Dr. Nick Wright considers the role of the East in forthcoming general election.
At his party conference last September, Ed Miliband told activists from the east of England that any Labour victory would come via its constituencies. While it seems likely the region will remain predominantly blue after May 7, it has a number of potential bellwether seats that will tell us a great deal about where power will lie in the next Parliament. The results will also provide an indication of how far the UKIP and Green Party ‘insurgencies’ have been able to turn deep-rooted public dissatisfaction with the establishment parties into a more fundamental shift in British politics. In the east, that dissatisfaction also reflects an underlying fear that whoever is in power, its needs will be forgotten or ignored.
Some of the battleground seats
The east of England represents something of a Conservative bastion. A number of its MPs were elected in 2010 with five-figure majorities, making these some of the safest seats in the country. These constituencies will be the foundation of any kind of Conservative majority, and it would require an unprecedented swing to see MPs such as Richard Bacon (Norfolk South, maj. 10,940), Henry Bellingham (Norfolk North-West, maj. 14,810), George Freeman (Mid Norfolk, maj. 13,856) or Elizabeth Truss (Norfolk South-West, maj. 13,140) ousted. It is a similar story for Norman Lamb. Although one of the region’s few Lib Dem MPs, it seems highly improbable he will lose his North Norfolk seat, held since 2001 and won in 2010 with a majority of 11,626.
Underneath all this apparent certainty, in several key seats real contests are unfolding whose outcomes could be crucial in determining which of the two largest parties is able to govern, even if only as a minority. In particular, how the contests play out in urban constituencies such as Norwich North andSouth, and in coastal constituencies such as Great Yarmouth and Waveney will tell us a great deal about the likely occupant of 10 Downing Street after the election.
Norwich South remains the eastern seat most likely to change hands. Current Lib Dem MP Simon Wright won with a majority of just 310, the 17th smallest of 2010. However, Wright finds himself defending his party’s record in government knowing his constituency not only contains a large proportion of student voters who have not forgotten the controversial U-turn over university tuition fees, but which had previously produced solid Labour majorities. Having caused one of the shocks of 2010 by beating incumbent Labour MP Charles Clarke, a former Home Secretary, Wright now faces an uphill task to retain his seat in the face of strong challenges from Labour and the Greens. Although John Curtice has identified this seat as offering the Greens their best chance of adding to Brighton Pavilion, currently held by Caroline Lucas,[i] ElectionForecast currently indicates a 99% probability of a Labour win here.
In neighbouring Norwich North, held in 2010 by Chloe Smith who first won the seat in a by-election in 2009 following the resignation of its long-standing Labour MP, Dr Ian Gibson, the fight seems much tighter. The most recent polling data by Lord Ashcroft suggests Labour candidate Jess Asato enjoys a slim lead of 35% to Smith’s 34%, and Smith herself recently said the result was too close to call. The seat is 67thon Labour’s target list, with victory here among those considered essential for it to win a majority. Recent visits by Harriet Harman and Lord Kinnock highlight how seriously the party is taking these contests. ElectionForecast suggests there is a 41% probability of Labour winning the seat.
A few miles away in the coastal constituency of Great Yarmouth, meanwhile, another interesting competition is playing out. Having won the seat in 2010 from Labour with a majority of +4,276, Brandon Lewis, currently Minister for Housing and Planning, now finds himself fighting a strong UKIP challenge. The seat is one of 12 primary targets identified by UKIP, and recent polling by Lord Ashcroft put it on 31% against 33% for the Conservatives and 28% for Labour. A similar story seems to be unfolding in neighbouring Waveney. Conservative MP Peter Aldous won here with a majority of just 769 in 2010 and Lord Ashcroft’s polling suggests Labour support of 37% to 28% for the Conservatives, with UKIP on 22%. While these numbers may tighten, both may be prime examples of seats where the UKIP vote may be decisive even if their candidate does not ultimately win. ElectionForecast currently suggests there is a 78% probability of Labour winning Waveney and the Conservatives a 13% probability of retaining Great Yarmouth.
What is shaping the campaign?
Thus far, it has been predominantly ‘bread-and-butter’ issues that have shaped the campaign in the East of England. Certainly, candidates have been contesting the broader narrative around the government’s austerity policies and the extent of the economic recovery; but it has been the particular impacts of those policies and the apparent unevenness of the recovery that have mattered.
In interviews with local Norfolk broadcaster Mustard TV during the final week of this parliament, for example, members of the public highlighted a number of concerns. These included lack of availability of GP appointments, ambulance waiting times, the struggles of managing on a state pension, the need for more affordable childcare, and poor employment opportunities for young people.
Clearly, such concerns are not unique to the region, and nor are the broader consequences of the austerity. However, parts of the east, and particularly rural and coastal areas of Norfolk, have historically been among the most deprived in the country. The failure of successive governments to address these problems is now being reflected in the relative success of UKIP and the Greens regionally in pegging back their establishment rivals. In part this has been due to their ability to present fresh, alternative voices that articulate a sense of frustration that economic growth and social development have been so patchy.
Nationally, the opinion polls reflect the inability of either main party to capture the electorate’s imagination or map out a convincing vision for the future. In the east, the challenge for all candidates is how to convince sceptical voters that whoever is in power, central government can actually deliver jobs and economic growth, and improve public services – and end a sense that the region is often ignored or forgotten.
Dr Nick Wright, Lecturing Fellow, School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies, University of East Anglia.