- There are 58 parliamentary constituencies in the Eastern region. Currently the Conservatives hold 51, the Liberal Democrats four, Labour two, and UKIP one.
- The Conservatives performed very well here in 2010, capturing all but six constituencies and wiping Labour out completely in counties like Hertfordshire where large towns like Watford and Stevenage had provided them with urban hold-outs. If on the way to an overall majority the Conservatives might hope to win every seat here, but 2015 is likely to be foremost an exercise in damage limitation.
- At the last election Labour held only two seats in this entire region: Luton North and South. The party has sufficient attack seats to at least quintuple this number in May, recapturing some of the towns which Blair first won in the 1990s.
- As with the Conservatives, albeit from a very different base, the Liberal Democrats will most likely be fighting a very defensive campaign in the East. It seems likely that Norman Lamb and Sir Bob Russell will hold on to North Norfolk and Colchester respectively, but both Cambridge and Norwich South are strong Labour prospects.
- The East of England is home to Clacton, base of Douglas Carswell and UKIP’s breakthrough into Westminster (although Castle Point, which their first ever MP Dr Bob Spink represented, is also here). Thurrock and Great Yarmouth are both widely tipped as UKIP attack seats and they could well return more MPs from the region in 2015 than the Liberal Democrats, or than Labour managed in 2010.
- The great Green hope in the East of England is Norwich, a city where they form the official opposition on the council by winning exactly half of the wards that make up one of their top national targets: Norwich South. Their support is highly localised – they have never won an MEP in the region – but it could well be concentrated densely enough to deny Labour an easy win from the Liberal Democrats in May.
The flavour of the campaign in the East of England appears to be a combination of national messages and very local causes, without much by way of a regional element. Common themes include:
- Jobs: Both Labour and the Conservatives seem to feel they have strong messages on jobs. The Conservatives emphasise the record employment levels that have come to pass under this Government, whilst Labour candidates emphasise campaign promises to boost apprenticeships and introduce a guaranteed jobs scheme.
- Minor Parties: Nigel Farage’s party has reasonable hopes of returning three MPs for this region in May, which is more than Labour managed in 2010. Meanwhile the Greens will have their sights set on Norwich South, where they return at least half of the councillors from its local government wards. Even in seats where neither party will win there is evidence of the minor parties changing the state of the Tory-Labour battle in close-fought constituencies.
Battleground Rating: 4/10
Targets by party:
(NB These are our own suggestions of potential attack seats for each party – including those officially designated as targets and others where the incumbent has a relatively small majority, or local factors are at play which may open the seat to change.)
Cambridge: A genuine three-way marginal, 2010 saw the Conservatives place second here when Julian Huppert first retained the seat for the Liberal Democrats. Cambridge was Tory from 1967 to 1992, and hoping to return it to form is Chamali Fernando, a trained barrister and policy advisor to the Coalition. However a Lord Ashcroft Poll from September of last year found the Conservatives seven points down on their 2010 result and in third place, with the Liberal Democrats and Labour in a close-fought battle for first. Electoral Calculus gives Fernando just under a one-in-four chance of being returned in May.
Colchester: Once a safe Conservative seat, Bob Russell captured Colchester for the Liberal Democrats in 1997 by 1,551 votes. He has since dug himself in and enters 2015 with a majority of just under 7,000. His local Conservative opponent is Will Quince, a solicitor and leader of the Conservative group on Colchester council who was selected in April 2013. A Lord Ashcroft Poll in November 2014 found that both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives had fallen back by more than ten percentage points (although remaining first and second respectively), with Labour in a strong third place and UKIP at 17 per cent. Electoral Calculus predicts a Liberal Democrat hold.
Luton North: Conservative from 1983 until 1997, Labour’s Kelvin Hopkins’ 2010 majority stood at a healthy 7,520 even as Labour were wiped out everywhere else in the East save neighbouring Luton South, and he’s standing again. Children’s author and former councillor Dean Russell, selected in November last year, would have to pull off one of the night’s shock results to win here.
Luton South: The other Labour outpost in the region is a larger and less urban constituency than Luton North, and a much more competitive seat for the Conservatives. Contesting the seat for the first time in 2010 Gavin Shuker saw the Labour majority slashed from 5,650 to just 2,329, so he will be hoping that a Labour recovery and his own personal profile will shore up his position. Standing for the Conservatives is Katie Redmond, a 29-year-old engineer with experience of the defence and aerospace industries. Despite the relatively narrow majority Electoral Calculus predict a comfortable Labour hold, and give Redmond only a one in five chance of being returned.
North Norfolk: Coastal stronghold of Norman Lamb, this seat has an interesting history. Lamb actually fell short here in 1997, only to win by just 483 votes in 2001 and then dash ConHome columnist Iain Dale’s parliamentary hopes by turning that majority into one of 10,606 in 2005. A further swing towards him last time secured a Liberal Democrat majority of 11,626, and with Lamb standing again there seems little hope for Conservative Ann Steward, a councillor of 12 years who works in the tourism industry and was selected in May of last year. Electoral Calculus predicts a safe Liberal Democrat defence on a reduced vote share, with UKIP moving into third place.
Bedford: This very marginal seat was won for the Conservatives in 2010 by Richard Fuller, having been held by Labour since its re-recreation in 1997. He enters 2015 with a majority of just 1,353, and hoping to unseat him is Patrick Hall, the previous Labour MP. This will be the third consecutive election where Hall and Fuller have faced one another, and the latter will be hoping that his local reputation and profile will prevent what Electoral Calculus views as a two-in-three chance of a Labour gain. Bolstering this prediction are the facts that a Lord Ashcroft Poll constituency poll in August of last year found Labour ten points ahead, and Labour won the Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner election.
Cambridge: All three of the main parties are competitive in this constituency, which was Conservative until 1992 and then held by Labour until they were ousted by the Liberal Democrats in 2005. First-term incumbent Julian Huppert enters the forthcoming election with a majority of 6,792 over the Conservatives, with Labour in a close third place. A Lord Ashcroft Poll in September 2014 found Labour’s Daniel Zeichner, an employee of UNISON and former IT specialist, one point ahead of the Liberal Democrats with the Conservatives falling back to third place. The race is close enough to produce competing predictions: Iain Dale forecasts a narrow Lib Dem hold whilst Electoral Calculus gives Labour a better than 50 per cent chance of winning, and even gives the Tories better odds than Huppert.
Great Yarmouth: A formerly safe Tory seat captured in 1997, the Conservatives retook this seat in 2010 with a majority of over 4,200 for Brandon Lewis, the housing minister. Great Yarmouth is traditionally a Tory-Labour marginal which Labour only win if they’re doing well, although it is now a UKIP target too (see below). This is Labour’s 73rd national target, and in January 2013 they selected to fight it Unite-backed charity worker, ‘community campaigner’ and Labour Party employee Lara Norris. Despite receiving £10,000 from ex-Liberal Democrat and Vince Cable ally Lord Oakeshott Norris’ lead appears to be slipping: Lord Ashcroft Polls in May and July of 2014 saw a Labour lead of two points over the Conservatives turn into a deficit of five points, with UKIP pushing the party into third place. Electoral Calculus sees the race as close-fought but with the odds on a Conservative hold.
Ipswich: Once described by local Labour activists as ‘Fortress Ipsweetch’ after their MP, Ken Weetch, survived the 1983 election this seat has only been held by the Conservatives four times since 1938 (including Feb-Oct 1974). Ben Gummer overturned a majority of over 5,300 to win it for the Tories in 2015 and now defends a majority of 2,079. His Labour opponent is Ipswich council leader and longstanding councillor David Ellesmere, a software developer. A Lord Ashcroft Poll in October 2014 found Labour seven points ahead with UKIP surging into third place.
Norwich North: Incumbent Chloe Smith overturned a Labour majority of 5,459 with a 16.5 per cent swing when she first won this seat and became Baby of the House the 2009 by-election, and she secured a healthy majority of just under 4,000 in 2010. Hoping to unseat her is Jess Asato, whose ‘About Jess’ web page is blank but is described by Wikipedia as an arch-Blairite Islington councillor involved in lots of think-tanks. Both a Lord Ashcroft Poll from February and the Electoral Calculus prediction have the race as neck-and-neck with Labour marginally ahead, and Asato was boosted by £10,000 donation from former Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott in January.
Norwich South: Last held by the Tories for a single term by a very slender margin in 1983, this was Labour’s safest seat in Norfolk during the Thatcher years. In 2010 it became a three-way marginal with Liberal Democrat Simon Wright edging out Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary, by just 310 votes. Yet unless Wright can stretch the limpet powers of Liberal Democrat incumbents to Norman Lamb-like levels this looks like a sure bet for journalist and presenter Clive Lewis: a Lord Ashcroft Poll in June 2014 found Labour 13 points ahead… of the second-placed Greens, with the Liberal Democrats slumping to fifth place behind the Conservatives and UKIP.
Peterborough: Stewart Jackson won this seat for the Conservatives in 2005, and in 2010 increased his majority to 4,861. His Labour opponent is Lisa Forbes, a local councillor and mother of four whose campaign appears to focus on contrasting her alleged normalcy with the “ivory towers” of the Tories. Forbes campaign was reinforced by £10,000 from Lord Oakeshott, but whilst Electoral Calculus foresee a close race they predict that Jackson will hold on here.
Stevenage: Stephen McPartland took this seat, one of Labour’s last in Hertfordshire, with an eight point swing and enters 2015 with a majority of 3,578. Running against him is local second-time Labour candidate Sharon Taylor, who according to her website has been leader of Stevenage Borough Council since 2006. A Lord Ashcroft Poll from December found Labour just five points ahead, and whilst Electoral Calculus predicts a Labour gain in May it gives McPartland a 46 per cent chance of holding on. Taylor is another of the 30 Labour candidates to whom Lord Oakeshott donated £10,000.
Thurrock: Like Great Yarmouth, this is a constituency where UKIP appears to be seriously wounding Labour: Lord Ashcroft Polls in May and July of last year showed Nigel Farage’s party appear to take seven points directly off them in just a few months, pushing Labour into a close fight for second place with the Conservatives, whose incumbent MP Jackie Doyle-Price took the seat in 2010. Hoping to unseat her – and see off UKIP’s Tim Aker – is Polly Billington, a charity worker and former BBC journalist and Ed Miliband aide. Electoral Calculus gives her a two-in-three chance of doing so. Billington is yet another recipient of £10,000 from Lord Oakeshott.
Watford: The three Lord Ashcroft Polls conducted in this constituency between June and November 2014 provide snapshots of an exciting, razor-edge race between all three of the main parties. June showed the Conservatives’ incumbent Richard Harrington ahead with Labour in second, September a narrow Labour lead, and November saw Labour fall to third place behind the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Hoping to retake Watford for Labour is Matt Turmaine, a local councillor and media professional. Electoral Calculus predicts a Labour gain here, albeit by only a 52 per cent probability.
Waveney: Conservative incumbent Peter Aldous overturned a majority of almost 6,000 to win this seat on his second attempt in 2010. Prior to 1997 it was a safe Tory seat but Lord Ashcroft Polls from May and July of last year show Labour is back in the lead, albeit with the Conservatives narrowing the gap and both UKIP and the Greens chipping away at the major parties’ vote shares. Electoral Calculus gives Labour a 65 per cent chance of winning, and if they do then former MP Bob Blizzard, who represented the constituency from 1997 to 2010, would return to the Commons.
Watford: Odd as it seems to be talking about a potential Liberal Democrat gain in 2015 – so odd that Electoral Calculus gives the party only a three per cent chance of winning here – the snapshots provided by three Lord Ashcroft Polls from 2014 suggest that the party might be in with a shot of coming out ahead in a close-run three-way race. The latest, from November, saw the Liberal Democrats push Labour into third place and fall just two points short of Conservative incumbent Richard Harrington, who took the seat from Labour in 2010 (despite the Tories only having one councillor in all of Watford) and is receiving plenty of support from CCHQ. The Lib Dem candidate is Dorothy Thornhill, who has been the elected mayor of Watford since 2002 and been re-elected thrice. Hers was another of the 46 left-wing constituency campaigns to receive £10,000 from Lord Oakeshott.
Thurrock: Jackie Doyle-Price secured a handsome 6.6 point swing to win this seat for the Conservatives in 2010 and enters the next election defending a majority of just 92. Meanwhile UKIP secured 7.4 per cent of the vote and fifth place, snapping at the heels of the British National Party. Yet a Lord Ashcroft Poll in July 2014 found UKIP in first place, having squeezed the Labour vote and knocked that party back to be just ahead of the Conservatives compared to a poll in May 2014. Hoping to join Carswell on the green benches – despite Electoral Calculus’ pessimism – is local councillor and MEP Tim Aker, until recently the head of UKIP’s policy unit.
Great Yarmouth: Once a safe Conservative constituency that fell as so many in 1997, Brandon Lewis regained this seat for the Tories in 2010 with a healthy majority of 4,276. UK Polling Report describes it as a Con-Lab marginal, albeit one which Labour only take in their “better victories”. Despite taking just over 2,000 votes and less than five per cent of the vote in 2010 this is tipped as a UKIP target, and their candidate is local businessman and county councillor Brian Grey, selected in November of last year. A Lord Ashcroft Poll in July 2014 found UKIP running a close second behind the Conservatives, having forced Labour (who were in front in a May 2014 poll) into third.
Norwich South: After taking a respectable 7,095 votes and a 14,9 per cent share in 2010, this is one of the most competitive Green areas in England – they are the opposition on Norwich City Council, returning 15 councillors from five of Norwich South’s ten wards. The Green candidate in 2015 is Lesley Grahame, a city councillor and, as of January 2015, the party’s spokesperson for Peace and Disarmament. Her campaign was confident enough to invest in a professional website and a Lord Ashcroft Poll in June of last year found the Greens in second place behind Labour with 20 per cent of the vote. Electoral Calculus give Grahame a 16 per cent chance of victory.