A quick look at the election battleground in the Eastern Region

The History

The Eastern region, along with the South East is the very bedrock of Conservative Strength in the UK. Going back to the 1987 General Election, Labour held just two seats in the whole region (Cambridge and Norwich South) , and despite much hyped expectations of gains in 1992, Basildon stayed Tory, Norwich North too, whilst only Ipswich was gained by Labour.

In the same period, the Liberal presence in the region was invisible on parliamentary maps. Sloppiness and an overconfidence in Clement Freud's old Isle of Ely seat, saw the Liberals wiped out in the Eastern Region, and despite some good individual showings, the Liberal Democrats were nowhere near winning any seats in the Eastern Region in 1992. Perhaps the most notable results for the party was the small increase in the Party's vote in North Norfolk, with Norman Lamb as a first time candidate, when in other Norfolk seats the Lib Dems did poorly, with many slipping to third place.

1997 saw a mass collapse of the Tory vote across the region, with Labour winning seats in some very unlilkely places. Jumping from third place in Harwich to win comfortably, whilst North West Norfolk going in to the Labour camp was a surprise to many Labour activists. Some might argue that it was a surprise to the newly elected Labour MP too as he was also re-elected as a County Councillor in another part of Norfolk on the same day.

Significantly for the Lib Dems, the newly redrawn boundaries of the Colchester seat gave them their first real target seat in the region, and with lots of targeted help, proper target seat support and two visits from party leader Paddy Ashdown, the breakthrough came with Bob Russell being elected as the first ever Lib Dem MP in the Eastern region. The two other seats the Lib Dems had classed as targets also got jolly close, with North Norfolk Lib Dems turning a safe tory seat with amajority of 10,000 in to a marginal with a small 1292 vote majority for the Tories, and in Southend West, the seat Tory David Amess had done the "Chicken Run" too from his Billericay seat he held narrowly in 1992, the Lib Dems missed out by a similar margin.

The 2001 General Election saw few changes. Labour lost out in North West Norfolk, which failed to surprise many , and saw further target seats fail in their bid to overcome small Tory majorities (Mid Norfolk comes to mind). The Lib Dems, however, did make progress with Norman Lamb winning North Norfolk for the Lib Dems after a long count, bundle counts and incorrect and unofficial claims that the Tories had won. Despite a large rise in the Tory vote in North Norfolk, Norman Lamb leapfrogged David Prior to win by 483 votes, setting up North Norfolk Lib Dems for an even bigger victory over the Tory Iain Dale in 2005, the same year in which the Lib Dems won their third seat in the region, Cambridge.

2005 was not a good year for Labour in the Eastern Region. In the London fringe, Braintree, St Albans and Welwyn and Hatfield were all lost, with Harwich and Peterborough swinging to the Tories and falling in to the blue camp. Whilst this was going on, former safe Labour seats became quite tight affairs. Places like Harlow saw Labour just cling on whilst Harwich swung all the way to the Tories with Doublas Carswell being elected.

So where is the battleground in 2010 ?

New boundaries favour the Lib Dems in the region this time in a way that they did in 1997 when the new Colchester seat was created.

Chelmsford's boundaries have been re-drawn, with the new seat based firmly on the District Council area that the Lib Dems do well in and the more suburban parts of Chelmsford where the Tories doing well being moved out. If the Lib Dems can fight a campaign like they did in recent local elections where they made significant gains in recent years from the Tories in the Chelmsford Parliamentary seat, then this seat above all others should be very interesting.
Broadland is a new name on the constituency map, but it includes a part of what was Norman Lamb's North Norfolk seat and also parts of what was Norwich North, which both sandwich the Eastern parts of what used to be Mid Norfolk. This is notionally a Tory seat and Keith Simpson, a largely anonynous Tory MP who is currently MP for Mid Norfolk is to contest the seat for the Tories. The Lib Dems have become better organsised in this seat, winning a string of local council by-elections in aras that are always traditionally Tory (Taverham, Wroxham and Buxton). Although it would be a big ask for the Lib Dems to win this on one go, it is not beyond the bounds of probability of the Labour vote tactically switches to the Lib Dems, who are now in a clear second place. In Dan Roper the Lib Dems have a very able candidate and this seat is certainly one to watch.
Depending on what your interpretation of the Eastern Region is, some people might think that Watford, as part of Hertfordshire, just about qualifies. This seat provides on paper a what might appear incorrectly to be three way fight, but that is misleading because the Tories, who were in a very clear second place after the 2001 General Election and who held the seat up to 1997 slipped back to third place in 2005. The Lib Dems, who now have a massive majority on the local council there and have the elected mayor, saw a dramatic rise in their vote in 2005 and must see this as a very winnable seat this time with a Labour majority over them of only around 1000 votes.

The Lib Dem's other main target is Norwich South, currently held by Charles Clarke, former Labour Home Secretary and minister for various other things too. The Lib Dems cut Clarke's majority massively last time and must fancy their chances here this time. Although local government election results have seen large gains for the Greens in recent years, history shows that in seats with strong green votes in local elections, their vote rarely transfers to them in General Elections and often votes Lib Dem. This is crtainly true in the Oxford seats where the Green Wards at a local level proved to have the highest general election votes for the Lib Dems. Certainly one to watch.

Looking for Labour targets is difficult. The key aim for Labour will be to hold what they have, particularly in places like Harlow and Watford. It seems unlikely that Labour will make any gains at all given that their strategy has, in recent months, to concentrate very much on holding what they have. In seats like Stevenage, where Barbara Follett had a strong personal vote and had built an effective local organisation, her decision to stand down might cause problems for them, but I would expect Labour to hang on there.

One seat that can expect a lot of Tory attention is Ipswich, which requires the same swing that Cameron needs in order to have an overall majority. Given the polls you'd expect the Tories to win this. Their biggest problem might be their deeply uninspiring candidate who, if the local news today was anything to go by, could bore for Britain.

Other Tory targets will include Great Yarmouth and holding Norwich North which in the case of the latter seat, has seen a lot of Labour effort in recent weeks in the wake of the Tory county council's decision to turn of street lights with little or no consultation. Chloe Smith had a lot of help from elsewhere last year and with the seat now not including the best bits for the Tories (Drayton and Taverham) could give Labour real hope of a surprise. I doubt that Labour will win, but Norwich North could revert to Labour early on in any Tory decline post 2010.
So in summary, I would expect the East of England to look pretty similar to last time. The Tories will make some gains, with some of these being made on the back of newly created seats like Witham and Broadland (if they can hold off the Lib Dems here). I would also expect a couple of Lib Dem gains and a couple of near misses (St Albans ?). Labour, I suspect, will lose just a few seats overall. But for all the effort, I am not expecting fireworks in the East. The election will be won and lost in the South and the Midlands, not in the East.

I expect one or two comments about seats I have missed, so would appreciate your comments and views.

Update : As has been pointed out in comments, Luton South and Bedford are also seats that provide a lot of interest given recent events.

Luton South is at a council level a Lib Dem target and with the scandal involving Margaret Moran's second home claims, the Labour Party will do well to hold the seat. The major problem for the Lib Dems is that they start in third place having failed to overcome the Tories last time who remain in second place. Given that until 1997 Luton South was a Tory seat, the Tories might expect to be the main challengers here this time. Again though, the Tories are not in the shape they might expect to be with a shaky local organisation and little in the way of local council success on which to hang any claims of being the main alternatives. Given the plethora of independents seeking to muddy the waters including the dreadful Esther Rantzen, whose stated reasons for standing appear to me to have all gone, except seemingly the number one reason (her ego), it seems that this seat will provide some interest to the press.

As for Bedford, the Tories failed to win the mayoral the election and the Lib Dems now have the elected mayor (the excellent Dave Hodgson who I know well). This has given the Lib Dems a real shot in the arm in a seat which in many ways should have been a Lib Dem target long before Labour won it in 1997. I would expect Labour to lose and the contest to be between the Lib Dems and the Tories.


Michael Heaver said...

The early signs from living in Norwich South for me are that the Greens are in with a strong shout. Charles Clarke should be worried.

It will be ineresting to see how UKIP do after getting 11.8% in Norwich North last year. I think a third place finish may be on the cards there.

Nich Starling said...

The Greens polled significantly less than their local election vote in Norwich South in 2005, and in Norwich North in 2009. Also in Brighton and Oxofrd similar patterns exist. I expect the Greens to be the main reason why Clarke might be re-elected as the Greens may do just enough to split the vote.

You have to remember that the Greens get 30% of the vote on a 25% turnout in local elections. that means that in a 60% turnout (35% more than in local elections) there will be 35% of the electorate who are so unenthused about the Greens locally that they do not even bother to vote for them in local elections. This 35% are the group that votes on national issues and have no history of voting Green.

I think you are falling for the press spin on this which I expect there to be lots of. It happened in Norwich North and the press will not have learnt.

The talke dup the Greens in Brighton Pavillion last time and they came nowhere near.

Martin Howes said...

Other seats worth noting are Luton South and Bedford.

Nich Starling said...

Indeed. I will update.

Nich Starling said...

Indeed. I will update.

Peter said...

I was just thinking today that there is usually a seat that no one (or very few) see coming (Solihull, Guildford, Ludlow, Leeds West). This will not be an exception.

What is very hard to assess is what the final shares of the vote will look like. We are going into this campaign with a popular leader (as we have before) but also a very popular Treasury Spokesman (not so common).

Anyway the Southend West electoral machine is back on the road, and we are in very good spirits down here.

Best of luck to everyone in Norfolk

Malcolm Redfellow said...

I'm not dissing your excellent overview. Just wanting to make an historical point.

Liberalism (that curious pre-Lib Dem set of principles) was traditionally strong across East Anglia.

Consider the 1918 "Khaki" election. The Liberal Party was split. Those who stayed honest ("Liberal") were culled by 236 seats (leaving just 36 Liberal MPs across the whole UK). On the other hand 127 "Coalition Liberals" took the ticket and were elected.

Now: my point (at last, they say).

There were four Norfolk seats: William Cozens-Hardy was returned as a straight Liberal in South; Richard Winfrey took South-West as a Coalition Liberal (it had been his seat since 1906).

Similarly there were two Norwich seats. One went to Hilton Young as a straight Liberal (he defected Torywards in 1926). The other was Labour: G.H.Roberts returned with Coalition Liberal support -- I think against a non-ticket Labour man. Roberts later sat in the '22 parliament as a Lloyd George Liberal.

In other words, of the six seats, four had a Liberal interest.

And, by the way, I bet few remember (and fewer still interested) that in 1922 Hilton Young married the sculptor Katherine Scott, Robert Falcon Scott's widow. He thereby became Peter Scott's step-father and father of Wayland Young (Labour then SDP).

No: don't move. I'll just pick up my anorak on the way out.

Nich Starling said...

Malcolm, thanks for that.

I met a very elderly man who was the great nephew of the last Liberal MP for North Norfolk prior to Norman Lamb in 2005 (a Mr Daniels who lives in Diss), and he said he was SO pleased that "the Liberals" were finally back in Norfolk !

Sam said...

Anybody know who the Lib Dem candidate for SW Norfolk is?

Nich Starling said...

Sorry. Don't know !

Justin Hinchcliffe said...

Couple of corrections:

1. Labour won Cambridge from the Conservatives in 1992, not 1987.

2. David Amess did the 'chicken run' (as you call it) from Basildon, not Billericay, to Southend West.

You don't mention Cambridge (1 of 3 LD-held seats in the region). I expect the Lib Dem vote to fall, Labour to remain the same and big increases fro the Conservatives and Greens. Anything could happen there.

Nich Starling said...

I didn't mention Cambridge because I expect it to be held comfortably by the Lib Dems.

Justin Hinchcliffe said...

and the other two points?

Michael Heaver said...

Nich, I am well aware of the media spin on the Greens. I am judging my suspicion of a potential Green victory in Norwich South based on the vast amount of Green support posters I'm seeing around the constituency at the moment that far outnumber Labour's. A straw poll I know, but that's partly what I'm going off of.

Lorna Dupré said...

The Liberal Democrat candidate for South West Norfolk is Stephen Gordon: http://tinyurl.com/ye8d469

Nich Starling said...

Justin, you are correct on the other two points so didn't feel the need to comment.

Take solace on the fact that after posting to my blog for several years you are at last finally correct on one matter.