Two political earthquakes that shook the region

Ian CollinsIn the latest of his looks at past general elections as they played out in East Anglia, Ian Collins ponders the political earthquakes of 1945 and 1979 and how our region was radically altered by and between them.Ian Collins

In the latest of his looks at past general elections as they played out in East Anglia, Ian Collins ponders the political earthquakes of 1945 and 1979 and how our region was radically altered by and between them.

When Winston Churchill was summarily pitched from power, in the finest hour of his World War Two triumph, Norfolk was even more decisively ungrateful than the rest of the country.

The 1945 Labour landslide saw the party claiming every seat in the county bar one.


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In a sense our national politics had been frozen by ongoing crises since 1929, with Tory and Liberal supporters of conservative coalition government being comfortably returned in the general elections of 1931 and 1935 and Labour diehards crushingly defeated.

But after all the struggles and sacrifices through slump and war, East Anglian voters were returning to their radical roots - and an anti-Tory majority forged by Nonconformist and farm-labouring traditions. Finally parting company with the fractured Liberals, they were plumping overwhelmingly for Labour.

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National Liberal Frank Medlicott was returned in Central Norfolk but the party title should not mislead us. He took the same whip as the Conservatives' Isle of Ely victor who displaced the Liberal multi-millionaire James de Rothschild.

The dominant party in East Anglia as recently as the early 1920s was now reduced to a single MP - Edgar Granville in Eye. Like many old-style liberal radicals he then saw the way the political tide was turning and defected to Labour - narrowly failing to hold his old seat under his new colours against an advancing blue sea.

South Norfolk was taken by the Tories in 1950 and during that decade of consensual politics, gratitude for the welfare state and steady economic growth - with the end of rationing and with electricity reaching rural outposts for the first time - a new conservatism steadily spread elsewhere. Lowestoft fell to Conservative Jim Prior in 1959.

Winston Churchill's return to power in 1951 - allowing the Tories to claim credit for the improving economic conditions that followed - was in its way as extraordinary as his defeat in 1945.

For, after six years in office, Clement Attlee's Labour Party not only won the popular vote in that fiercely-fought poll but mustered more support than any party had previously managed. But our electoral system still ruled against them.

South-West Norfolk - the only Tory seat in Norfolk back in 1923 - saw cliff-hanging elections throughout the 1950s which, as so often in East Anglia, ran against the national trend. Labour won it in 1955 and then held on by a whisker in a by-election and a general election until Tory Paul Hawkins finally triumphed (again against the UK pattern) in 1964.

The drift from the land, followed by an influx of elderly migrants, would aid a growing regional bias towards the Conservatives.

Harold Wilson's sweeping victory in the 1966 General Election, when the PM at least believed that Socialism was being forged in the white heat of technological revolution, saw the largely urban centres of King's Lynn, Yarmouth and Norwich lining up for Labour but in the countryside the Tories were quietly gaining ground.

All became clear with the surprise outcome of the 1970 general election, with Edward Heath claiming a firm mandate after a late swing which went entirely undetected. Labour was ousted in Yarmouth, King's Lynn and Norwich South.

The Tory majority in South Norfolk surged from a mere 119 votes in 1966 to a comfortable 5,442. In South-West Norfolk the winning margin leapt from 775 to 5,648.

But for Labour the writing was really on the farmyard wall with the loss of North Norfolk. In this largely-rural seat veteran Bert Hazell, president of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, was finally beaten by farmer Ralph Howell.

Across the county only urban Norwich North defied the Conservative tide.

When Harold Wilson returned to Downing Street, in 1974, East Anglia gave him only Ipswich, Norwich North and South - with Peterborough (a seat lost by margins of three and 22 votes after record recounts at earlier elections) being added in the second General Election of that year.

Down to just six seats nation-wide in 1970, the Liberals had begun one of their many returns from the brink of oblivion two years later with the first of a series of spectacular by-election victories.

In 1973 the Isle of Ely by-election saw gourmet broadcaster Clement Freud drawing on old local Liberal traditions and new celebrity to capture the Fenland seat. Within little more than a decade he would hold the constituency at four general elections.

But the Tory landslide that gave Britain its first female Prime Minister, in 1979, all but swept the eastern counties. Cue a political revolution.

In the general election of 1983, in the wake of the Falklands War and the leftist policies of Labour under Michael Foot, all eight Norfolk seats returned Conservative MPs for the very first time.

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