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 PB.com 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 http://www.labourfuture.net/, 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