COUNTDOWN TO NORWICH NORTH BY-ELECTION - 2 DAYS
The Greens' Rupert Read recommends this article from Roy Liddle in the Times, and it is not difficult to see why.
Feel that - it’s voter rumble building up in Norwich
The first by-election since the expenses scandal threatens seismic change
IT is a close, clammy, breezeless night in Norwich; the heavy blue drapes lie unperturbed around the opened windows in a frowsy community hall tucked away in one of the city’s neat and colourless 1920s suburbs.
The speaker tells us there could be a revolution in Norwich, a “political earthquake” to cast off the world order. A vote for the Green party would put the city on the map.
There are 26 of us, including me and Chris, the photographer, and at least five Green party organisers. It feels vaguely reminiscent of far-left meetings in the mid-1970s, a few devout souls, two certifiable maniacs, a nice old lady who has wandered in by mistake because she thought that it was something to do with gardening.
A political earthquake? You put your ear to the ground and there is not much of a rumbling to be heard. And yet . . .
The Norwich North by-election this week, the first Westminster parliamentary contest since the MPs’ expenses scandal, is perceived (by the pundits, by the bookies, by most of the candidates) to be a four-way fight between Labour, the incumbents, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party, with the Tories established as fairly clear favourites.
This in itself is a small earthquake — that the Greens should be in with even the slightest chance of winning is remarkable: in 2005 they notched up nearly 3% here. But they did well during the Euro elections, have a raft of respected councillors in city hall and, in Rupert Read, a candidate the main parties would kill for: youthful, good-looking, self-deprecating and charismatic — a lecturer in philosophy at the University of East Anglia.
He has an easy manner that goes down well with the electorate and the Greens have that other important thing on their side: circumstance. Many of the voters here are still sick to death of all that expenses business, the moats and the flipping, and still of a mind for revenge on the three Westminster parties. And then there is the baleful clanking of chains in the middle distance, another factor to complicate proceedings . . . Banquo’s Ghost.
“Ian has said privately that he supports me. He told Ben Bradshaw,” says the Labour candidate, Chris Ostrowski, who has been desperately trying, these past few weeks, to be Banquo’s Ghost’s Best Mate.
“Ian” is the former MP, Dr Ian Gibson, rightly revered as a first-rate constituency politician and an independently minded voice of conscience on the diminished Labour left.
He was kicked out by a committee appointed by Gordon Brown for having sold a flat — upon which he had claimed parliamentary expenses — to his daughter at a reduced price. It is not lost upon the electorate here that his supposed crimes are far less than those committed by some existing members of the cabinet; that he was penalised primarily for his oppositionism.
It was touch and go as to whether he would stand as an independent, having resigned his seat in disgust; in the end, he decided not to. But a public endorsement of the beleaguered Ostrowski has not been forthcoming.
Ostrowski is in the hideous position of having to pay obeisance to the brilliance of Gibson while not dissing his leader too much for having defenestrated him. It is an excruciating and, you have to say, untenable position. “I wish that this by-election had not happened,” Ostrowski told me last week — and you suspect that he might well be telling the truth.
In any other circumstances, he would be a fine candidate: derided as a Labour apparatchik by his opponents and, worse, a Londoner, he may indeed be both of these things, but he has a laconic wit and a certain chutzpah.
Still in his twenties, he is whippet-thin and affable, constantly chaperoned by his ubiquitously Scottish Labour minder, Kenny Young. Ostrowski is a product manager and, reputedly, a fairly large percentage of his clientele can be found among those whom he wishes to make colleagues in the House of Commons: he works for John Lewis. Keep those sofas comin’, boy.
I tried to help out Ostrowski by getting him a personal endorsement from Gibson, but I failed: no calls were returned, and I rang him about 14 times, leaving messages expressing unreserved adoration. I even left him a final text message saying: “Do u think pple should vote Labour nex week, doc?” But no reply was forthcoming, not even a “lol”.
In the only poll to be conducted in the constituency, a few weeks back, Labour was running in second place behind the Tories. It will be a minor miracle if Ostrowski remains there — although Norwich North could do far worse than put this carpetbagger in the Commons.
Last Thursday morning, in the starved gloom of a Victorian chapel, I bump into Theresa May, the shadow work and pensions secretary, who is up to support the frontrunner, Chloe Smith, a management consultant. Most of the top Tories are dropping in — George Osborne last Wednesday, David Cameron very soon: this seat is theirs to win. Some charismatic Labour people have clambered onto the train at Liverpool Street, too, mind. Vernon Coaker, for example. But no Brown, no Mandelson, no Miliband. Too busy, you know how it is; hell, things happening every day.
Smith is slightly robotic, in the manner of someone who knows that the election is hers to lose and is thus determined not to put a foot wrong. She does not flinch when I ask her a stupid question about whether people throw rotten fruit at her for being both a management consultant and a Tory, two wholly unnecessary evils in our world; there is a blink of eyelids (that’s how they breathe — remember Men in Black?) and a fluent exposition of Conservative party policy.
May claims that voters think the Tories have dealt with the expenses issue better than Labour; they’re hearing this on the doorstep every day. Smith has about her the air of someone who knows they are going to win, right down to refusing to take part in a hustings on local TV with the other candidates. Prior engagements, she says.
Beyond this bunch there are the usual convocation of monomaniacs, racists and mirthless lunatics crowded together on the ballot paper. And, as a curiosity, Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, who feels himself to be cloaked in Martin Bell’s shining white armour and wishes to clean up the political system.
It was Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner and a new environmental convert, telling us that we could expect a political earthquake.
I wonder if this by-election will have the same dramatic effect as the one in which he stood, and that he lost, as a Labour candidate in Bermondsey, south London, 26 years ago? It could do, if the Greens win. In a sense, Bermondsey was more tumultuous than Margaret Thatcher’s general election victory that preceded it. If Labour loses Bermondsey, you thought at the time, it can lose anything and everything — and then the 1983 general election came along to prove the point.
But Tatchell lost after a homophobic campaign against him by the Liberal party and Simon Hughes was elected. Oh, the irony — it took Hughes a quarter of a century to apologise to Tatchell for the vile campaign and, at the same time, to admit that he was bisexual.
What a strange and rather wonderful symmetry if, after this admission, Tatchell’s new party won in Norwich, with equally tumultuous effect.