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Labour plans strategy to take back seats in the East of England

PUBLISHED: 10:19 03 April 2012

Chris Williamson. Photo: Supplied

Chris Williamson. Photo: Supplied

Supplied

Red constituencies were not exactly sprawling across the East of England before 2010, but Labour at least had a decent foothold in the region.

The party held both Norwich seats, Great Yarmouth, Waveney and Ipswich along with a handful of other constituencies. After 2010 the map turned blue with yellow specks.

But with Labour now trying to settle into opposition, officials at its Victoria Street headquarters are focusing on how to regain territory lost two years ago.

It is a long fight starting with a campaign for local elections launched by Labour leader Ed Miliband yesterday. There is also the London mayoral election in May before the 2015 general election.

The work has become more pertinent after weaknesses in the party’s campaign machine were embarrassingly exposed in the Bradford by-election defeat last week.

To lead the fight-back a shadow cabinet member has been allocated to each region of the country to champion Labour’s cause. For the East it is shadow chancellor Ed Balls. The leadership has then tasked an MP to work with councillors, activists and Labour members to ensure the party has a clear strategy and targets. Labour MP Chris Williamson will do the job in the East.

He said: “There are a number of parliamentary seats in the East of England that we’re looking to target and hopefully can secure enough support to win.

“Obviously you want to win them all but we are realists – but I do think there’s clear scope for us to win seats in Norwich, particularly because of the Liberal Democrats’ betrayal of everything they believe in.”

Williamson joined the party in 1976, became a councillor in 1991 going on to lead Derby City Council before being elected to represent Derby North in the 2010 general election. He quickly became a shadow minister.

He has been a bricklayer, a social worker and a welfare rights officer. He is a vegan and an active member of the League Against Cruel Sports.

He said: “We just need to gain confidence in these areas and show we’re a party that can stand up for local people – all of the really progressive social change that’s been brought in has been brought in by Labour.

“And if you look at Ed Miliband’s fight to get a living wage, rather than just a minimum wage, that’s something that will play well with a lot of people in the Eastern region.”

The shadow minister campaigned in the East during the last local elections and claims the party saw an increase in support, while admitting it “didn’t win as many seats as we would have liked”.

He explained: “The first stage of taking roots in an area is making sure we contest every council seat and give people the chance to vote Labour at every opportunity.

“Around the country we contest around 65pc of the council seats and we have that kind of coverage in the Eastern region, so we’ll be looking to increase that.”

In early March Labour was rarely ahead by more than five points in the polls. Occasionally the Conservatives edged in front, incredible considering the depth of coalition spending cuts.

But after a chaotic budget and a torrent of bad publicity for the government things flipped. At one point last week Labour was 10 points ahead.

Then the defeat to George Galloway in Bradford West happened. It is unclear just how far factors that played a part in that by-election will travel elsewhere, but Williamson is confident Labour is well positioned to fight the coalition.

“Labour is on the up, there is a significant increase in membership and there is an appetite for an alternative,” he said. “We have a positive message about improving public services and ensuring we take measures to invest in the economy.

“Those public sector workers who have lost their jobs in places like Norwich and Ipswich were people that spent their wages in local shops and businesses, their wages would have flowed through to the private sector.”

The MP’s claim that the economy is in a “downward spiral” will grate on ministers faced with a prediction from the OECD that Britain would officially return to recession.

One person with a good insight into our economic challenges is treasury minister Chloe Smith, whose Norwich North constituency Williamson has an eye on.

He said: “In Norwich North we need someone that can reach out to local people as a local champion, articulate their concerns.

“Anyone, especially like Chloe Smith at the Treasury, that has taken up additional responsibilities, then inevitably that is bound to have an impact on the time they can spend dealing with people in the constituency.”

But Labour’s top target in Norfolk is undoubtedly the Norwich South seat of Lib Dem MP Simon Wright, won from Labour grandee Charles Clarke with a majority of just 310 votes in 2010. Williamson accused the Lib Dems of abandoning their principles to “the lure” of being in government and claimed Lib Dem voters would be uncomfortable with NHS and welfare reform.

He said: “As for Simon Wright, well, his party has sold out on its principles and everything he stood on as a candidate. Look what it did on tuition fees, look what it’s doing on the NHS. People will feel disappointed and they will feel duped by his candidacy because he was elected on a false promise. He deserves to be punished by the electorate as do all Lib Dem MPs.”

They are tough words. The next three years will tell if they are anything more.

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