Sunday, May 09, 2010

From North Norfolk to Westmorland & Lonsdale

As most of you know, at the last election I stood in North Norfolk and experienced one of the biggest swings away from the Conservatives - 8.6%. The LibDem majority increased from 483 to 10,606. As soon as the result was announced I knew I would get a whole heap of the brown stuff poured over me from people who knew nothing about the seat or what had happened. And so it came to pass. It mattered not that I ran a textbook campaign, spent huge amounts of money and time on it. It mattered not that Robert Waller, the author of the Almanac of British Politics wrote...

This [result] was largely predictable without any reference to Mr Dale's own talents and performance. It was not his fault
LibDem campaigns chief Lord Rennard warned me before I was selected...

Don't go for this seat. It will have a 10,000 majority.

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure I did things wrong. I know I did. But the lesson to draw from this was not that I was the wrong candidate. Anyone would have been the wrong candidate. No, the lesson was not to lose the seat in the first place to a LibDem who comes across as a nice guy, proves to be an excellent constituency MP and finds it easy to get Conservatives to vote for him by appearing as a pseudo-Conservative.

So, as you can imagine I was interested to see how the Conservatives fared in North Norfolk at this election. Trevor Ivory fought hard in the redrawn seat (it lost 14,000 voters in the Fakenham area). I don't mind admitting, if he had dramatically reduced the LibDem majority it would certainly have been a blow to the Dale ego and raised a number of questions. But Trevor actually got a worse result than me. Norman Lamb's majority increased to 11,626 )from a notional one of 8,575, and the Tory share of the vote dropped by another 3.9%.

Perhaps this result will put to rest many myths, not least the one that I lost because I dance on the other side of the ballroom.

But there is now further evidence of what I assert - namely that if you lose to a popular, pseudo Conservative, good constituency MP who is a LibDem in a rural area you might struggle to win the seat back. And it comes from the seat of Westmorland & Lonsdale. At the last election, Tim Collins lost it to the LibDem Tim Farron by 836 votes. The vote shares (46-44) were almost identical to the ones in North Norfolk when David Prior lost the seat in 2001.

In both cases the LibDems squeezed the Labour vote till it squeaked. In North Norfolk in 1997 it was 25%. On Thursday it was reduced to a rump of 5.8%. In Westmorland in 1997 the Labour vote was 20%. Last Thursday it was 2.2%! And what happened to Tim Farron's majority on Thursday? It went up to 12,264 and he got a 60% share of the vote. Yes, there were problems for the Tories in that they lost a candidate and had to reselect only a few months ago, but that cannot explain that sort of jump. What happened in Westmorland was an exact repeat of what happened in North Norfolk.

So, apart from the obvious attempt at self justification, why have I written this? I've written it as a warning to any other rural Tory seat which is seeing a trend over the last couple of elections of the LibDems managing to squeeze the Labour vote. If you're not careful, you could lose the seat next time, and it could be decades before you get it back. And that will only be when the sitting LibDem retires.

North Norfolk and Westmorland can return to the Tory fold. But I suspect it will only happen when Norman Lamb and Tim Farron decide to retire*. And neither of them are exactly ancient.

Be warned.

* Witness what happened in Harrogate & Knaresborough. Phil Willis won it for the LDs in 1997, built up a hughe majority. He retired at this election and the Conservatives won it back.


DespairingLiberal said...

It is part of the New Reality that voters are very, very aware of their tactical position and won't be afraid to use it. There were quite a few constituencies where that was very much in evidence on the 6th. Billy Bragg was on the Beeb this morning arguing in favour of PR - he must be feeling pretty pleased with a campaign he largely started back in the 80s having had such an effect. The electorate just aren't as clueless as they used to be.

I was quite surprised Lembit Opik lost but on reflection I shouldn't have been - that was another case of clued-up voters taking out the axe, as was Jacqui Smith.

jabezz65 said...

Off topic ....fuming...have just abandoned Marr's morning farce....newspaper review masquerading as serious discussion of a very serious situation...balanced it definitely isn't!

Put this sort of biased TV garbage together with,for example, 'fair vote' protest groups - which a very much not as innocent as many might take them to be - and the like, and its easy to see that the black arts are being deployed to undermine any prospect that the silent sensible majority's views (and votes)will be reflected in how we are governed!!

PS Iain perhaps the seeds of a new thread here??

MacBeth said...

Hi Iain, I've read your blog for many months now and enjoy it thoroughly. I have to say I think what is happening in these seats happened up here in North East Scotland in the 80s & 90s. Gordon and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine are both rural seats which were pretty much Conservative. Malcolm Bruce and Sir Robert Smith won them for the Lib Dems and with a few scares along the way have kept them election after election. The Conservatives slashed Smith's majority this time, so there is hope!! In Gordon there is now the added issue that Alex Salmond holds that seat in the Scottish "Parliament". Both Bruce and Smith may be entering the twilight of their careers so they may retire next time round. I agree though that once these type of seats are lost, it takes a LONG time to get them back.

WCH said...

Chippenham beware!

When the re-election comes post-lib/con coalition, we may be in for a harder fight even than this time, when we lost 21500 to 24000 despite getting more votes than we had "pledges" or "possibles".

We were gutted. Nothing more painful than being thumped by a liberal.

Ian said...

"........and it could be decades before you get it back. And that will only be when the sitting LibDem retires."

Quite. The prime example is Harrogate and Knaresborough and I am sure that Andrew Jones and his winning team will testify that even then, you have to fight very hard

DOGEND said...


Archbishop Cranmer said...



Oxford West & Abingdon?

The LibDems may be like bindweed or barnacles, but nothing that an effective weedkiller or swift kick in the right place can't shift.

We just didn't have an effective weedkiller, and our kick was amiss by 16,000 votes - that is all that deprived us of an outright majority.

Frankly, if David Cameron had been bothered to accommodate Lord Pearson before the election (ie, am EU referendum), we would not be bartering away the whole future of conservatism to Nick Clegg.

Which is the lesser evil?

Tim said...

Good post. I don't think it is just rural seats either. You ran a good campaign in Kingston and Ed Davey's majority only fell to the extent that he sent local activists elsewhere. As one (very) prominent Tory said to me at the count, he would have to do something very silly - Mark Oaten style - to be at risk. Otherwise, he said, it is yours until Ed stands down.

The only exception is boundary changes - personal votes can be lost then - witness Cornwall.

Curmy said...

Iain, you're right about Norman Lamb. My brother in law (staunch Tory) went to school with Norman Lamb in Norfolk, and has stayed friends with him.
He's a nice bloke, and as you say a good constituency MP.

Until he retires, the Tories will have trouble regaining the seat.

I'm not sure I agree with the last poster who says N.Norfolk are an unsophsticated electorate.
They just know a good MP when they see one !(By the way I'm a Tory)

Bluebell said...

You are absolutely right and this is why Alan Beith is still MP for Berwick. He worked hard at getting people's bins emptied and carefully didn't vote for the hunting ban - something which must have choked him.
I wonder how many true liberal voters there actually are.

Simon Gardner said...

I’ll point out to you that there are numerous instances of former Tory seats that have stayed Lib Dem after a changeover in MP - like Chris Huhne in Eastleigh who is by no possible description Tory-lite.

And Cheltenham for instance?

Are you up for a wager that North Norfolk stays Lib Dem after Norman Lamb?

I just don’t think your theory about “getting them back” holds water.

Guido said...

I love that Dogend in complaining about the unsophisticated voters of Norfolk has yet to master the CAPS LOCK key.

norman said...

@Archbishop. Please could you answer me 3 questions? Why did UKIP fail to secure even a single seat? Why Loudmouth Farage did not defeat Bercow? Why did he disappear for over 10days before the election from his constituency and came back in a plane wreckage?

UKIPs got a 1200+ votes in our constituency as a large number of disgruntled ex-Labour and socialists did not vote Labour and they wanted to keep Tory second, hence voted UKIP as they know UKIP will not win. Are you saying that these votes would have gone to Tories?

I never believe any clergy after we heard about their activities!

Hughes. said...

Ironically, that's the kind of personal, local politics best exemplifying the benefits of First Past the Post, that would be the first casualty of a PR voting mechanism.

tapestry said...

The Lib Dem brand is a strong one. It's the Avis 'we try harder' thing, but until the party gets its hands on power, it can promise to its heart's content. There is no way of knowing.

But if they take on membership of a loose alliance with the Conservatives, and have four cabinet ministers, the advertising will be tested.

The effects could go either way. The media will regard them as darlings of course for not being dreaded Tories, but the public ain't so daft.

If Lib Dem cabinet ministers perform badly, it will tarnish the perfect marketing image they've created so successfully.

Chris said...

It will be interesting to see if Redcar follows this pattern. Over three elections Vera Baird managed to convert Mo Mowlam's 21600 majority into a 5000 vote defeat. If Ian Swales proves a good local MP I wonder if former diehard Labour voters will return to the fold assuming the party selects a more likeable candidate next time.

GM said...

Iain, you are quite right about the impact of a good MP. I was in Westmoreland during the election campaign and was interested to hear local voters, of no fixed party persuasion, explain their liking for Tim Farron, an MP who is active within the constituency, answers voters concerns promptly, doesn;t take them for granted etc.

Cranmer is being unusually short-sighted by raising Montgomery - not by any stretch of the imagination was Lembit Opik a good constituency MP. As one tweeter apparently put it - "Lembit has learned the electoral consequences of being a twat"! Thus, Montgomery hardly stands as a counter to your original point.

Lib Dem MPs - many of them at any rate - commit to being locally effective; some more common ground there, perhaps, with a Conservative Party that is also committed to localism!

Libertarian said...

What we are seeing is the effect of the "long tail" on politics in exactly the same way that it has effected the media,music and retail areas.

The old paradigms of left and right, red and blue have fractured beyond repair thank goodness. Membership of political parties is at an all time low and still dropping.

We do not need PR/AV/STV or any other deck chair shuffling what we need is democracy. I want to vote directly for my choice of PM/government. I don't want to tactically vote for a "local" representative that sends a signal to the Queen telling her who to ask to form a government. Our current system is feudal.

Direct elections for government separate elections for constituency representative ( don't care what method you use for that )

norman said...

I want Cameron to be the next PM and wish his effort the luck as he is the only one behaving like a statesman. I would like Clegg to work with Cameron and these two can rid of the scourge called labour.

If Liberals are out for a long long time, it should be due to their policies more than the electoral system. Cameron's offer of equalising the ratio of votes to voters should durely be the way forward, instead of this backroom horse-trading and fixing which will become the norm in a PR situation.

Talking about backroom shennanighans, I work in the European Commission from time to time on panels which award researchg grants to proposals prepared by EU -wide consortia. We are usually closeted in a room and argue and argue until a consensus is reached. Even one Belgium loony expert could hold out when all the 4 others from other EU countries agree on a proposal worth funding for example; there is 4 to 1 majority which the European Commission does not accept as it is NOT A CONSENSUS. The 4 others have to cave in after a few hours and missing lunch and dinner to the positthe other weak proposal has to be funded. When we realised once that this will happen, we 4 brought our sandwiches and flasks,, and the Belgian loony caved in at 1 am in the early morning having seen us replenished with energy and as he alone forgot his packed lunch and dinner!

Moriarty said...

I notice that the egregious Jack Harperson has had the rock removed from the top of his head. His argument seems to be that the Tories should not form a government with less than 50% of the vote, and yet Labour should remain in office with less than 30%.

Wasn't it his wife who kept banging on about Cameron's "sense of entitlement"?

Sungei Patani said...

This hypothesis is not supported by Lembit Opik's Montgomeryshire seat being lost to the Conservatives. This is a rural constituency which had an incumbent Libdem candidate. The Tory candidate achieved a swing of 13.2% Libdem to Conservative.

On the other hand Lembit Opik is a bit of a prat.

Curmy said...

Oh yes, Jack Dromey, who was parachuted into a safe Labour seat !

TerryB said...

I read your post today with considerable interest, as someone who actively supported you when you stood as the Conservative candidate for North Norfolk, I know how hard you worked to get elected, but you were up against a bias local press in the North Norfolk News and a brilliant Liberal team supporting Norman Lamb, who is a true liberal in that he and his team claim credit for anything good that happens in North Norfolk. However, speaking as someone who has voted in every election since I was 21 (the legal age to vote then)and I am now 78, Trevor Ivory fought the worst campaign for a Conservative that I have ever known,and I believe the Conservative HQ in Cromer were just useless! I live in Overstrand and did not receive any communication whatsoever from Mr Ivory, or from Cromer HQ! But I did receive dozens of mailings from the Liberals,Labour,even UKIP! my wife actually had to ask me on our way to vote, "Who is the Conservative candidate?" So it was not surprising that Trevor Ivory got such a poor response.

Dominic said...

Bluebell - an awful lot fewer than there were at the previous election. Beith's majority in Berwick has just been slashed from 8,543 to 2,690 thanks to a strong, local Conservative campaign.

Lady Finchley said...

I think a lot of people underestimate the power of a very good constituency MP. People tend to vote in their own self interest and if the MP is a good one and looks after his constituency the seat is his until he retires or gets lazy. Mind you, it was the Lib Dems who turned their MPs into local councillors and now every MP has to be one AND a social worker as well as a legislator at Westminster.

waddell said...

It's such a harsh result for Gareth McKeever who sold his flat in London to work the constituency for 18 months before the big day. Tim Farron's personal strength clearly frustrated the efforts of a PPC with great potential. It was encouraging to hear Farron spare a moment to pick out McKeever for special mention in his acceptance speech.

Christina said...

Iain, really interesting article. And I really hope that you read through it again and think on to the Celtic fringes post you put up earlier....I suspect that more than a few of the Tory candidates in Scotland could have written the same observations on Friday morning too.

You were in an ultra marginal Con/Libdem seat, and they were as keen to keep it as you were to win back for the Tories.

Really interesting observation that I hope you pass on to others down South. The Tories in the most high profile marginal targets suffered the exact same fate as yourself in North Norfolk, but in some of the other seats where we were not even seen to be a threat the exact opposite happened. And that is why the Tory campaign must not be judged a failure, our vote share went up and we now have a solid grass roots operation which should be encouraged not dismissed.

The Tories completely reorganised, modernised and really invested again in their campaigning strategy from the grass roots upwards in Scotland about 2/3 years ago.

We have seen an incredible turn around at grass roots level up here. People coming forward for the first time in years to help us, everyone was so motivated and enthused. If the usual post mortems and blame game starts from the usual suspects, all that hard work will have been for nothing and we could see that progress wiped out. We didn't do anything wrong, and just think how you would feel if everyone had turned on the very many local activists who worked so hard for your own campaign?

What ever happens, I have nothing but admiration for the people who implemented these changes in Scotland, and then worked so hard to finally start making that difference on the ground. My only regret is that some of the right leaning Scottish political pundits totally overlooked this and did so much to undermine that new dawn. Rome wasn't built in a day, but it won't get built at all if no one keeps trying.

Gareth said...

A question: How can Rennard have known it was going to get a 10,000 majority, and lo... it did! ?

HampsteadOwl said...

Jeepers Iain, have you been waiting five years to write this vindication?

Get over it dear boy. Even down here in Geek City, the rest of us have.

jennyg said...

See also West Devon and Torridge, a very popular Lib Dem had to retire before Cons took it.

Now see also Devon Central where Mel Stride put in years of work before the election. Rural constituencies may have particular connection with local MP as country side problems so disregarded in Westminster.

Interlocutor said...

I worked on the campaign in W&L and you're exactly right. It was near impossible to dissuade a Farron supporter, even ones who'd never voted anything but Tory for most of the their lives.

(A couple of minor points: the Lib Dem majority was closer 267 in 2005 -- but of course I suppose you're including the boundary changes. The Tory candidate was in fact chosen almost two years ago, not a few months, and ran an excellent campaign. The more disastrous event was the burning down of the local party office a month or so before election day.)