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28 May 2001

Vote before you turn out the lights

Election 2001 - James Buchan joins the candidates in North Norfolk where, amid the second h

By James Buchan

In Sheringham, an Edwardian resort town on the north coast of Norfolk, it is market day and the square between the two railway stations is bright with shoppers. John Major has come up with his security detail from Huntingdon to help the Tory candidate, David Prior, defend a majority of 1,293 from the Liberal Democrats. It is a glorious day at the seaside, and the freeholders of Sheringham are more than usually surly. “Fix the paths,” snaps an elderly lady, pushing her trolley down the uneven pavement.

Prior promises to do so.

It is agreed in North Norfolk that Prior, the son of Lady Thatcher’s old minister Jim Prior, and the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, has been an energetic constituency MP since succeeding Sir Ralph Howell in his pocket borough in 1997. Major is a good man who has bought a house for his retirement at Weybourne, down the coast. Norman Lamb, an employment solicitor standing for the third time for the Liberal Democrats, is thought an excellent candidate as Lib Dems go. Mike Gates, a postman and district councillor from Wells-next-the-Sea, who is Labour’s man, is very well liked.

Yet, talking to pensioners with Prior in Sheringham, or standing with Lamb and Shirley Williams on a windy Cromer pier, or leafleting with Gates through an empty council estate in the village of Banningham – “No Jehovah’s Witnesses!” “I DO NOT NEED CAVITY-WALL INSULATION” – you sense how fallen is the condition of politicians in North Norfolk, from the days of Sir Ralph Howell or the Labour trade unionists Edwin Gooch or Bert Hazell, or the old Liberal William Cozens-Hardy.

In a highly competitive race, Prior is seeking to recover Tory voters lost in the 1997 landslide and the Liberal Democrats to capture tactical votes from Labour. The Greens and the UK Independence Party are also fielding candidates. Yet the real struggle is to get the people out: people who, at the very sight of a politician on a pavement, sing out, in their forthright Norfolk way: “I don’t give a monkey’s.”

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North Norfolk is an unusual constituency. Inland from the retirement coast is a country of very large farms, including the famous improving estate of 18,000 acres at Holkham. The Second World War loosened the grip of the old patrimonial families on the country, hard-working Scots farmers came south, and it is their sons and grandsons who dominate the agricultural landscape with no-frills cereal and potato farms that are mechanised to within an inch of their lives. To pass down Roughton valley on a late summer evening, amid the ranks of combine harvesters working by arc lights in the heavy dusk, is to be transported to Wisconsin. Agricultural yields are off the chart. If, as we have been told by Londoners for the past four months, British farming is on the way out, it is these Alstons and Cargills that will turn out the lights.

Yet this same country – aristocratic, agrarian, chauvinistic – elected a Labour MP from 1945-70. For all the summer gentry in Sheringham, Cromer and the Runtons, there are the down-at-heel market towns of Fakenham and North Walsham, and countless muddy villages where single mothers go spare in isolated public housing. Beneath the election campaign, amid the second homes (each with the same exotic conifers), you can just detect the remains, like some fantastic oddity, of a rural Labour working-class vote.

North Walsham was the home of the radical trade union that was known, in its final form, as the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers. Its presidents, Edward Gooch and then Bert Hazell, were members for North Norfolk until 1970, when Sir Ralph Howell began his long rein. The union disintegrated along with farm mechanisation in the 1970s, and was absorbed within the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1982. Campaigning with Prior in North Walsham – this time with the comedian Jim Davidson, a rough customer who could go several rounds with Prescott – there were old men lounging by the HSBC who had been laid off the farms years ago. They did not like landowners or foreigners. As for Conservatives (or rather Prior), said Charlie, “I wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire.”

Not that this helps Labour. Hung out to dry by the regional office in Ipswich, badgered to assist in the Labour marginal of North West Norfolk and the key seat of Yarmouth, Labour in North Norfolk is stretched to the limit just to leaflet the four Labour county council seats.

The Liberal Democrats regard Labour’s 15,000 votes as a political carcass, and have been circling it hungrily since 1997. North Norfolk is one of a group of Tory seats where the Liberal Democrats feel they can take a Tory scalp. (The others are Oliver Letwin’s West Dorset, David Heathcoat-Amory’s Wells, in Somerset, and Patrick Nicholls’s Teignbridge.) Having reduced Howell’s majority to 12,445 in 1992 and then 1,293 in 1997, Lamb believes that one more heave will get him to Westminster.

All the votes are old Labour, and the Liberal Democrats feel Labour is vulnerable to both tax-and-spend policies and a tactical message. The council estates in both North Walsham and Fakenham are a sea of orange. “If you can present an alternative and can beat a Tory MP, then the combination is a potent message,” Lamb said one evening at Sheringham High School.

This is what Gates has to prevent. At the estate in Banningham, a woman opens her window a crack and says she read somewhere that she should vote Lib Dem to get the Tories out. Gates leans forward and runs through his rigmarole. The Crown public house shimmers maddeningly in view. With a tremendous effort of will, we pull ourselves together. There is still Mill Road to be done, and Colby.

The most likely outcome is that Prior will recover the votes lost to the Referendum Party and scrape home. Health, education and policing are the key issues, but the save-the-pound campaign has clearly struck a chord. Prior is embarrassed by the chauvinism, for in North Norfolk, saving the pound has nothing to do with the Bank of England’s sovereignty in monetary policy and everything to do with disliking foreigners. Here, some of the county set the tone, taking their premiums from Brussels while complaining bitterly about excessive regulation. (In fairness, more than one of my farming neighbours believes that the Common Agricultural Policy should be abolished and European agriculture allowed to sink or – in their own case – swim). Landowners, who were at best indifferent to the Tories in 1997, have allowed Prior’s people into their fields, and the main Fakenham-to-Holt road is a long parade of Prior boards and posters. “Good for the sheep,” sniff the Liberal Democrats, but they are nettled.

Asylum is also an issue. Jack, a self-employed man in Banningham, said he had been won over to the Tories by William Hague’s speech in Dover. And in his tirade of vintage Powellisms, neither Gates, nor your correspondent, cut much of a figure.

As for tactical voting, two Labour women in Sheringham who were prepared to vote Liberal Democrat scarcely constituted an army. John Major himself argued that it is hard to sell a tactical vote when it is only a local Tory – and a well-respected Tory at that – and not a government that you are promising to defeat. One might add, as he couldn’t, that it was a highly unpopular government. “Nobody votes Liberal Democrat out of conviction,” Prior says.

Yet even North Norfolk must take some account of the country. Prior knows that. With the opinion polls showing Labour at more than 50 per cent . . . he shrugs. We change the subject.

James Buchan is a novelist living in North Norfolk