“You have so many types of conversations here. You’ve got a Tory here, a Green there, the odd UKIP supporter,” Clive Lewis, Labour’s candidate for Norwich South, tells me during a door-knocking session in his constituency. “It’s a five way marginal.”
Walking down Colman Road, named after the Norwich-based mustard manufacturer, Lewis is off to challenge a retired employee of the same firm, who is considering supporting UKIP. Perhaps surprisingly, at the last general election the man voted Liberal Democrat.
Appealing to the thought of his children and grandchildren, Lewis begins a clearly practised argument about why UKIP is not the answer, and, indeed, why immigration is only rarely the problem. Not much reaction from the former Colman employee, apart from pointing out that he has no children or grandchildren, but he seems at least open to the idea of not voting UKIP.
However, for all Lewis’ keenness to confront UKIP voters – the team had been equipped with special anti-UKIP leaflets to hand out – the real challenge facing Labour in this corner of East Anglia is not UKIP, but the Green Party. As well as retaining Brighton Pavilion, represented by former party leader Caroline Lucas, the Greens’ main targets in the upcoming general election are Bristol West and Norwich South. And in last May’s city council elections the party won fifteen seats, not far shy of Labour’s twenty-one, so it’s by no means implausible that the Green surge might overwhelm this once reasonably safe Labour seat.
Lesley Grahame, the Green candidate for the seat and part-time district nurse, certainly thinks she’s got decent chances. When I join her door-knocking later that day in the “golden triangle” – Norwich’s term for the most student-dense part of town – she’ll very occasionally slip from telling voters about “if I become your MP” to “when.”
And Grahame definitely has no time for Lewis’s suggestion that Norwich is a five-way marginal. “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” She points out that there is little danger of the Greens splitting the left vote and letting in a Tory: “The Conservatives haven’t won here since the eighties, and a lot has changed since then – the only elected Tories in this constituency are the ones in New Labour… It’s a two-way marginal, between us and Labour.”
But despite her enthusiasm for outdoing her Labour rival at the polls come May, Grahame’s view of the Labour Party is hardly an angry one: “There’s an argument to be had about whether you reform the Labour Party or replace it… And I’m not one to rejoice at a party’s demise. The Labour Party has done a lot of good things, just none of them very recent.”
The pair can at least agree on the improbability of the current Lib Dem MP, Simon Wright, retaining his seat. “He’s been particularly weak as an MP,” Lewis says. “He’s an excellent strategist; he was Norman Lamb’s advisor in 2005. But he’s too shy, and he’s too close to the inner circle of Lib Dems to rebel.
“For instance, he didn’t make it a matter of principle to vote against tuition fees” – a particularly fraught topic given the large number of University of East Anglia students in Norwich South – “he did so when he’d been given permission.
“When there are [political] debates in Norwich, it’s normally me and Chloe Smith [Conservative MP for Norwich North] who are producing all the drama, and he’s sat there cowering.”
Grahame’s analysis of Wright’s chances in May is significantly more succinct: “He’s toast.”
But for all the local Green Party’s confidence and the resources dedicated to it by the national party, the latest poll is not hardly good news for them. Chris Hanretty, a University of East Anglia academic, recently predicted a 97% likelihood of a Labour victory in Norwich South.
“I’m more worried about complacency [than the Greens],” Lewis says, referring to Hanretty’s predictions. “I mean, in the multiverse there’s still three universes in a hundred where there’s a Green MP in Norwich, so anything could happen. I could be caught with my pants down behind a goat with Ed Miliband at the other end – well, hopefully that won’t happen.”
A version of this article was also published in May2015, the New Statesman’s guide to the 2015 general election.