The result of last week’s by-election in Norwich North was not everything that I would have wished for as far as the Liberal Democrat candidate was concerned, but for me the only part of the result that surprised was the fact that the Labour candidate managed to finish in second place.
The by-election was called after Ian Gibson, the sitting Labour MP, had resigned his seat. Ian is a man of independent mind who was never slow to tell Labour ministers that they were wrong if that was what he thought. He was not, therefore, much loved by his own party establishment. They saw a chance to have their revenge when he was caught up in the revelations of MP expenses. The Daily Telegraph revealed that he had sold a property on which he had claimed mortgage interest payments to his daughter for less than the market value. As a result of this it was decreed that Ian would not be eligible to stand at the next general election. Feeling somewhat aggrieved to be treated in this way when others like Hazel Blears had not been, he decided not to wait until the general election and resigned.
I spent a day in Norwich about 10 days before polling day. It was fascinating. When asked who they would support in the by-election the answer that came most readily from most people was “anyone but Labour”. This was the sort of response that you used to get about the Tories in by-elections in the run-up to the 1997 general election.
Push beyond that response and you heard two messages. The first from many people was that Ian Gibson had been a popular MP and they thought he had been badly treated. The second that they were simply fed up with the New Labour government and they wanted change. Many spoke of “spin” as a source of disillusionment.
I don’t know if Jim Murphy, the Secretary of State for Scotland, spent any time in Norwich. I suspect not. If he had done then he may have thought twice before embarking on his calamitous endeavour of pretending that there was a pilot scheme for a variable fuel duty rate for island or remote communities. It was a classic piece of New Labour spin worthy of Lord (Peter) Mandelson himself. There is no pilot scheme for a variable fuel duty rate for us or anyone else. Jim Murphy might have realised that the reason for this is that every time it is proposed by me or one of my Liberal Democrat colleagues he and his New Labour colleagues vote against it!
The reasons that have been given by successive Treasury ministers show that they can not even be bothered to take the problem of high fuel costs seriously – let alone launch a pilot scheme for something that might tackle them. The message I heard on my day in Norwich was that people there were no longer prepared to be treated like that. It is a message Mr Murphy needs to hear.
Alistair Carmichael MP