National politics had a huge impact on life in East Anglia
A year ago we knew a General Election was on the cards – but the result was still very unclear and few people were prepared to stick their head above the parapet and predict victory for one side or the other, writes Paul Geater.
The result of the Scottish referendum, with the Nationalists using their defeat to galvanise their support north of the border, meant the only easily predicted result of the election was an SNP surge.
In Suffolk and Essexinterest centred on four seats: two held by the Conservatives and two the Tories were hoping to gain.
The pollsters and bookies were agreed Labour would probably win Ipswich and Waveney – and UKIP and the LibDems would hang on in Clacton and Colchester respectively.
However, no one told Conservative high command! David Cameron visited the area three times during the first months of the year before the election campaign itself properly began.
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He came again, to Colchester and Clacton, in the last week of the campaign. He clearly felt it was worth the effort.
In Ipswich, Conservative Ben Gummer always seemed confident about retaining his seat as a string of high-profile Tories came to support him.
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But Labour’s David Ellesmere was always seen as the favourite among both the bookies and pollsters.
As the campaign continued, I became increasingly convinced the Tory campaign was much stronger and Mr Gummer was doing better in getting his message across.
The Tories were basically talking up the economy, persuading people they could bring back the good times. Labour was appealing to those who felt excluded – and to those who felt sympathy with the excluded.
But they were never going to vote Tory anyway. And I couldn’t see a message to persuade those who voted Labour in 1997, 2001, and 2005 to go back to the party.
I wasn’t totally surprised when our poll showed Mr Gummer significantly ahead in Ipswich – and after seeing both Ed Miliband and David Cameron during the last full week of campaigning, I was convinced there would be no change of tenant at Number 10.
By polling day I knew Ben Gummer would be returned – a leading Labour supporter in Ipswich had admitted to me a few days earlier the party felt the election was “slipping through our fingers.”
I wasn’t covering the Waveney election as closely, but I still had contact with Peter Aldous’ campaign and speaking to colleagues who were covering the battle in north Suffolk it was clear there was a similar feeling there.
I wasn’t surprised by UKIP’s failure to add to their seats in the general election – the first past the post system makes it very difficult for new parties to make an impact where they don’t have a strong power base and the party only just retained Clacton, despite it having a well-known MP in Douglas Carswell.
What I hadn’t foreseen was the near total collapse of the Lib Dems. I had thought well-established MPs like Sir Bob Russell would retain their seats despite the unpopularity of their party generally.
But George Osborne’s last minute visit to support Will Quince’s campaign may have swung a few voters.
I was sure Mr Cameron would return to Downing Street, but right up to the moment that David Dimbleby announced the result of the exit poll at the start of the BBC’s election programme, I expected the Lib Dems to retain about half their seats and retain a place in a ruling coalition, albeit with fewer government members.
What I also hadn’t expected either was the fallout from the election campaign, and the leftward lurch of the Labour Party.
I knew many Labour Party members were shattered by the level of their defeat – and especially the loss of Ed Balls from the House of Commons.
The resulting leadership election eventually produced one of the biggest surprises in political history (although by the time Jeremy Corbyn’s victory was announced it was far from a shock).
He has certainly energised some Labour members and brought a substantial number of new (many young) into the party – and they are determined to ensure his policies are pushed through into the party as a whole.
What is not clear, however, is whether they are representative of the electorate as a whole. Bringing an extra 200,000 members into the party is a huge success.
But before it can win a General Election, Labour needs to gain an extra three million voters. Among long-term activists in Ipswich there is considerable scepticism about whether the new leadership can win over the floating voters that Mr Miliband failed to attract in May.
I have heard from several Labour members: “We didn’t lose Ipswich in May because we weren’t left-wing enough.”
So where does this leave the parties in 2016?
The Tories have their tails up – but there are battles ahead, particularly over Europe. They are probably expecting to spend more time fighting with each other than with other parties over the next year to 18 months.
Jeremy Corbyn is likely to consolidate his position within the Labour Party over the next few months – electoral pressure isn’t really likely to manifest itself until there have been some meaningful national elections in 2017 or even 2019.
And the Lib Dems will be hoping to regroup and possibly picking up a by-election here or there. UKIP is likely to be so hung up with campaigning for the European referendum that electoral strategy (if it ever had any) will just be pushed to one side.
But of course we have no idea of what is just around the corner . . .