All by-elections fascinate the commentariat and political classes because they can provide important insights into public opinion. With less than a year until the next general election, the Norwich North by-election will be studied carefully by media commentators and party strategists alike. But Norwich North is interesting not just because it preceded the general election, but because it followed the political crisis caused by the controversy over MPs’ expenses.
For the last month or so, I was based in Norwich, overseeing the Conservative campaign that led to the election of the newest and youngest Member of Parliament, Chloe Smith. How local people felt about the political crisis, how the parties reacted to popular disenchantment with the political system, and how voters responded to the very different campaigns run by each party tells us a great deal about post-expenses politics.
In Norwich, as across the whole country, local people were outraged by the revelations about MPs’ expenses. But the local picture was made all the more complicated by the fact that Ian Gibson, the outgoing MP, was popular and respected for his independence. Opinion on the doorstep was mixed. Some voters explained their admiration for Dr Gibson, but felt let down by his actions on expenses. Others felt he had been badly treated by the Labour Party. But while they liked him, and didn’t exactly welcome the need for a by-election, they wanted the parties to show that we ‘get’ the depth of the crisis and that we know we need to change the way we do politics.
Each of the mainstream parties reacted to this challenge in remarkably different ways.