Is Norwich South a barometer for political change in England?


11:10 am - October 24th 2011

by Richard Blogger    


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I think Norwich South shows what went wrong with Labour over their three terms of office.

A huge 14,000 majority in 1997 has shrunk so much that the Labour candidate lost at the 2010 election by 310 votes.

Why was this the case?

This first graph is the majority that Labour had from 1997 in a seat that has been a Labour seat for a decade before:

Let’s look at how people have voted in that constituency.

In this graph I have plotted the votes for the three main parties, and the Greens:

The Labour vote plummets: halving over the 13 years. The Conservative vote dips and rises slightly over that period. The main beneficiaries of the lost Labour vote have been the Lib Dems and the Greens, and in particular the latter: the Green vote has increased by a factor of ten.

The interesting point is that the polls for the three parties are converging over that decade.

Now look at the British Attitudes Survey from 2009

This shows a similar convergence between Labour and the Conservatives. (The Lib Dem bounce in the year before the 2010 is not recorded here.) There is a rise in those people who regard themselves as having no political affiliation, or don’t know, and  ‘other’ also increases.

In Norwich South the Greens have benefited from the rise in ‘other’ and possibly from those people with no affiliation choosing the Greens as a protest vote.

Of course, it could be the Labour candidate who inherited a constituency with 6k majority at a time when there was a national mood for a Labour landslide and then, after gaining a 14k majority in 1997, allowed it to slide by his behaviour in Parliament both as a minister and as a backbencher with a grudge.

The losing Labour candidate was, of course, Charles Clarke.

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About the author
Richard is a regular contributor. He blogs more frequently at Conservative Policies Dissected.
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Reader comments


1. ex-Labour voter

“This week I published, with KPMG, a discussion paper, Achieving the Potential (pdf), which examines the case for this third choice – namely extending the role played by ‘user charges’ (such as road tolls, university fees, social care insurance and health charges) in the provision of public services in this country.”

This is what Clarke wrote in a Guardian newspaper article in 2008.

Good riddance. However, fear of the electoral situation in his constitueny did lead him to vote against Trident replacement.

2. Green Co-operator

The problem with describing Green votes as a protest against Labour is that it assumes that Labour is the ‘natural’ place for such voters, and which labour voters hope will return.

Labour in Brighton certainly felt so, and campaigned after 2005’s GE result on the basis that having had their protest fun,. Greens should return home to mummy and the sensible, serious politicians. That didn’t quite work.

The truth is that many of these voters have seen a structural disillusion with Labour and they’re no likelier to go back to Labour than a partner who discover their partner is a serial philanderer is likely to return having discovered a new partner who treats them with respect. They’re better considered as post-Labour voters than protest voters.

@2

This may be true up to a point, but voters have to work with the electoral system that we have. Even someone like me – whose politics closely align with those of the Greens and who was fundamentally opposed to the neo-liberalism of Labour under Blair and Brown – may well find themselves voting Labour if that is what is required to prevent a Tory winning the seat and a Tory government being formed. I would do so with gritted teeth, on the deeply unsatisfactory grounds of lesser evilism. But I would do it nevertheless, should it be necessary.

Its a real problem, and given that electoral reform is off the agenda for a generation, its hard to say what the answer is.

I take it the boundaries didnt change at any point between 1997 and 2010?

You are understating the Greens’ previous success in this area. Before the 2010 election, the Greens held the majority of council seats in the constituency and formed the official opposition on the council.

This is pretty untypical.

Not sure you can draw generally applicable lessons from such a quirky seat, can you?

6. Green Co-operator

@3 – I agree David, but think the distinction here is between people who will vote Green where they can and Labour where they have to, as opposed to Green when they feel frivolous, and Labour when it gets serious. The protest vote imagines the latter, whereas my experience of Green voters in Brighton suggests that there’s much more of the former.

@3: voters have to work with the electoral system that we have

Possibly. Of course, if all the pro-PR parties stood on a common Real Democracy platform to establish PR and then immediately call a new election, they’d stand a good chance of winning.

electoral reform is off the agenda for a generation

I disagree.

@4. John Ruddy

“I take it the boundaries didnt change at any point between 1997 and 2010?”

🙂 of course it did (as I am sure you know from your comment) but it is quite amazing that a seat with a Labour share of 52% at 1997 plummets to the situation where the MP gets just 29% of the vote. Interestingly, the Lib Dems use Norwich South as their example of where FPTP fails in their AV election literature (well, they say that a constituency at GE 2010 had an MP with a seat of 29% of the vote – they don’t actually say it was *their* MP ).

@5. Flowerpower

“Not sure you can draw generally applicable lessons from such a quirky seat, can you?”

Norwich South is a bit quirky, that’s for sure, but look at Norwich North: 1997 a Labour vote of 49.7% edges down to 44.7% at 2005 then plummets to 31% at 2010. The same convergence in the number of votes is seen there (Lab 27k -> 13k; Cons 18k -> 17k; LD 7k -> 8k; Others (incl Green) 3k -> 4k). The 2009 by-election is an anomaly, of course, and ignoring that, it looks like the support for the parties are getting closer, mostly at the expense of Labour. In North Norwich, the turnout drops, 55k -> 43k over that period, so it is the “did not vote” party that gained the most.

In Norwich, the Tories and LDs did not really improve. Labour lost, and lost over the 13 years in government. If the Greens do not like being thought of as the protest vote perhaps more palatable to them is that the “party” who has gained over those 13 years has been the “others” and “didn’t vote” parties, again, following what the BAS graph shows.

Although Norwich South is an urban seat it is within Norfolk which had been a very wealthy agricultural area for several hundred years until the second millennium. A few years when most farmers were earning less than the minimum wage (many were actually losing money despite not paying family members and working all hours) may have affected their attitude to the government?

My great grandparents helped elect Keir Hardie to the seat of Merthyr and Aberdare in 1900.
Since then my family have, without exception voted Labour at every election, both local and national.
Some of us stopped in 2003.
Now no one votes Labour and all have pledged never to vote Labour again in their lifetimes.
Several of us were so outraged at the Blair / Brown admiinistrations and the failure of MPs and the unions to reign in their behaviour that we will not shop or do business in any constituency with a Labour MP.
There is no difference between a vote for Labour / Tory or Lib Dem they are all liars and self serving parasitic scum.
A serious medieval pox on their houses.

No it’s not a barometer, but it is an interesting conversation.

>:-) of course it did (as I am sure you know from your comment) but it is quite amazing that a seat with a Labour share of 52% at 1997 plummets to the situation where the MP gets just 29% of the vote.

I think that might be much more common than you think. Up here in Ashfield, Geoff the Hoon went from 65% – 1997 / 58% – 2001 / 49% – 2005 and 2010 was 33%. I’d expect there to be scores of seats with that type of trend.

IIRC Charles Clarke was pretty clean on expenses by comparison (apart from his £400 a month lunch bills), where Hoon was a maxi-flipper who lived 20 miles away in Derbyshire.

Now the TV presenter lady who’s name I’ve forgotten has got to work her cotton socks off to recover the vote. Given that the area has shifted away from mining, she may struggle.

>In Norwich, the Tories and LDs did not really improve. Labour lost, and lost over the 13 years in government.

Not true; you’re missing that the LDs added an extra 11% of the vote 1997->2010, compared to the Greens who had a total 14.9% in 2010. That’s very nearly as much, and is 5000 extra votes.

My take on the Greens is that they are way too far left to be a serious party of power, and that they will either be mugged by the reality of power and become a lot more sensible, or will scare people away.

So Brighton is key, and – judging by what they are doing to eg the Planning system (fruit and nut tree audits when you build a house, anyone?) – it could get strangled by red tape and overheads, and telling everyone what to do.

Unless Eric Pickles saves them from themselves :-).

12. Leon Wolfson

@11 – Labour moved to the centre and lose votes, the Greens are to the left and have picked them up (more sharply than the other parties). Despite their clear lunacy on issues like energy.

And from THAT, you conclude WHAT? Er….

One element must be boredom. After three elections which returned the same party, people wanted something different. Then there was the “punish the government in power” element – the same one that may well see a social democratic Spanish government (rightly) blamed for austerity cuts replaced by an even more austere right wing government committed to even more cuts. The way our democracy functions, the reason could be just as trivial and self defeating as that. It would be nice if we had a third party offering a real choice – but given the bias and propaganda pumped out by the media, that party would probably be a pro-US, anti EU, neoliberal party dedicated to shrinking the government even more and kicking out all immigrants. That would certainly dispel boredom, I suppose, but not in a good way.

1,Why do you say that fear of losing his seat led him to voting agianst Trident renewal, he was Kinnocks right hand man and Helped Kinnock fight Hatton and Scargill ,Clarke Must have known how unpopualr Unilateralism was inthe mid 80’s ,so why would voting agisnt trident renewal to him be seen as a vote winner, Also not voting for trident renewal ,would have additionally helped gordon brown appear in charge and as such Brown never forgave Clarke’s betrayal,

Clarke that’s the bloke who took labour form 27% in 1983 and left it with 35.3% in 1992, so saying good riddance to teh bloke who with Kinnock saved teh laobur party, Probably explains why your an ex laobur voter.
If clarke was that interested in populairsm ,he would have said he was agisnt student fees, as that where his vote went to the Liberals.

15. ex-Labour voter

In response to comment 14:

Charles Clarke had never previously shown any interest in opposing nuclear weapons. However, given the fact that the Liberal Democrats were close behind and the fact that the Green Party had a significant presence there, he obviously calculated that it made good sense to vote against Trident replacement..

Andrew Smith and Nigel Griffiths appear to have made similar calculations.

As a backbencher, Clarke would have nothing to lose by voting against Trident replacement. However, he was still in government when the vote on student fees came up and would have had to resign from the government if he voted against.
Politicians do make these kinds of calculation.

I trust this answers your question.

15. Clarke had long toime opposed trident renewal, He had nothing to lose by being a back Bencher, He turned down the chance to be Defence secretary 10 months earlier, He was Campaigning for Any one but gordon Candidate to stand just before the Trident vote, Would Have Alan Milburn Alan Johnson or David Miliband wanted a unilateralist supporting them, Plus The Liberals hadn’t at the time came out in favour of unilateralism, He wouldn’t have backed Unilateralsima s A career move If he was expecting to get back on the Front benches ,which even If Brown had become leader agiasnt his will,He was still hoping would happen, (as also Stated By Peter Mandleson)
. I’m sure if he’d kept his seat He would have like a Shadow cabinet job after tehe 2010 election too.
I hope these points clarify Why I still beleive Clarke was honorable in not wanting trident renewal

As a someone who lives in Norwich and is a fairly active Labour member then I feel I should add a few things here.

First off, I think that the support for the Greens is something of a special case here. Norwich is a big political target for the Greens so they are very active. They have built a large activist base here and have also encouraged their more active members elsewhere in the country to move here. Their approach has been based around being seen primarily as active local campaigners rather than advocates of green politics. Where they have got political they have tended to focus on softer political issues (things like allotments, waste incinerators and so on).

The areas where the Greens have had the most success have tended to be the reasonably affluent middle class areas of the city, when the Labour council fell to the Lib Dems in the early noughties (IIRC) it was these areas where the Lib Dems made their gains. Later on, the
Greens moved in and stole these seats from the Lib Dems. The poorer council estates were also contested but the Greens have had little success here.

What I’ve generally encountered on the doorstep is a large proportion of dissatisfied left leaning voters, many voters have quite happily informed me that although they won’t be voting for us they’re also not going to be voting for the Tories, what I think we have in Norwich South is a large swing vote with a tendancy to prefer the left.

I think the Green’s big problem at the general election was overcoming the grip of the main parties. At the general election the Lib Dems made serious efforts to hammer home the point that they were the main opposition, “Green’s can’t win here” and bar graph’s a plenty.

On the whole, I think Norwich South is more an anomaly than a barometer. I don’t think the Green’s campaigning model can be rolled out across the country because of the effort required to sustain their levels of activism is too high, I get the feeling that in Norwich their campaigning machine is beginning to run out of steam.

Is this article for a real or a piece of self-parody? If the latter, then why not go further and make the case for Brighton Pavilion while you’re at it. But then perhaps the curious mentalities of this site make do start to make sense if it isn’t; if you people really do believe that Norwich South is indeed a ‘barometer for political change in England’, then… ah, yes. I think this is genuine. Which is unfortunate.

19. Ex-Labour member

Interesting longer term analysis but don’t you think the collapse in the Labour vote at the 2010 general election was much more to do with the winning Lib Dem candidate’s promise on tuition fees? This is a constituency with a huge number of – mostly UEA – students and they voted for Simon Wright believing that he, and other successful Lib Dem candidates, would keep their promises. So, that’s unlikely to happen again….

The decline of the Labour vote in Norwich South is undoubtedly due to the Charles Clarke effect but it also maps against the long term decline in the Labour vote in many areas nationally. There are a number of reasons for this, not least the party’s capitulation to Neoliberal economic and its cosying up to corporate financial interests under Blair/Brown, but also the whole panoply of disappointments and sellouts that has become the hallmark of “Labour in government”.

In the face of this, there are whole sections of the population looking for alternatives. Some on the left have dallied with the Lib Dems but I suspect this won’t survive the Coalition and, sadly, some Labour voters have been attracted by the authoritarian right.

The Greens offer a viable alternative to liberal minded ex-Labour supporters like myself. The example of Caroline Lucas as their first MP will, I hope, inspire others to consider the Greens whose policies represent a radical centre left alternative to Labour sellouts.

@ Matt Wardman
“So Brighton is key, and – judging by what they are doing to eg the Planning system (fruit and nut tree audits when you build a house, anyone?) – it could get strangled by red tape and overheads, and telling everyone what to do.”

If your going to argue the case, at least build your augments on fact not fiction. You could, for example, mention the Green led council’s recent adoption of a living wage policy for its lowest paid workers. See http://www.brightonhovegreens.org/localsites/bh/brighton-and-hove-green-councillors.html for a list of real achievements that any Labour party member should be proud of.

@ Leon Wolfson
“Despite their clear lunacy on issues like energy.”

I suppose you think that building loads of new nuclear is the answer. But, consider the recently published report by WWF (http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/climate_carbon_energy/energy_solutions/renewable_energy/sustainable_energy_report/). Hardly looks like “lunacy” to me but chimes perfectly with Green party energy policy.

Hobgoblin,

The decline of the Labour vote in Norwich South is undoubtedly due to the Charles Clarke effect but it also maps against the long term decline in the Labour vote in many areas nationally. There are a number of reasons for this, not least the party’s capitulation to Neoliberal economic and its cosying up to corporate financial interests under Blair/Brown, but also the whole panoply of disappointments and sellouts that has become the hallmark of “Labour in government”.

It could also be to do with the slow disintegration of communities which have voting Labour in their blood, through mobility and, as in Norwich South, through widespread realisation in places that their votes might be better used elsewhere.

In Birmingham it is notable that at the last local elections the seats Labour gained were all middle-class, liberal areas. They failed to win back more working-class seats they had lost to the Conservatives over the previous five years or so, which was a bit of a surprise. But it may tell you a lot about where Labour gains and has lost support – and may indicate a problem to come, as the middle-class liberal vote is a lot more fickle than the traditional block vote (and once a block vote cracks, it is difficult to reassemble).

In Birmingham it is notable that at the last local elections the seats Labour gained were all middle-class, liberal areas. They failed to win back more working-class seats they had lost to the Conservatives over the previous five years or so, which was a bit of a surprise.

Since when were Longbridge, Acock’s Green (nee Fox Hollies), Billesley and so on ‘middle-class, liberal areas’? I seem to remember some lying twat making the same false claim here a couple of months ago; was it you?


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Is Norwich South a barometer for political change in England? http://t.co/0stD5KVn

  2. Alexander MacDonald

    Is Norwich South a barometer for political change in England? http://t.co/0stD5KVn

  3. Jordan Millward

    Is Norwich South a barometer for political change in England? http://t.co/0stD5KVn

  4. Derek Bryant

    Is Norwich South a barometer for political change in England? http://t.co/0stD5KVn

  5. Tom Sutton

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  6. James Mackenzie

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  7. Paul Krishnamurty

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  8. Koh Miyaoi

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  9. criticalpraxis

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  10. matt jordan

    RT @libcon Is Norwich S
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