The View from East Anglia
East Anglia is a part of the country that the Conservatives have increasingly come to dominate over the past 50 years. For many years after the war, Labour provided a real challenge to the Conservatives in this region, both in rural constituencies, like North, South, and South West Norfolk, Eye, and Maldon, and in urban areas like Norwich, Ipswich, and much of South Essex, with its new towns.
Labourâ€™s (and pre-war, the Liberalsâ€™) rural strength was based on the agricultural workersâ€™ unions. British agricultural areas all suffered from cheap imports of food, from the 1870s to the 1940s, and this was particularly acute in East Anglia. Unusually, this prompted a sharp shift to the left among farm workers in the region. At the same time, strong support among urban working class voters helped Labour in the towns, particularly in South Essex.
Yet, those props of Labour support have now largely disappeared. Far fewer people work on the land now, and those who do are not particularly Labour in their sympathies, while the region as a whole has seen its economy boom in the past 50 years, bringing in immigrants from the rest of the country, with new political sympathies.
At the same time, working class Southern voters are nothing like as Labour in their sympathies as they were 50 years ago. Thus, a Conservative lead of about 6% over Labour, across Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire (as it is now) and Essex (on its current boundaries) ** in 1955, when the Conservatives won, had become a Conservative lead of 14% by 2005, when Labour won. On the new boundaries, the Conservatives would have won 30 seats, in 2005, Labour 8, and the Liberal Democrats, 3. Here, as elsewhere, the Conservatives benefit from the boundary changes.
The following seats can be regarded as safe for the Conservatives: in Essex, Saffron Walden, Rochford and Southend East, Epping Forest, Southend West, North Essex and Harwich (formerly North Essex), Brentwood & Ongar, Castle Point, Chelmsford, Rayleigh and Wickford, Maldon, and Basildon & Billericay (formerly Billericay).
In addition, Braintree, and Clacton (formerly Harwich), which were both Conservative gains in 2005, have been converted into safe seats by the Boundary Commission. In addition, a new Conservative safe seat is created at Witham. In Cambridgeshire, North East, North West, South East, South, Peterborough, and Huntingdon. In Norfolk, Mid, North West, South, and South West, while a new safe Conservative seat is created at Broadland. And in Suffolk, Coastal, Central and Ipswich North, South, West, and Bury St. Edmunds.
For the Liberal Democrats, Cambridge, which they gained spectacularly in 2005, should be retained easily. North Norfolk, retained equally spectacularly, likewise. Colchester will be harder to defend, but with a majority 6,000 is one of their less vulnerable Tory targets, particularly as there is still a fair-sized Labour vote to squeeze.
Labourâ€™s position is much tougher. Only two of their seats, Thurrock, and Norfolk North (where boundary changes assist them) can now be regarded as truly safe.
In Essex, neither Harlow, with a Labour majority of 97, nor South Basildon and East Thurrock (formerly Basildon), with a majority of about 1,500, look like bellwether seats any more. Labour could lose the first, and still retain its overall majority, and lose the second, and remain the largest party easily. In Great Yarmouth, the party has a lead of 3,000, over the Conservatives, and if this falls, the parties are likely to be roughly even in terms of seats. Further up the scale are the classic marginals of Ipswich (majority 5,000), and Waveney (majority 6,000). If these fall, the Conservatives will probably just about have attained an overall majority in the Commons.
The Liberal Democratsâ€™ one hope of a gain is in Norfolk South, where Charles Clarke has a lead of only 3,000. It has a large population of students and academics, and a sizeable Conservative vote left to squeeze, making it a classic Liberal Democrat target but Clarke may be saved by the strength of the Green Party in the constituency, who tend to pick up votes that would otherwise go to the Liberal Democrats.
**One canâ€™t give a precise figure as in 1955, some constituencies crossed the boundary of what is now Greater London and Essex.
Sean Fear writes a weekly slot on Politicalbetting