More by-election fun in Norwich North

More by-election fun in Norwich North

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Now for some betting action…

I spent all of yesterday with Iain Dale and Hopi Sen on the PLAY Talk Radio show covering the local election results, the PM’s press conference, the mother of all reshuffles, and general political debates of the day. By my reckoning we had between 4 and 6 months’ news yesterday, but the 9-and-a-half hour show was topped with a cherry: a competitive by-election sparked by the resignation of Labour MP Dr Ian Gibson in Norwich North. I could almost hear you all cheering as soon as the news was announced.

The results from 2005 gave Gibson a 5,459 (11.6%) majority – with Labour (44.9%), Conservative (33.2%), LibDem (16.2%), Green (2.7%), UKIP (2.4%), and Independent Bill Holden (0.7%).

The constituency is due for boundary changes at the next General Election which will remove the wards of Drayton and Taverham (increasing Labour’s notional majority). However, the by-election will be fought on the old boundaries, helping the Conservatives.

So what about candidates? I should declare something of an interest: the Conservative PPC, Chloe Smith, is a friend of mine from university, and irrespective of politics (we disagree about plenty) I think she is a formidable candidate who would make an excellent MP. Now that Dr Gibson has announced he will not be running as an Independent (the Labour Party’s Star Chamber barred him from being chosen for their nomination last week), most of us assumed that Stephen Morphew (Labour Leader of Norwich City Council) would take the nomination – however, he has recently ruled himself out of such a bid.

The Liberal Democrats had not chosen a PPC for this seat, and any chosen PPC would have had to reapply for the by-election anyway. Some rumours are already circulating that Nick Starling (aka Norfolk Blogger) might make use of the fact that he is both on the approved candidates’ list and lives in the constituency.

Glen Tingle is the expected candidate for UKIP, and Independent Bill Holden will surely run, adding another to the Independent candidacy of Craig Murray (former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, who ran against Jack Straw in Blackburn in 2005, winning 5% with 2,082 votes).

The Greens are expected to put up a significant challenge here – other than Oxford and Brighton, this is the city most likely to return a Green MP. They are currently the second largest group on the City Council with 13 Councillors (behind Labour with 15, but well ahead of the LDs’ 6 and the Conservatives’ 5). However, when you examine the wards in play in the Northern constituency (as opposed to those in Charles Clarke’s constituency of Norwich South), the Greens appear to be concentrated around the University and other southern wards. They doubled their Westminster vote in Norwich South last time, but only increased by about 1% in the northern constituency in 2005.

As with any by-election, it is important to know the local issues that could lead to an unfaithful adherence to (and occasionally an abrogation of) the national expectations. Norwich seems to this outsider to be dominated by Housing and the new proposed status as a Unitary Authority. The former saw a national scandal, whereby the Council had evicted residents from LA-owned properties, only to see the Council’s own housing officers move in at a drastically-reduced rent.

The second local issue is a better wedge – Norwich is the largest UK city to not have unitary authority status. Such a bid for UA status is supported by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens, but opposed by the remaining District Councils (such as Broadlands), PCTs, Police and Probation services and the majority of the surrounding 180 Parish Councils. If the Conservatives actively oppose the bid, this could be the key issue in this by-election.

The role of Ian Gibson himself in this is fascinating. In resigning from Parliament, he has forfeited the Golden Parachute that MPs get if they retire or lose at a General Election. His move has been seen as honourable (and all I hear about the man suggests that, expenses aside, he is), but do not miss the deliberate politicking that this highly-intelligent MP has employed. He is punishing Labour for a perhaps-harsh barring of his renomination, giving them a difficult by-election that could further hurt Gordon Brown. He has ruled out standing as an Independent, forcing Labour to contest. He is no longer attackable by his expected opponents over expenses, but can employ his considerable personal support in the constituency for the Labour candidate at his discretion. The extent to which he is a benign or mischievous element in this by-election could make all the difference.

Timing will be key. Three months is allowed for moving the writ, which would take us into Party Conference Season in the Autumn – this is to be avoided. If there is to be a Labour recovery, all potential pitfalls (and this is surely one of them) should have been passed. The summer holiday and Parliamentary recess take out much of the Summer, so I would suggest that it would be best for Labour to move the writ quickly, and to hold the election in perhaps as little as four to five weeks. Wait any longer, and the threat of a bloodied nose will simply hang over attempts to relaunch the party’s momentum under a new Cabinet.

I won’t be betting significant sums on this – my judgement is liable to be clouded by knowing one of the candidate’s personally, and I have a rotten record in English by-elections – but I cannot help but suspect that when the bookies price this one up, that the Conservatives will be narrowly odds-on to win this seat. The question is whether this added pressure will have any significance beyond making Gordon Brown feel even more uncomfortable – which after all, is perhaps the reason that Dr Gibson precipitated it in the first place.


From Robert: we’ve been having some bizarre issues with the “wrong” site coming up. I’ve reset the DNS settings at, and hopefully that will solve the issue. I am planning a fairly major upgrade in the next couple of weeks – to twin load balanced servers – that will hopefully mitigate a lot of the issues we’ve had, as well as give us an approximately 3-fold increase in capacity. And I guess if this fund management lark doesn’t work out, I can always look for a career in Linux systems administration…

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