When every East Anglian seat was a marginal

Ian CollinsAs opinion polls show a national three-way split and many constituencies too close to call, Ian Collins looks back to a heady pre-war era when every East Anglian seat was a marginal.Ian Collins

As opinion polls show a national three-way split and many constituencies too close to call, Ian Collins looks back to a heady pre-war era when every East Anglian seat was a marginal.

Norfolk's claim to "do different" has been proved at many a General Election - with East Anglian voting patterns often going against national trends.

Of course, we have always been politically divided within the eastern counties, doing differently even among ourselves.

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But until as late as 1970 Nonconformist and farm-labouring traditions - and the fact that our recessed rural region contained some of the poorest parts of Britain - ensured at least a small left-of-centre majority.

At first the Liberals were favoured. Then it was Labour. Still, for decades election campaigns were fiercely fought and outcomes uncertain.

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We must go back to the 1920s - and the last decade (before this one?) when Labour, Conservatives and Liberals could each talk seriously of forming the Government - to find what may have been the heyday of East Anglian electioneering.

In that tumultuous decade almost every East Anglian seat was a marginal and most Norfolk seats changed hands at one election or another. Several switched several times.

In the watershed poll of 1929 the Conservatives were defending a strict monetary policy - including a return to the gold standard, put through by Chancellor Winston Churchill - which had sent prices tumbling. Under PM Stanley Baldwin the Tory Govenment had also weathered the General Strike.

Labour, led by Ramsay MacDonald, attacked Tory spending on defence and the cruel impact of high unemployment. Some 1.1m people, or 10pc of the workforce, were jobless and enduring conditions of poverty almost unimaginable today.

Last in power in 1922, the fractured Liberals were now reunited under David Lloyd George after the death of Herbert Asquith. The party agreed that unemployment and disarmament were the main election issues, and made the running for much of the campaign.

With John Maynard Keynes their chief economic theorist, the Liberals proposed a bold plan aimed at returning the country to full employment through borrowing to fund a massive programme of public works. Although ultimately rejected here it would inspire the New Deal which rescued America from recession.

East Anglia remained relatively remote, with local issues and personalities retaining key importance and public meetings drawing big crowds - including large numbers of women who were now finally enfranchised on the same terms as men.

But what East Anglian patriots might regard as the rot of national uniformity was about to set in.

Wireless reception had reached many households and the BBC transmitted the first election broadcasts. The isolated eastern counties would succumb to the conforming tide later than most.

In Norfolk the Tories had won only the South-West division in the poll of 1923, but in the snap election a year later they had captured King's Lynn, Yarmouth and East Norfolk from the Liberals and one of the two Norwich seats from Labour. The Liberals had off-set their county-wide decline by taking the second Labour seat in the city.

But in 1929 - with turnout topping a whopping 80pc in most areas - the Liberals took back Yarmouth and East Norfolk.

Ousting sitting Tory Capt J.G. Fairfax, Norwich voters chose one Liberal and one Labour MP. Labour's Dorothea Jewson - a pioneering local doctor who, in 1923, had been one of the first women to sit in the House of Commons - was again rebuffed.

Elsewhere Labour's Noel Buxton held North Norfolk and the party's thrice-beaten candidate, farmer WB Taylor, finally won South-West Norfolk.

Only South Norfolk and King's Lynn returned Conservative members, with Lord Fermoy pushing up his majority in the latter seat.

Over the border, the Tories held Lowestoft, but Eye and the Isle of Ely fell to Liberals Edgar Granville and James de Rothschild respectively.

Nationally a quirk in the electoral system benefited Labour. The Socialists polled 8.3m votes and won 288 seats; the Conservatives, with 260,000 more votes, got 255 MPs; and the Liberals, with 5.2m votes, got just 58 (chiefly in East Anglia and the Celtic fringe).

The Liberals put in a minority Labour Government as they had done in 1923. But soon Wall Street had crashed and unemployment had trebled, and a national anti-Socialist coalition was formed to cope with the crisis.

In the 1931 and 1935 elections all the region's coalition members were comfortably returned. Labour defenders were crushingly displaced and then again rejected.

When normal voting patterns resumed in 1945, support had altered dramatically. East Anglia was part of a pro-Labour national landslide which shocked the world by pitching war leader Winston Churchill out of office.

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