly right on my second suggestion. In truth I expected Labour to be overhauled by the LibDems and UKIP but it’s now emerged that Labour had a quite sophisticated postal vote campaign going on so, whilst intelligence from the polling stations was that the Labour vote had /really/ collapsed, in fact they had already built themselves a 2000-vote cushion which saved them from 4th place embarrassment.
1. The Tories gambled on putting Cameron at the front. But it was a calculated bet and he’s emerged a stronger leader for it. The Tories ran a sophisticated campaign and experimented and innovated in ways which will only become clear on polling day. The dawn raid delivered by 7am with each leaflet personally addressed to every house was just one example of this.
2. Postal Votes are an important tool for Labour. They are harangued on the doorstep and they’re short of masochist activists. It’s the only weapon they have left. Charles Clarke in Norwich South must now be looking over his shoulder in a genuine 4-way marginal and, for all the talk of winning back the seat from Chloe [a task made easier by boundary changes], local Labour will be better used defending Charles in May than trying to beat Chloe. NN shows that Labour is finished whilst Brown is still in place.
3. The LibDems must be gutted. They’ve truly wasted £100,000, which could have been spent more effectively elsewhere and now Clegg, who mishandled the candidate selection from the start, must be looking vulnerable. This angle hasn’t been picked-up by the media. They’ve lost their way.
4. Labour have more to fear from UKIP than the Tories.
5. Keep an eye on the Greens to take Norwich City Council in May. Back in the 1990’s there was a Legalise Cannabis party, who put up candidates in the County Council elections in Norwich. So there’s been quite a rebellious streak in the City. Expect that to be expressed at the polls in the spring.
6. The BBC will have to learn lessons. They excluded UKIP from the televised debates, a decision made away from Norwich in Birmingham or even London. It’s not the BBC’s job to ‘pick winners’. They should report the news, not make it. And there is some soul-searching to be done here about how much airtime they give the minor parties in the General. UKIP are the media-winners out of this campaign for they will be able to demand more airtime on the back of this result.
7. In the General Election to come local issues like the ones I have described will play a much greater role in determining the final outcome than the simplistic Uniform National Swing. We need to be careful about extrapolating the NN result to the national stage.
Bunnco – Your man on the spot in Norwich North