Great Yarmouth station, whose three platforms are each so long that, standing at one end, you cannot see the other, looks as though it was built for more prosperous times. It certainly seems incongruous when a one-carriage train pulls in.
Like another once-affluent coastal town, Great Grimsby, UKIP is polling well here. The party only secured 5% of the vote in 2010, but Lord Ashcroft’s research put them at 28% last May (behind the Conservatives and Labour), at 31% last July (behind the Conservatives, but in front of Labour), and at 24% earlier this week (behind the Conservatives and Labour). They are clearly putting considerable resources into the constituency, too. The first thing you see when you get off the train is a UKIP billboard, which attacks David Cameron’s foreign aid budget; another billboard, opposite it, features a picture of Nigel Farage saying, “Only UKIP can be trusted to control our borders.”
Another billboard on a main road into the town bigs up Alan Grey, their local candidate, asking whether readers have “reached a crossroads” – the answer, for anyone driving, is ‘No, but I will do in about a hundred yards.’
Labour, on the other hand, have focused on convincing private households to put up posters in support of their candidate, Lara Norris. And the Conservatives must be putting their energies elsewhere – you wouldn’t guess, from the physical appearance of the town, that Conservative Brandon Lewis is defending a majority of 4, 276.
But for all UKIP’s billboards and successes in Ashcroft polls, Lara Norris is keen to tell me that immigration is not among the top concerns for her potential constituents; it’s currently jobs and the NHS that are on people’s minds. “Immigration doesn’t come up as much now. It used to come up a lot last summer… People are beginning to see through UKIP,” she says in the car to Caister-on-Sea, a village just north of Great Yarmouth.
Cue immigration to be the first issue discussed on the doorstep. A middle-aged woman complains to Norris that there is too much of it – and also that her nephew can’t get a job. Norris manages to suggest the problem is really the lack of jobs, and by the time she’s finished the conversation, her potential constituent is happily taking a ‘Vote Lara Norris’ poster to stick up in her window.
“I’ve jinxed it,” she says ruefully to me.
Well, quite: later in the afternoon we meet a UKIP sympathiser. “Talk about 50 shades of Grey, it’s 50 shades of Portugal in Haven [Caravan Park],” she says to Norris, after berating her for not attending parish council meetings. “UKIP turn up and they’re winning votes just by being there.”
“You’re clearly an animal lover,” Norris replies, moving the conversation on to another topic, as a superabundance of dogs yap around our feet or doze in the sun. “UKIP oppose the fox hunting ban.”
Not much luck with that one: 50 shades of Portugal apparently trumps foxes, and Norris extracts us from the conversation as soon as possible. She is probably a member of UKIP, Norris reckons.
However unusual the spate of doorstep conversations about immigration may or may not have been, Great Yarmouth is clearly not at ease with the topic. “You’ve got Portuguese shops, Polish shops, and English shops,” a local shopkeeper remarks to me later in the day. And it was surely no accident that Ed Miliband chose Great Yarmouth as the location to deliver a speech on immigration last December, in which he announced plans to step up efforts to prevent employers from undercutting local workers with illegally cheap migrant labour.
Like some other places where UKIP enjoys considerable support, such as Great Grimsby and Clacton-on-Sea, the number of people who aren’t White British in Great Yarmouth is actually very small. The 2011 census figures suggest Caister-on-Sea, for instance, is more than 95% White British. As Norris puts it, “It’s funny because these places have always had immigration. Nelson – he’s Norfolk’s boy – had twenty-two nationalities on the Victory.”
But it’s not just immigration that comes up on the doorstep. Jobs and the NHS are, as Norris had predicted, the commonest concerns. “I quite like David Cameron,” an elderly voter tells us, “but the NHS is going downhill.” She then regales us with tales of waiting long hours at A&E. Norris sympathises, agrees, but doesn’t go hard on the David-Cameron-can’t-be-trusted-with-the-NHS line. When the conversation finishes, we leave with a near-guarantee that she’ll vote Labour, though she’s not inclined to put up a ‘Vote Lara Norris’ poster.
I ask Norris why she didn’t do more to emphasise Labour’s line on Conservative handling of the NHS. “She knew it in her heart, I didn’t need to – and politics needs to be more positive, more hopeful.”
Variations on the word ‘hope’ are among the most frequent items of Norris’ vocabulary in the couple of hours I spend alongside her. If nothing else, it at least makes for a change from antics of some politicians and political groups: Michael Fallon’s suggestion, for instance, that Ed Miliband is a ‘backstabber’, and the Wirral TUC’s new song, ‘Sack Esther McVey’, in which she is described as the “wicked witch of the Wirral.”
In line with her disinclination towards negative campaigning, Norris has been distributing leaflets that include her pledge to create a ‘People’s Panel,’ in which, as MP, she would hope to involve her constituents in the decisions she makes in Parliament.
The details of Norris’ People’s Panel are, for obvious reasons, not worked out in their entirety, but, about once a month, there would be a public meeting, to which local experts were invited, and everyone would discuss the bills going through Parliament that would particularly affect Great Yarmouth. “Maybe I’d give my views, then the experts, and then everyone could discuss it in breakout groups. It would be to inform me about what people think, and to involve people in politics.”
Presumably she’d have to go against the wishes of her constituents sometimes? “I’d be prepared to agree to disagree, but I can’t imagine there’d be any major disagreements between us.”
In a broader sense, too, Norris is eager to “empower people to engage in politics” – she proclaims as much on her website. “We’ve got people standing for the council who have never even voted before,” she says to me proudly. “One of our volunteers is from Australia – she’d never been involved in politics before, in Australia or here, and now she is standing for council.”
If the aim is to get people involved in politics, is it a success if they end up joining a party that isn’t Labour? “No one has got involved in another political party, but that would also be a success.”
Towards the end of our trip around Caister-on-Sea, Norris points out the off-shore windfarms that are dotted along the coast. “Off-shore wind energy is the future for Great Yarmouth,” she says. “I went to a business conference for Anglia ONE [an off-shore wind energy project], and put the case to them for Yarmouth. They hadn’t been considering the town before but now they are.”
But much like the ships in Great Yarmouth’s South Quay, on some of which German URLs are painted, the energy companies, in Norris’ view, would not necessarily stick around if the UK left the EU. “Pulling out of the EU would be disastrous, the energy companies are all very worried… We’d be cutting ourselves off from the future.”
For Lara Norris, the future for Great Yarmouth lies in renewable energy, the EU, and, of course, herself. Whether Great Yarmouth think so too, we shall find out in ten days…