Election 97

East Anglia

East Anglia 92 East Anglia 97

Before the 1997 election the flat, windswept counties of Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk were almost solidly true-blue Tory, with the occasional urban dot of red. Labour held four seats, one in each county: Cambridge city; Thurrock in Essex (Essex is included here for convenience, although it is actually in the official South East); Norwich South in Norfolk and Ipswich in Suffolk. Those four are still Labour, only more so, but the rest of the picture is by no means as neat, with large swathes of red and even a spot of Lib Dem yellow at Colchester.

Essex, home of the eponymous Essex man, is often seen as a vital county for Labour. If its property-owning, aspirational working-class voters had been won over, then surely the election was won. And so it proved. Labour made four vital gains in Essex, only two of which could be seen as easy. The win at Basildon came as a relief, since this has always been seen as a belwether seat, which any party forming a government must take. In fact this is no longer true, and there are clearer candidates, but Basildon still has a symbolic resonance - it was the failure to take it that signalled Labour's dashed hopes in 1992. Another easy win was Harlow, where Tory Jerry Hayes was defending a slender majority, but the hard-fought gains at Braintree, Castle Point and Harwich, all of them 'safe' Tory seats, underlined the level of the Labour landslide. As expected, the Lib Dems reduced the Tory holding in Essex even further by taking Colchester, rendered vulnerable by boundary changes. It stands as the only Lib Dem seat in these four counties.

There were small, but important, gains for Labour in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. In the former county, they took Peterborough, and Waveney in Suffolk. Both of these were important targets for them, and were 'must-have' seats if Labour was to form a government.

In Norfolk, no less than three seats fell their way, with gains at Norwich North and Great Yarmouth, both relatively easy if Labour were to form a government, and a surprise in Norfolk North West, a supposedly safe Tory seat.

In short, Labour and the Lib Dems made all their targets in East Anglia - and more. It is worth noting, too, that although the region contains some of the safest Tory seats in the country, including John Major's Huntingdon, which is now the safest, this is no longer true of many of the remaining Conservative seats. Norfolk, in particular, once had a long history of rural Labourism, and it is worth noting that three out of four of the remaining Tory seats in this county are now marginals - Norfolk Mid, Norfolk North and Norfolk South West. John Gummer in Suffolk Coastal could easily have been unseated by tactical voting and David Ruffley in genteel 'true-blue' Bury St Edmunds now has a three-figure majority as Lib Dem voters tactically voted Labour in droves.

If the Conservatives are to engineer a comeback, it will be their homebase of East Anglia they will have to secure above all.