Until last weekend I’d rather enjoyed the campaign here in North Norfolk. I’m not saying that we have made spectacular progress, but the sun has been shining and the atmosphere on the doorstep tolerant and pleasant. Unfortunately that changed temporarily because of an unfortunate incident very close to home.
I regularly attend at our local Village Church and am the Church Treasurer. It is one of group of nine Parishes in a Church Benefice (to use the technical term) looked after by one Rector who has his office and home in a nearby village. On Friday 24th all the Churchwardens received an e-mail from the Benefice Administrator which read: ‘Short notice, but the Rector has issued an invitation to you and anyone in your parish to meet Norman Lamb at the Rectory, this Sunday 26th April, from half past one o’clock. Drinks!’. Norman Lamb is the local LibDem candidate and is defending the Parliamentary seat.
In my capacity as Labour Party Parliamentary Agent I immediately responded requesting equal treatment for all candidates and stressing that, once the election had been declared, Norman Lamb was no longer an MP. It was essential that the Church, locally or nationally did not express a preference for any single candidate or party. I received a quite extraordinary reply that included the statement “There was never any sense of a political gathering in this invitation – Norman is very well liked by many people of all political persuasions …”. Meanwhile the local LibDems had leafleted our area describing the meeting at the Rectory as a chance to ‘Ask Norman Lamb’ and ‘hear more about his priorities for North Norfolk in the coming years’. It was an overtly political event, featuring just one candidate among five, organised by the Church, in the middle of a General Election.
The pattern of campaigning has changed in the Internet age and it is good news that Churches are willing to step in and organise hustings. However it is important that good practice is observed and any hint of partiality avoided.
What two things have Gerry and the Pacemakers, Michael Portillo and Baroness Shirley Williams in common? First, they have all visited North Norfolk to perform and, secondly, I was sad to see them doing it.
For younger readers Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers was a Liverpool contemporary of the Beatles. ‘How do you do it?’ was one of the first records that I bought and this 1963 hit is still in the ‘favourite pop’ section of my iPod. He appeared with his band several years ago at Cromer Pier; this has a theatre that is well known for its traditional ‘end of the pier’ variety show. I left Gerry Marsden’s concert depressed and wishing he had called it a day.
Another visitor to Cromer Pier was Michael Portillo. Once so nearly leader of the Conservative Party he remains an enormously talented individual. For £15 (or £13 concessions who must have comprised almost all of the audience) you could ‘Listen to his extraordinary story and feel free to question him about it’. The session took place on Saturday 14th February and I can’t help feeling he could have found other things to do on St. Valentine’s Day.
Shirley Williams was also once thought of a party leader – I certainly wanted her become Labour Party Leader when I was at my height of activism in the mid-70s. She was an articulate spokesperson for greater equality and social justice. She left the Labour Party to join the breakaway SDP signing the Limehouse declaration, which, she should be reminded, called for the elimination of poverty and greater equality. Last week she came to North Norfolk in support of the LibDems. The Shirley Williams I admired would be campaigning for alternatives to austerity and demanding and end to policies which create youth unemployment throughout Europe. She would be ripping into the LibDems on their duplicity on student fees. She has let us all down and, more importantly, let herself down.
Consistency has never been regarded as an important virtue in politics: this has been well illustrated with the publication of the LibDem manifesto. Their underlying stance represents a complete reversal of the position they adopted before the 2010 election. When they entered that election they had no prospects of participation in government: they could say what they liked and did. Specifically they recklessly promised to abolish student fees and accompanied it with a sanctimonious campaign that they alone kept their promises. By contrast this time their manifesto is a plea to hang on to their office: ‘a coalition of conscience’.
Here in North Norfolk our defending MP, the very ambitious Norman Lamb, attempted to justify this volte-face at a recent hustings meeting. Without doubt he is articulate but he was really struggling. He appeared to support unequivocally the coalition’s economic policies of austerity and expressed no views on the causes of that crisis. He does however seek wherever possible to distance himself from the consequences of those policies – the cuts in social services and welfare provision.
Sadly the only conclusion is that it doesn’t matter what direction the bus is heading so long as he has a seat on the top deck. Not surprisingly a future coalition has immense appeal.
Last Wednesday we hosted a Church coffee morning at our home. When the last guest had departed I placed the local and national Labour Party posters in our front window, which is next door to the Church. I had not done this before as I did not want to deter any of the guests (at £3 a head, with a free cup of coffee) from attending. It will be the only Labour poster in the village. Over a dozen years of residence I have identified three families who are definitely Labour and the odd individual of progressive views who will vote for the Party in a good year.
The village and surrounding areas are predominantly Conservative, but so far there have been no Tory posters on display. In previous years there have been three or four appearing in local houses. This seems to be part of a general pattern locally with nothing beyond the large boards on the fields of wealthy local farmers. It is symptomatic of a lacklustre local campaign and an unimpressive candidate.
Only one LibDem poster has appeared in the village to date – just the other side of the Church from our cottage. However it seems to have fallen over once the occupant moved his derelict van. I attach before and after pictures.
So far we not attracted any national attention here in North Norfolk. It is long way for London based journalists to come. Indeed I have convinced my four and three year old grandchildren that we are half way to Lithuania. Certainly a visit here will necessitate an overnight stay. This lack of attention is a shame because we are an interesting constituency and could well produce one of the surprise results of the night. We may be in for a recount.
Traditionally our patch was a prosperous area of large arable farms. This was a labour intensive activity with tens, and sometimes hundreds, of badly paid workers living and working together in close quarters. The Agricultural Workers’ Union was born here and this delivered a strong Labour vote. As a result North Norfolk produced a Labour MP until the 1970 General Election. Subsequently capital-intensive farming saw the end of organised labour; we are too far for a comfortable commute to the town of Kings Lynn or city of Norwich. There are few jobs for young people beyond retail and the seasonal hospitality trade.
The area is cheaper than the Cotswolds and roughly the same distance from London. As a result it is most attractive for professional people who are seeking to retire in the country and for second homeowners. The latter will not vote locally but will find their letter boxes stuffed with election material when they return in the summer with their 4 by 4, dogs, extended family and boxes of groceries
Given the above profile the seat should be natural Tory territory. However the Liberal Democrats captured the seat from the Conservatives in 2001 after two previous attempts in which they set about squeezing the Labour vote. This time we have an excellent Labour candidate and most people of progressive views have turned their back on the LibDems. We have a well-known Ukip candidate who owns the local retail outlet in Holt and has acquired a high profile in the area over time. I can’t say I’m impressed by the Conservative candidate who seems somewhat out of her depth – but I would say that wouldn’t I? Add in a Green candidate and possibly a disaffected LibDem now running as an Independent and anything could happen. A space worth watching.
One of the problems we are facing here in North Norfolk is that our sitting Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Lamb, is seen to be a nice person. He may well be, but in my view that is hardly the point. He appears to have no political views.
In fairness to the man he has a pleasant manner and is polite and courteous, even to his political opponents. He runs an efficient office. Moreover he appears to have stumbled upon a clever device to avoid taking any policy stance. If you write to him on an issue – as, for example, I did when I complained about the shabby treatment a former colleague of mine from Singapore received at Heathrow Immigration – his practice is to forward the letter to the Minister concerned. When the standard bureaucratic reply is received back he adds a bland hand written sentence asking if there is anything you wish to say. In this way it allows him to appear concerned about his constituent’s problem without carrying any responsibility for the political decisions – almost always austerity cuts – that gave rise to it.
This sort of pattern ‘nothing to do with me guv’ has now sadly become the defining characteristic of the Liberal Democrats. Vince Cable at Business and Industry displays it whenever he discusses further education or youth unemployment.
Will any of this matter on the doorstep? Undoubtedly we have a whole lot of Liberal Democrat Councillors who will pay the price of their party’s shameful behaviour on student fees. There will be a collapse in the total Liberal Democrat vote across the country. In North Norfolk Norman Lamb won his seat by squeezing the Labour vote. He can no longer claim to represent progressive opinion of any sort and has lost the votes of anyone who is left of centre. He may be in serious trouble here.