Waveney Valley ought to be a Tory heartland. Could angry voters turn it Green?

By conventional political logic, it is a long jump from the Conservatives to the Green party. But in Waveney Valley, voters are making that leap. Political history, party stereotypes and predictable voter behaviour are sailing away down the river that meanders through this new constituency, carved from five ultra-safe Tory seats on the Norfolk/Suffolk border.

The River Waveney runs through the constituency. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

Waveney Valley should be a win so comfortable for the Conservatives that they barely need to turn up. One of its former constituencies has been Tory since 1885; all five had Conservative majorities of more than 18,000 in 2019. “It’s been Tory since the Norman conquest,” says Robert Lindsay, a Green councillor who is part of an eager team of party activists descending on this rural heartland to boost co-leader Adrian Ramsay’s hopes of victory.

Many voters in Waveney are delighted simply to receive attention from the politicians. “For the first time in living memory, we exist,” says Terence Blacker, an author and songwriter. “Talk about the arrogance of power. It was so blue, voters were completely taken for granted by the Tories. The other parties just didn’t bother. It’s incredibly exciting and slightly strange to see lots of green and red signs and virtually no blue signs.”

Map showing Waveney Valley

During a long day in the constituency, the Guardian fails to spot a single Conservative poster, despite them still being common currency in other East Anglian seats.

A Green party campaign sign in Burston, South Norfolk, in the Waveney Valley constituency. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

The greening of Waveney began in the 1960s when the first of a steady stream of idealistic bohemians relocated from London and other big cities, a subtle social trend that has inexorably created fertile ground for green politics. Last year, the Greens won overall control of Mid Suffolk district council and became the largest party in East Suffolk; last month, they came from fifth to win a council byelection in South Norfolk, denying the Tories overall control.

Ramsay and his Tory rival Richard Rout (headline writers, sharpen your pencils) are defying political stereotypes too. On the day we join them, Ramsay is wearing a suit and brogues and is supported by an army of activists. Canvas bag-carrying Rout appears very much alone on his daily 10-mile canvassing trudge, apart from the support of his mother who stops by to lend her son some sun cream.

Richard Rout (left) discusses local politics, including proposed electricity pylons, with local resident Julian Calderara in his back garden in Roydon, Norfolk. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

At times, Rout is treated with the pity once reserved for electoral underdogs. “I feel sorry for you. It’s a hiding to hell isn’t it?” says Steve Turrell, a middle-aged man who is visiting his mother-in-law. “I’ve always voted Conservative and I’m not going to vote this time. The scandalous goings on in No 10 during Covid, all the partying and giving people fines for breaking the rules is absolutely outrageous.”

More common than disaffected non-voters are Tory to Green switchers. Ramsay meets four on the trot in rural Burston. “It’s nice to see someone in a small village,” says Sue Wright to the Green candidate. “You’ve got our vote just for coming round,” adds her husband.

For Wright, the big issues are immigration, the health service and the lack of NHS dentists. She drives 135 miles to her former dentist in Surrey because it is cheaper than local options. Until this year, she has always voted Conservative. “All those promises – they’ve been in power for years, why haven’t they done it?” After Ramsay’s visit, she sticks a Green poster in her window.

Adrian Ramsay speaks to Sue Wright in Burston. Wright has previously voted Tory but says she will vote Green this time. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

Another, younger voter, Louis Smith, is deciding between the Greens and Reform UK, a choice also mentioned by several voters in Diss, the constituency’s largest town (population 9,500). “I had always been Conservative but they’ve been just terrible really – Liz Truss, what the hell?” says Smith. “I quite like what the Green party do. I quite like what Farage has been saying recently but it’s all soundbites.”

Waveney Valley constituency profile – graphic

Ramsay says he does not find Tory-Green switching odd. “People are not entrenched ideologically,” he says. “Many are moderate voters where voting Conservative is the tradition. They want a strong local representative, they care about the environment and they’ve seen an erosion of local services – no dentists, no buses, no banks. Putting water companies into public ownership appeals to Conservative voters as much as Labour because people are furious the water companies are profiting from failure.”

But there are still signs of hope on the doorstep for Rout, who is fighting a clever, insurgent-style campaign. We meet in Snow Street, a rural community west of Diss that is facing the National Grid’s imposition of 50 metre-high pylons to take energy from offshore windfarms to London.

“I’m Richard, the Conservative candidate in the election, I’m principally talking to people about the pylons today,” is his quick-fire doorstep pitch. Rout, the deputy leader of Suffolk county council, has attended plenty of anti-pylon meetings. His main leaflet today is dominated by support from an anti-pylon campaigner and helpful tips for opposing the pylons. There’s one brief mention of “Conservative”.

We meet a good number of Conservative voters who are staying loyal. “Nice to see you. All I keep seeing is the Green party on the television,” says Len Ramsbottom, a retired man who complains that the National Grid are going to take a chunk of his garden for their pylon construction. But he’s forgiving of the government’s woes. “Whoever was in power would’ve had a hard job with the war in Ukraine and the pandemic,” he says.

Rout (right) discusses potential electricity pylons with supporter Len Ramsbottom in Roydon. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

Rout’s stance on the pylons appears more unequivocal than Ramsay’s. Rout wants the cables put underground, if they can’t be put offshore. “I’m pretty confident we’ve won the argument in terms of stopping it,” he tells voters.

“We want an offshore grid to be properly considered,” says Ramsay, who says local Greens have been leading calls for this alternative to pylons for 15 years. “I strongly support the connectivity needed for net zero but there needs to be a proper assessment of the options.”

Most jobs in rural Waveney Valley are no longer farming but agribusiness, big and small, still plays an influential role. Ramsay has the private support of some influential Suffolk farmers while Rout highlights hits roots on his grandfather’s Suffolk farm.

Farmer Rebecca Mayhew alongside the Jersey cows on her and her husband’s farm near Bungay, Norfolk. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

Rebecca Mayhew, a pioneering regenerative farmer at Old Hall farm, feels “politically homeless”. Her teenage children “think why aren’t you automatically Green? It’s because I’m worried about the business and all the people we employ,” she says. “We contribute directly to 45 family incomes and the Greens want to put the minimum wage up to £15 an hour for every age group. That’s just horrified me. You can’t pay a teenager an adult rate because they aren’t worth it, in the nicest possible way.”

Rout attended the recent Open Farm Sunday on her farm – alongside 3,000 other local people – and Mayhew was impressed. She quails when she learns that Ramsay is vegan. “Being vegan is a kneejerk reaction to the worst of industrial animal agriculture. If I had to eat factory chicken, I would go vegan,” says Mayhew. But if Ramsay is vegan, she says, “I can’t vote Green, because he’s not representing the community at large, and he needs to”. Has Ramsay’s veganism come up elsewhere on the doorstep? “No,” he says.

The last word goes to the river that defines this constituency. James Johnston, the owner of Mendham Mill, a historic watermill converted into holiday cottages, despairs of pollution and government cuts that mean the riverbed reeds are no longer trimmed each year, making it difficult for canoeists to navigate.

“I’ll vote for someone who is willing to put the river and looking after it at the centre,” he says. “Rather than being at the very edge of a number of constituencies, the river is at the heart of the constituency now. It’s something that can unite the place. I hope whatever MP we end up with it’s going to be someone who takes the river and the health of the river seriously. It is our lifeblood.”

The Guardian