Dramas galore in modern elections

Ian CollinsLooking at East Anglia at the start of the Thatcherite 1980s, an independent observer might have thought an irreversible political journey was all but complete.Ian Collins

Ian Collins concludes his series on past elections in East Anglia with the dramatic shifts in our voting patterns since 1979.

Looking at East Anglia at the start of the Thatcherite 1980s, an independent observer might have thought an irreversible political journey was all but complete.

Once among the poorest - and cheapest - parts of the country, our green counties were changing. Although wages were still relatively low, a sense of comparative wellbeing was compounded by an influx of well-off retired folk to bring a new and unprecedented preference for the Conservatives.

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Then British politics seemed suddenly transformed as Social Democrats broke with left-lurching Labour to form a new Alliance with the Liberals.

This rupture had a singular impact in East Anglia since the only sitting Conservative MP to defect to the new grouping - and in the middle of a heated parliamentary debate - was North-West Norfolk's Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler.

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It appeared that the new centrist band might break the mould of British politics, as it briefly led in national opinion polls. But the 1983 general election in the wake of the Falklands War saw the Tories winning every Norfolk seat - with Mr Brocklebank-Fowler losing North-West Norfolk by 3,147 votes. Former minister David Ennals was ousted in Norwich North and Labour's John Garrett fell in Norwich South.

Mrs Thatcher's third electoral victory four years later saw the third-party challenge failing even more completely, as maverick Clement Freud was finally evicted in the Isle of Ely.

John Garrett managed to snatch back Norwich South, but otherwise Labour trailed in third in every East Anglian seat save for second places in Norwich North, Waveney, Yarmouth, Ipswich and Peterborough.

Political pundits might point out the fragility in national terms of this new Tory dominance, since the difference in the party's vote share between the disastrous general election of 1966 and the triumph of 1987 was under one per cent.

But the Conservatism of the formerly radical East Anglia now seemed assured.

The historic shift also gave an often overlooked region more political clout than at any point since the dominance of Norfolk squire Robert Walpole as our first and longest-serving Prime Minister in the early 18th century.

When Huntingdon MP John Major defied the polls and led the Tories to a fourth term in office in 1992, no fewer than three Norfolk MPs sat in his Cabinet - Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk), John MacGregor (South Norfolk) and Richard Ryder (Mid-Norfolk).

Our posse at the top table of power became known as the East Anglian Mafia.

But the national rejection of Conservatism in 1997 after 18 years in office was as marked in our region as anywhere else, if not more so. Huge Tory majorities of the 1980s were everywhere smashed.

In a very memorable televisual moment Gillian Shephard was seen watching the defeat of controversial colleague Michael Portillo on a monitor before returning to her count to learn that she had clung to South-West Norfolk by 2,464 votes.

As it turned out, that was a relatively good performance. Labour failed to take Mid Norfolk - traditionally the truest bluest part of the county - by just 1,336 votes, having won North West Norfolk by 1,339 votes.

Across the border the Conservatives were trounced in Waveney and had a fright in Bury St Edmunds where they finished only 368 votes ahead of Labour.

Norfolk emerged with four Labour MPs and whopping majorities in the two Norwich seats and in Yarmouth. And the Conservatives were also being chased hard by the Liberal Democrats (the merged grouping from most of the former SDP-Liberal Alliance) in North and South Norfolk.

The Blairite landslide of 1997 was almost exactly repeated in 2001 in UK terms, but the overall fact that the Conservatives again secured half of Norfolk's eight seats masked significant shifts within the county.

The Tories recaptured North-West Norfolk as Labour retreated across rural areas. But the titanic North Norfolk battle between Tory David Prior and Liberal Democrat challenger Norman Lamb, which edged in the defender's favour by 17 votes in the first count, was reversed in a recount.

After a pile of Lib Dem votes was found to have been wrongly allotted, Mr Lamb claimed the constituency by 483 votes. When the result was finally declared both winner and loser looked fit to drop.

The 2005 general election saw no seats changing hands in Norfolk - though Charles Clarke, by then our only standard-bearer in the Cabinet - had a scare from a Lib Dem surge in Norwich South. In North Norfolk Norman Lamb saw his majority leap to a rock-solid 10,606 votes.

And that - but for the Conservatives' gain of Norwich North in last summer's by-election after Ian Gibson resigned when dropped as a Labour candidate following questioned expenses - brings us up to date.

Given opinion polls during the current campaign East Anglia could now be set for some of the closest electoral tussles since the 1920s.

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