The 650 | 9th February 2015

Norwich South: Can the Greens stop Labour unseating another Lib Dem MP?

“You have so many types of conversations here. You’ve got a Tory here, a […]

Photo: Getty


“You have so many types of conversations here. You’ve got a Tory here, a Green there… the odd Ukip supporter,” Clive Lewis, Labour’s candidate for Norwich South, tells me during a door-knocking session in his constituency. “It’s a five way marginal.”

Walking down Colman Road, named after the Norwich-based mustard manufacturer, Lewis is off to challenge a retired employee of the same firm, who is considering supporting Ukip. Perhaps surprisingly, at the last general election the man voted Liberal Democrat.

Appealing to the thought of his children and grandchildren, Lewis begins a clearly practised argument about why Ukip is not the answer, and, indeed, why immigration is only rarely the problem. Not much reaction from the former Colman employee, apart from pointing out that he has no children or grandchildren, but he seems at least open to the idea of not voting Ukip.

The real challenge facing Labour in this corner of East Anglia is not Ukip, but the Greens.

However, for all Lewis’ keenness to confront Ukip voters – the team had been equipped with special anti-Ukip leaflets to hand out – the real challenge facing Labour in this corner of East Anglia is not Ukip, but the Green Party.

In last May’s city council elections the party won fifteen seats, not far shy of Labour’s twenty-one. It’s not inconceivable that the Green surge might overwhelm this once reasonably safe Labour seat.

Norwich South is one of the Greens’ three main targets in May, alongside Brighton Pavilion, which former party leader Caroline Lucas hopes to retain, and Bristol West (click through for May2015′s profiles; party leader Natalie Bennett is also standing in Holborn & St Pancras).

Lesley Grahame, the Green candidate for the seat and a part-time district nurse, is hopeful. When I join her door-knocking later that day in the “golden triangle” – Norwich’s term for the most student-dense part of town – she’ll very occasionally slip from telling voters about “if I become your MP” to “when”.

Grahame, the Greens’ candidate, has no time for Lewis’s suggestion that Norwich is a five-way marginal.

And Grahame has no time for Lewis’s suggestion that Norwich is a five-way marginal. “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” She points out that there is little danger of the Greens splitting the left vote and letting in a Tory: “The Conservatives haven’t won here since the eighties, and a lot has changed since then – the only elected Tories in this constituency are the ones in New Labour. It’s a two-way marginal, between us and Labour.”

But despite her enthusiasm for outdoing her Labour rival at the polls come May, Grahame’s view of the Labour Party is hardly an angry one: “There’s an argument to be had about whether you reform the Labour Party or replace it… And I’m not one to rejoice at a party’s demise. The Labour Party has done a lot of good things, just none of them very recent.”

The pair can at least agree on the improbability of the current Lib Dem MP, Simon Wright, retaining his seat. “He’s been particularly weak as an MP,” Lewis says. “He’s an excellent strategist; he was Norman Lamb’s advisor in 2005. But he’s too shy, and he’s too close to the inner circle of Lib Dems to rebel.

“For instance, he didn’t make it a matter of principle to vote against tuition fees” – a particularly fraught topic given the large number of University of East Anglia students in Norwich South – “he did so when he’d been given permission [not to].

“When there are [political] debates in Norwich, it’s normally me and Chloe Smith [Conservative MP for Norwich North] who are producing all the drama, and he’s sat there cowering.”

Clive Lewis, Labour’s candidate, on Simon Wright, the Lib Dem MP: “He’s sat there cowering.”

Grahame’s analysis of Wright’s chances in May is significantly more succinct: “He’s toast.”

But for all the local Green Party’s confidence and the resources dedicated to it by the national party, Chris Hanretty, a UEA academic behind one of the prediction models tracked on May2015, recently suggested Norwich South was 97 per cent likely to vote Labour.

In 2010 the Lib Dems dethroned Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary and Labour’s MP for Norwich South since 1997. The party had held the seat since 1987. And a poll by Lord Ashcroft over the summer gave the party a double-digit lead over the Greens.

“I’m more worried about complacency [than the Greens],” Lewis says, referring to Hanretty’s predictions. “I mean, in the multiverse there’s still three universes in a hundred where there’s a Green MP in Norwich, so anything could happen.

“I could be caught with my pants down behind a goat with Ed Miliband at the other end – well, hopefully that won’t happen.”

Alex Woolley writes for 50for15, a site profiling 50 of the UK’s key marginals ahead of May 2015.