Region is a key battleground for Labour in the next election

Ed Balls visits Norwich. With him is Clive Lewis. Picture: Denise Bradley

Ed Balls visits Norwich. With him is Clive Lewis. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2012

A recent report by New Labour pressure group Progress suggests the party will have to defy history to gain a majority at the next election. It cites seats in this region as key battlegrounds in the fight. Political Editor Annabelle Dickson reports

It seems at times that the UK Independence Party has become the official opposition.

As the Tories grapple with gay marriage and EU referendum arguments amid a surge in UKIP voters in the local elections, the official opposition Labour has been somewhat overlooked.

Like the coalition parties, the local election results and poll readings – in so far as you can pay attention to them – have been no cause for Labour members to cartwheel through the corridors of Westminster in celebration.

Publicly, most in the Labour Party have been hailing its performance in the local elections a victory, but in some quarters there is an acknowledgement that there is a mountain to climb if Labour is going to win a majority at the next election.

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A recent report for the New Labour pressure group Progress has acknowledged that the party will have to defy history if it is to win the next general election.

According to the author of Majority Rules, Peter Kellner: 'If Miliband does head a majority government after 2015, Labour's victory will be the first of its kind in modern times.'

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A new government has only once been thrown out at the following election and that was Conservative Edward Heath, who 'effectively threw power away' in February 1974.

And according to the report calculations, and a recent list of target seats for the party – this region will be key to victory.

Liberal Democrat Simon Wright's Norwich South seat is top of the hit list of 14 Lib Dem vs Labour marginal seats, while Waveney and Norwich North feature in the top 60 of the Tory-Labour marginals.

And the recent local election in Great Yarmouth – where UKIP made great strides winning seats – could split the right-wing vote, helping Labour's prospective candidate Lara Norris in her fight for a seat in Westminster.

Labour candidate for Norwich South Clive Lewis is cautious in talking about Labour's chances in the next election, emphasising that he never takes anything for granted.

He said: 'Even though I am sixth in the overall target list, you can never be complacent saying you are definitely going to win. Complacency will lead to downfall. It will be an extremely hard-fought campaign in a four-way marginal.' But he said he hopes Mr Wright's voting record in loyalty to the coalition will work in his favour, with issues like the U-turn on tuition fees (which Mr Wright did vote against) turning people away from the Lib Dems.

Norwich North prospective Labour candidate Jessica Asato accepted that it would be a 'huge, huge achievement' for Labour to win back government after one term of opposition, but said it was a different time in history.

'We do have a different situation with the coalition and UKIP performing strongly.

'It is up for grabs. It is Labour which has the strongest narrative about how to get out of this decline. Austerity isn't working.'

She said she thought that as the party went through its policy review the case for Labour would become stronger.

But Mr Kellner's report is cautionary about how easy it would be to unseat an incumbent after just one term, suggesting MPs in position had a bonus generally of 1,000-2,000 votes.

He said: 'When sitting MPs are ousted, their bonus disappears and the new MPs have the chance to establish themselves locally. The decline in strong party loyalties in recent decades has helped this process. As parties matter less to voters, personal performance matters more. New MPs are able to attract approval for the way they serve their communities.'

He added that in virtually all of Labour's target seats, Conservatives will be fighting as first-time incumbents – including in Waveney and Great Yarmouth where Peter Aldous and Brandon Lewis are both serving their first term, but also Norwich North where Conservative minister Chloe Smith took the seat from Ian Gibson in a by-election just before the general election.

But Miss Asato said that she was trying to do as much as she could herself.

'Clearly I am not going to be as involved as much as a local MP as I am not invited to as much, but you can create opportunities for yourself by going out on the doorstep more.'

The Majority Rules report offers advice to the party in trying to win the next election from holding on to the great majority of the voters who have switched from the Liberal Democrats since 2010 to finding more successful ways of ensuring that people actually turn out to vote. And the final piece of advice Mr Kellner gives is that Labour leader Ed Miliband must convince many more voters that he would be a competent prime minister who is able to take tough decisions.

Mr Lewis said that the progressive mindset in Norwich South boded well for Ed Miliband to be 'quite radical in his politics.'

He said: 'This piece of work is a very machine side of politics, but that should always be there as a guide. He said that the party needed to emphasise conviction politics like Margaret Thatcher – although he didn't agree with most of her policies.

He said: 'A lot of people like strong leadership and bold visions. I think there is room for that within the Labour Party. It needs to offer bold visions. I do not believe that Thatcher developed policies from focus groups. There are so many inequalities – tax evasion, the envionrment and where we are heading with that doesn't seem to be being talked about. There is a hunger for conviction politics to show that we are going to change politics for the better.'

Of course it is still two years from a general election and as Mr Kellner said: 'None of these calculations are set in stone.' He said that the new Tory MPs may not enjoy a first-time bonus and a lack of a 20pc-plus poll lead will not hold Labour back, but Labour would be unwise to rely on any, let alone all, of these things happening of their own accord.

He also pointed to the possibility that Mr Miliband might do in 2015 what Cameron did in 2010, and win enough support to become prime minister, but not enough to govern alone and unencumbered.

His final warning – the Labour Party 'should give careful thought to what it would do should it end up as the largest party but short of an overall majority.'

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