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  1. Election 2019
6 December 2019

Norwich North is a key political battleground. But its voters are tired of the fight

The Tories and Labour are preparing for a close contest in this bellweather seat, which has backed the winning party in every election since 1983. But faced with the fifth vote in five years, voters are growing weary.

By Indra Warnes

To get to Norwich North, from the city’s train station at least, you must pass through Norwich South.

This will see you walking through the city centre, much of it medieval, narrowly missing the 11th-century castle overlooking the colourful market and shopping district; down through cobbled streets, past the University of the Arts, crossing the winding River Wensum – all the while in the shadow of the looming sandstone cathedral spire.

As you near Norwich North, the landscape changes. Ancient buildings give way to 1970s concrete, high street chains blend into charity shops and ethnic supermarkets. It is here, outside a laundrette on the corner of the constituency boundary, that I meet Labour’s election candidate Karen Davis, who is out doorknocking with a team of canvassers.

This is the group’s morning session; they’re currently doing three a day – a sign that politicians and activists in the constituency are preparing for a closely fought battle. This is unsurprising: Norwich North is a bellwether seat that has voted for the winning party in every general election since 1983. And in 2017, the Conservative MP, Chloe Smith, had her majority slashed to just 507 votes, down from a far more comfortable 4,400 in 2015.  

“We campaign or canvass all year round, not just when there’s an election,” says Davis, stressing the importance of this marginal seat in East Anglia. “It gives us a chance to speak to local people and run campaigns on local issues.”

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Asked what she thinks are these main issues are, Davis mentions foodbank usage, county lines (Norfolk was this year announced as the county worst affected by targeting from exploitative London drug traffickers) and the fact that so many schools in the area have become academies. As a former teacher, and the mother of a teenage daughter, Davis’s passion on these subjects is evident – and led her, she tells me, to enter politics four years ago.

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Davis, who helps to run a weekly community café where people can drop in for a free hot meal, advice and company, had been teaching disadvantaged families how to eat well on a budget, when she “became sick and angry at seeing people unable to feed their children, and I would just keep ranting about it in the pub,” she says. “Eventually my friends were like ‘well, do something about it then’.”

That was four years ago. Davis listened to her friends and helped campaign for Clive Lewis, the incumbent Labour MP for Norwich South, during the 2015 general election – back then, she says, nobody in Labour thought they had any hope at winning Norwich North. The following year she became a councillor for Norwich City Council, and was selected as the constituency’s Labour candidate at the end of 2017. “It just happened really,” she shrugs, of her quick ascent through local politics. “They must have just thought ‘ooh, she’s a worker’,” she laughs.

While I’m with Davis, the reception from voters is largely positive. People are happy to listen to her talk, and mostly agree with what she’s saying. Many windows on the street display “Vote Labour” posters. A man I’m certain is my former headteacher shouts “Go on, Karen! We’re all backing you!” as he passes by. But we’re in a middle-class area known locally as the Silver Triangle – named after its older sister, the Golden Triangle, an affluent area across the city – which is not representative of the whole constituency.

Norwich was the second-most deprived local authority area in the East of England, according to 2012 research by The Norwich Foodbank. It was found to have the second-lowest levels of social mobility in England in 2016, and a year on this had barely improved. Of the eight wards listed by the report as being in “significant need”, five are in Norwich North. At a primary school in Mile Cross, one of the three wards identified by the report as being in the greatest need, 33 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals, far exceeding the national average of 13.7 per cent.

It’s these inner-city wards, those most affected by deprivation, that typically vote Labour, but the constituency extends out to the Norfolk countryside and the city’s airport in the north. It is these areas, with lower levels of child poverty, which usually vote Conservative. But as Davis points out, these traditional divisions are not so clear-cut anymore, Brexit has muddied the waters: “It’s so difficult to call because people just aren’t voting on party lines.”

It’s true that among those I approach, most want to discuss Brexit above all else. In the EU referendum, 56 per cent of voters in the city of Norwich voted to Remain. But when you break this down into constituencies, you see that, while 59 per cent of Norwich South – which has a younger average age, and is where the city’s two universities are found – voted Remain, Norwich North voted by 57 per cent to Leave.

One such voter abandoning her usual party to vote for Brexit is Amy Summers, a 41-year-old who works in a bakery on the edge of the city. “I think I’ll probably vote Conservative, because I do actually want to leave the EU,” says Amy, who has lived in the constituency all her life. “If Brexit wasn’t a thing then my vote would be different, but I do think that as a country we’ve decided and we should do it.”

On the other end of the scale are two Green supporters, Fiona and Sandy, who tell me that they will also be breaking their usual vote to back Labour, although theirs seems to be a reluctant decision. Fiona stresses that hers is “a tactical vote”, explaining she wants to “stop the Tories from destroying this country, and I think voting labour is the best way of doing that.”

Jo, too, is choosing her vote for based on Brexit. “We will be voting Lib Dem due to the Brexit catastrophe,” she says, adding that she “supports their fight to exit Brexit”. But the 51-year-old support worker has another issue on her mind: “I’ve got no confidence in the current MP, who has been invisible both in the House of Commons and our constituency.”

Chloe Smith was elected the year before the Conservatives rose to power, in a 2009 by-election triggered when the Labour MP stood down following the expenses scandal. Aged just 27 when first elected, Smith was the youngest MP in the House of Commons, and was tipped for success as one of David Cameron’s rising stars – until her political career was stunted by a 2012 Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman that was described as a “humiliation”. While Smith did not respond to my request for an interview, several people, from different political parties, spoke to me to echo Jo’s complaint that she is not hands-on within the community.

But for many others, Brexit is not just a dividing issue, it’s a reason not to vote. In a charity shop, I speak to volunteer Chris, a 25-year-old who says he won’t be voting in this election as the referendum result hasn’t been delivered. “They’re all as bad as each other,” he says bluntly, when I ask which party he prefers. “They promise this and promise that, but they don’t do anything.”

His thoughts were echoed elsewhere. “I voted Labour last time, and Ukip the time before that, but I don’t plan on voting this time,” says 24-year-old Cobi, who works in a branch of Betfred further up the street. “There’s nobody worth voting for. I have no confidence in any of them.”

Outside, I stop to chat with a man loading shopping in his car. He declines to tell me his name, but says I can refer to him as a 48-year-old businessman. “The country is in a mess. There’s no economic security, the pound has dropped, it’s terrible,” he says. “As to what I will do, I honestly don’t know. We’ve had three years of this uncertainty, and I just don’t know who to vote for.”

Among those out campaigning with Davis is Natasha Harpley, who was this year elected as a councillor in the Broadland District to the north of the constituency. She represents Sprowston Central, one of the two wards that Labour took from the Tories in May; the first time Labour has been on the council in nine years – a sign, she thinks, that the tide is turning.

“The Tories took it for granted,” says Harpley, when I ask what went wrong for the Conservatives in Norwich North in 2017 and in this year’s locals. “I didn’t even see them out.” She says that this year the Conservatives are far more focussed on the area, but accuses them of doing little physical canvassing, claiming they are instead “spending lots of money on Facebook ads”.

“Our strength isn’t in money, it’s in our people,” she adds, gesturing at the Labour campaigners weaving in and out of front gates along the road. “Despite some of the bullshit that’s going around, like that Labour wants to nationalise your cornflakes, this, being out here, is what’s going to matter.”

Harpley and the rest of the Labour canvassers are optimistic, branding this election the “the opportunity of a lifetime”. But faced with a fourth vote in five years – fifth, if you include 2018’s local elections – and with very little change in between, the voters are far less enthusiastic.