Paul Anderson, Tribune column 10 July 2009

“Hi,” said the American woman on the other end of the phone. “Are you Mr Anderson?” “Yes,” I said, expecting an offer of car insurance or the threat of a writ.

I was wrong. “Hi,” she went on. “I’m Myleen and I’m calling from Labour Party headquarters. Are you available to assist in the Norwich North campaign?”

At which point I fell off my chair. Well, not really – but I was surprised. It wasn’t just that the voice was American: I’ve been used to Westminster interns from across the pond for more than 25 years, and some of my best friends are from New York. Rather it was that I’ve not heard a squeak from Walworth Road since it actually was Walworth Road rather than a call-centre in Gateshead with a front-office in Victoria Street or whatever it is now. And the last time was to ask for money, not for me.

Don’t get me wrong. My local party in Ipswich is well organised and active, and I’m regularly bombarded with pleas for help by our brilliant and hard-working agent, John Cook. He has an uncanny knack of timing his arrival at your door with a giant pile of leaflets the only evening you’re at home in a week. But I expect my local party to stay in touch. Contact from HQ – and from a real human being (even an American) – is a bit special.

Perhaps, though, I should not have been surprised. Norwich North is not far from home, it is a very important byelection, and Labour needs all hands on deck. On 23 July – less than a fortnight hence – the voters there will decide who replaces Ian Gibson, who represented them as a Labour MP for 12 years before resigning the seat last month.

It is crucial for several reasons. Norwich North is one of the marginal seats that Labour must retain at the next general election if it is to have a chance of avoiding national defeat: Gibson’s 2005 majority was a little over 5,000. It is the party’s first electoral test since the debacle of the European and local elections last month, its first since Gordon Brown survived the cack-handed attempt-to-oust-him-that-wasn’t – and, most important, its first since the MPs’ expenses scandal left the front pages.

Gibson walked because he felt he had been treated unfairly by the Labour National Executive Committee panel charged with disciplining miscreants in the expenses scandal – and it’s hard not to sympathise with him (as his constituency Labour Party did). The records, as revealed by the Daily Telegraph, show that that he sold his daughter his London flat (on which he had claimed mortgage-interest payments from the taxpayer while she lived there rent-free) for less than its market value.

“Off with his head!” screeched the media, and Labour’s “star chamber” duly doled out the summary punishment, prohibiting Gibson from standing as a Labour candidate at the next general election. You don’t have to be a great admirer of Gibson’s hard-left politics to wonder why he was done over for not raking in gains from the property bubble when nearly everyone who did so has got off scot-free.

Whatever, the byelection will give the voters in Norwich North the chance to pass judgment on the quality of Labour justice. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the early money was on them giving Labour the thumbs down – and if they do the government will face a torrid summer. If they don’t, however, it might just act as the fillip Gordon Brown so desperately needs, a sign that all is not yet lost, that the corner has been turned, that the fat lady has yet to sing. And my friends in Norwich say they have a hunch that Labour can win. There’s no sign of popular enthusiasm for the Tories, they say, and people are beginning to get over the rage that motivated or demotivated them at the European and local elections.

Both the major parties know the stakes are high, and both have been campaigning vigorously in the constituency. Although both have been publicly playing down the significance of the contest, both are treating it as a dry run for the next general election. Labour’s message is simple, that the Tories will slash public services if they win power. The Tories counter that the government is lying about the state of the public finances.

As for me, I’m making no predictions, but I am going to catch the train to Norwich this weekend and do a spot of whatever the comrades need done, despite my reservations about the way Gibson was treated. I’ll be keeping quiet, of course, about where I’m from. Americans go down fine in Norwich. Tractor boys do not.

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