Saturday, 17 October 2009

There's Something About Norwich

In another of his occasional series on local seats, bunnco – your man on the spot, focuses on an exciting fight in Norwich South, made all the more interesting by the link with local MP Charles Clarke. In the Labour rout to come, Clarke has the best chance of leading the party out of the wilderness. But he can’t do that if he loses his seat. Who is he up against and what are their chances in a 4-way marginal? It’s a ‘battleground’ seat in more ways than one. In the Battle of Ideas within in the Labour Party, the result of Norwich South will determine Labour’s direction one-way or another for the next two Parliaments.

With the expenses row reignited, it's easy to forget that the most exciting political event of this year, the Norwich North by-election was called as a result of Dr Ian Gibson's decision to resign when it was suggested that his daughter profited from the sale of his flat, partly purchased with 'expenses' money. Of course, now the offence seems relatively minor compared to others but honourable Dr Gibson stood down and the rest is history. Chloe Smith won and took her seat in the commons this week.

But there's another seat in Norwich where there's more at stake. Not only for the individual candidates concerned, but for the future direction of politics in the UK for the next decade. It's Norwich South, home of the pugnacious former home secretary and bruiser Charles Clarke, who’s defending a slim 3,653 majority.

Back in 2005 the votes were cast as follows

Candidate Party 2005Poll
Charles Clarke Labour 15,904 37.7%
Andrew Aalders-Dunthorne Liberal Democrat 12,251 29.0
Anthony Little Conservative 9,567 22.7
Adrian Ramsay Green 3,101 7.4
Plus 4 others
Majority 3,653 Turnout 65.0%

Norwich South is a typical urban constituency in southern England with a broad mix of housing & industry. There’s the leafy Cringleford suburb [Tory-leaning] with the not-quite-so-posh Costessey area to the West [Lib-Dem leaning]. The urban centre is dominated by traditional Council estates where 40% of residents are said to be living on means-tested benefits [Labour]. And then there’s the University of East Anglia, which has made a name for itself with the world’s leading multi-disciplinary environmental faculty [Greens]

So, Norwich South is that rare beast, the genuine four-way marginal with Clarke defending the seat against Simon Wright for the LibDems, Anthony Little for the Tories and Adrian Ramsay for the Greens. And each of them really is in with a chance. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

For several months now the hyper-active Wright has been telling anyone who’ll listen that he only needs a 3.9% swing to unseat the incumbent. And it’s true. But the problem for him is that the 2005 election was fought at a high-water mark for the LibDems locally. At the time they were riding high on the City council and had the benefit of their party workers in neighbouring South Norfolk to help out. But their South Norfolk colleagues were decimated in the 2007 council elections that followed and the LibDems have since haemorrhaged council seats within Norwich and only now have six Councillors out of 39. Wright will bang-on about how it’s a 2-horse race but out of the four candidates, he’s the one who’s going to need the most ‘encouragement’.

Next we have Adrian Ramsay, standing for the Greens. He’s a busy man. Fresh-faced Adrian is also Deputy Leader of the Green Party nationally and is pretty media-savvy and a darling of local radio and press outlets. He also leads the Greens on Norwich City Council, where they are the second largest party [after Labour] in a hung-council. Although trailing in second place across the whole city, in the NorwichSouth part of the constituency, the Greens are the largest party on the Council. In the 2008 Local Elections, the Greens polled 33% of the popular vote with Labour, Tories & LibDems scrabbling about on 21-24% each. This year’s County elections returned Green County Councillors to the exclusion of Labour so they’d argue that the local momentum is with them.

But Ramsay has a dilemma. Not only is he standing for Norwich South in one of the two seats the Greens are targeting [the other being Brighton Pavillions], he’s also fighting Council seats on the same day in Norwich North. The smart money would see the Greens sleep-walking to victory on Norwich City Council [where a financial disaster is unfolding], partly on the back of the canvassing returns they were able to garner in the Norwich North by-election. They’d be the UK’s first Green Council.

Labour’s on-the-rack in Norwich but, for Ramsay, with his local candidature in Norwich South, national responsibilities for the Greens, and strong-possibility of winning the City Council on May 6th, he’s at risk of spreading himself too thinly and ending-up with nothing. He’s going to have to rely heavily on his local supporters at the University to mind the shop for him whilst he’s away and hope they don’t fade away as polling day approaches as they did in the Norwich North campaign.

Next up we have local teacher and leader of the Norwich Council Tories, Anthony Little, also known as poster ‘Anthony’ on the main site. He’s not been such a confident performer in recent years and hasn’t benefitted from local media coverage, partly because the press doesn’t seem to bother with the fourth-party on a hung-council. But he’s made up for it as an early adopter of technology – his Little’s Log blog has been essential reading for a few years now. His City seat is up for re-election next May to he’s going to have to split himself in two for the campaign as well.

With such a high proportion of households on benefits, it’s going to be interesting to see how the vote splits for the Tory. Normally you’d think there’d be tactical voting against the Tory and the Greens or LibDems would benefit. But although seemingly coming from behind, his campaign has received a boost from last week’s PoliticsHome survey of the marginals, which predicted a Tory victory seeing Norwich South tumble to the Conservatives along with Brandon Lewis in Gt Yarmouth joining Chloe Smith and dead-cert George Freeman fighting the brand-new Mid Norfolk seat. With a spring in his step, he might now be a strong-finisher in the final furlongs. Don’t write him off.

And now, in the red corner, the big beast himself. Charles Clarke. I met him this week and he’s lost none of his enthusiasm for politics and zeal for reform. We joked that You could almost call him a right-winger. And these Centrist views have been manifested this week on the launch of the website, where the list of conspirators is headed by the NorwichSouth MP, whose name is [uniquely] in bold also includes our own Nick Palmer MP. Of course, being on manoeuvres like this has done nothing for his support in the party nationally and I don’t suspect that he’ll be receiving help from supporters bussed-in to help his campaign in the months ahead.

Clarke knows he’s in for a difficult fight but he hopes that the delicate interplay between his three opponents could see him come up the middle and snatch victory. He’s going to have to rely on his incumbency to a great extent but in truth I can see his core vote lending support to the Greens, just as Labour supporters lent votes to Greens & UKIP in Norwich North. It’s difficult to see him holding on. And I think he knows it.

But my analysis is that, whilst every seat is a battle, the result in Norwich South is going have wider repercussions in the war over the next two Parliaments. If the polls are right, Labour will be wiped-out next May with their main ‘thinkers’ eliminated. It’s inconceivable that Clarke will be acceptable to the rump party as leader but as a creator of ideas, his influence will be critical if the party is to dust itself down quickly and I’d even go as far as to say that Clarke’s ‘LabourFuture’ movement could speed-up Labour intellectual recovery by as much as 4-5 years – a whole Parliament.

But in a four-way marginal, it’s all down to chance and the ‘delicate interplay’. The importance of Norwich South is greater than Peter Snow’s swingometer. It’s a ‘battleground’ seat in the battle for ideas. And I’ve got a ringside seat.

Bunnco – Your Man on the Spot


Easterross said...

Bunnco a great article thanks. Obviously I would like to see the Tory win and win well but I have a suspicion Charles Clarke could sneak back after a couple of recounts due to an evenly split opposition vote.

Is this likely in your opinion?

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis but it should be pointed out that Norwich South's boundaries will change at the next General Election and Conservative-leaning Cringleford will transfer back to the South Norfolk constituency. However, the Conservatives are compensated by changes elsewhere (and the consolidation of their recovery in Bowthorpe) so the effect of the boundary changes should be broadly neutral.

Old Hand

Mike Smithson said...

Everybody was talking up the Greens at the time of the NN by election - and as it turned out they were the biggest losers.

It's good to make the point that this is a university seat and these can behave very differently to ordinary marginals. (See Manchester Withington in 2005.)

It could be that Clarke is seen as "good thing" and that might enhance Labour's chances.

As for the Greens - they almost always poll better than they perform.

David Herdson said...

Excellent article, bunnco. This is surely one of the hardest constituencies to call. I can't see Clarke getting back with more than 30% of the vote but I could see him winning with less than it - if the opposition tallies split well for him.

As for the rest, it's a case of positioning themselves as being most able to see Clarke off AND being worthy of tactical voting where that's a consideration. The Lib Dems are past masters at that and without doubts the old bar charts will come out again. Not that that did much good in the by-election next door.

I agree with Mike that the Greens may well flatter to deceive for the GE but you're right about their chances at local level. If their vote doesn't breach around 15%, Clarke should lose. Above that and it will be a very tight three-way contest.

Richard Nabavi said...

Very good, Bunnco - just the kind of informed local comment which is so helpful.

It's interesting to look at what the bookies make of this(odds in decimals, VCbet, Paddy Power, Ladbrokes):

Lab 2 2.2 2.37
LD 2.5 3 3
Con 5.5 4.5 4.5
Grn 17 9 7

What what must most worry both Charles Clarke and the LibDems is that the non-Tory vote splits three ways. Very hard to read, but Clarke looks vulnerable either to the LibDems (if they manage to pick up the bulk of the left-leaning votes), or the Conservatives (if the others split fairly evenly).

Vote early, vote often said...

Excellent article, thanks, and the good news for punters (going back to the discussion on the main forum on Thursday) is that the book is just under-round: Labour 42.1% (Lad), Lib Dems 33.3% (Lad, PP), Cons 18.2% (VC), Greens 5.9% (VC).

That means that there is likely to be some value, somewhere. And in my view it is the LDs who are too short. With the likelihood of a Cons general election victory, and the possibility that they may win the seat, I can't imagine too many traditional Tory voters lending their vote to a LD this time. And I would have thought that a rise in the Greens will most likely come from either ex-LD voters or people who would otherwise consider voting LD. As is mentioned, 2005 seems to have been a high-water mark for the LDs locally.

If the LD price (2/1) is too low, then I suspect it may be the Tories (9/2) who are priced too high rather than Labour. Though I may be influenced by the fact that it is Shadsy who goes the biggest price for Clarke.

Will 883 said...

There is a serious flaw in this article, relating to the PoliticsHome polling.

That poll did show that, if you look at the swing across all marginal seats, Norwich South would go Tory. However if you look at the breakdown of Lab/Lib marginals (which NS was classed as in the polling), Libs come out top and will win the seat.

Anthony Little and the Tories in NS seem to be playing silly b*ggers with the figures to suit their own needs, and I predict a Lib victory, particularly given that my understanding is they have a better and harder working candidate this time round than in 2005.

Breakdown of PoliticsHome poll here:

Mark Senior said...

I agree this is a 4 way contest with the non Conservative vote split 3 ways and I would also agree that the Libdems are not value at 2-1 ( but are at 3-1 ) .
Notwithstanding this , it is the Conservatives who can be eliminated as possible winners . In all the elections in the wards making up the new Norwich North from 2004 onwards the Conservatives have not polled more than 22% of the vote here and IMHO they have a ceiling of just under 25% vote share . Whatever the split between the 3 non Conservative parties one of them will emerge with over 25% , the trick is working out which one that will be .

bunnco said...

On the main-site by bunnco December 13th, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Here’s an update. Adrian Ramsay, the Green PPC, who was also the Green Group Leader on Norwich City Council [where they're only 3 seats behind Labour on the hung council], has stepped down as Group Leader to focus entirely on the Parliamentary Campaign.

Fragrant Claire Stephenson is holding the fort at the Council, which the Greens should take on May 6th in any event.

In a four-way marginal, the winner in Norwich South will take the laurels on 30% or less. It’s a university seat [I don't know if people have heard that there's a school of environmental science at the UEA? ;-)] and this will favour the Greens.

If Adrian Ramsay is going to throw everything at the seat, I can’t now see Charles Clarke hanging on and the result will turn on whether the Anti-Tory vote is split 3 ways [in which case Antony Little will win] otherwise, Norwich will elect the UK’s first Green MP.

Bunnco - Your Man On The Spot.

bunnco said...

From the main site....

Various Posts: The Greens & Norwich South.

Back in October I wrote a primer on PB2 about the chances in Norwich South for Charles Clarke’s defence of the seat and if he were to lose, who would win. It’s here

It’s worth having an update:

1 Earlier this month the Green Candidate Adrian Ramsay gave up his leadership of the City Council’s Green Group, where they are just 3 seats behind Labour in a hung Council. This means he has more time to devote to campaigning in the seat.

2 Today, the Norwich ‘Evening News’ posters are leading on a new Green Party YouTube video that, surprise surprise, explains how they think they can win the seat.

3 Yesterday’s local paper headlined the story where a Green Party councillor in the city has been arrested in Egypt for attempting to get into Gaza for some humanitarian mission.

So, we’ve got a situation in Norwich where the Greens seem to have a media-momentum. Combine that with a Labour Council administration that’s desperately trying to get controversial programs approved before purdah in March. The Greens have Labour on the run locally.

4 I really haven’t heard anything from the LibDem candidate in the press. The LibDems locally are a shadow of their former selves but they know that they need to attack Norwich South to prevent being totally marginalised by the Greens, which could have a knock-on elsewhere.

5 And the Conservative candiate, Antony Little is pretty silent too.

6 Charles Clarke has been hitting the headlines recently but only where he’s been battering the Government/Gordon Brown. And he’s only defending a 3500 majority. If /he’s/ bashing the Government, that means everyone’s on an Anti-Labour ticket!

7 It’s a 4-way marginal. The winner will be the first one to get to 30%. If it’s really tight, the winning margin might be less. Look how the ICM Brighton poll clusters around 30%. It could be a lottery if the polls tighten.

8 We still don’t know whether UKIP will stand. They did quite well in Norwich North but this is where Labour voters lent their votes to the separatists. If they do stand it will be a 4.5 seat marginal and Little could be deprived of enough votes to be pipped at the post.

9 It’s a university seat and the eco-warriors locally have taken a bash on the UEA climategate stuff. It might make them more determined to campaign.

So, let’s just review this.

a The anti-Government vote is 100% with Clarke now against. I just can’t now see Clarke hanging on [which is good news for Cameron in the long-run].
b Will there be a pro-Green meme or an anti-Tory meme on polling day?
c The LibDems will be terribly squeezed but they know they’re going to have to fight it for wider strategic reasons. But I’d say it was a hopeless cause for them. A lot’s changed since 2005 in Norwich.

If it’s a pro-green meme, then the Green will win.
If it’s anti-Tory, then that vote will be split 3-ways and Little will come up the middle. A Tory victory is where the best value bets will lie.
But with the winner the first to 30%, it’s a lottery.
Bunnco - Your man on the spot

by bunnco December 29th, 2009 at 9:06 pm