Socratic debate spiced with traditional mud slinging

April 25, 1997

A SUCCESSION of elderly women unchained their front doors and confirmed support for Ian Gibson, Labour candidate for marginal Norwich North as he toured a council sheltered housing estate.

"It's time for a change after 18 years. Look at the money they've wasted on the poll tax and BSE," he told constituents.

A rare waverer retorted: "But I'll tell you what else I don't like, your Labour Norwich Council wasting money."

Norwich North is the only constituency where both leading candidates are working academics. Professor Gibson, dean of biology at the University of East Anglia, came within 266 votes of winning in 1992.

Five years and a boundary change later he needs a swing of about 2 per cent to beat Conservative Robert Kinghorn, an Imperial College geologist.

There is an irony in this academic face-off. UEA and the city's colleges - plus the cathedral and 31 medieval churches that define Norwich's image - are in Norwich South, where former National Union of Students president Charles Clarke defends Labour's 6,000 majority.

Norwich North's tidy council estates show a less familiar side. Largely untouched by higher education, they are among the bottom 20 per cent of constituencies nationally in terms of their proportion of resident students.

The Liberal Democrat, salesman Paul Young, 33, hopes that "what you might call a more normal job makes it easier for people to identify with me".

But both Dr Kinghorn, 54, quietly spoken and with a vague suggestion of the military and Professor Gibson, 59, Scottish and briskly articulate, believe their profession does affect the campaign.

"With an opponent who can analyse issues and think beyond the standard soundbites, debate is more enjoyable. The setpiece occasions do not provide as much opportunity for this as either of us perhaps would like, but I think there is a better standard of debate," says Dr Kinghorn.

It is not all Socratic dialogue. Dr Kinghorn has pointed to Professor Gibson's freely-admitted far left past. Accused of mudslinging, he says this is a political point about Labour's untrustworthiness.

"When a party changes its views so much, how can you possibly trust it?" Professor Gibson, happy to describe himself as a socialist, retorts: "As a clever man and academic, Dr Kinghorn must know that people can and do change their mind."

Being a key marginal means both main candidates have set a furious pace. Mr Young has been constrained by work commitments and nearby Norfolk North's targetting as a Liberal Democrat priority.

Professor Gibson reckons campaigning is "like giving three lectures a day non-stop for a month". Both are warily optimistic, Dr Kinghorn reporting that supporters who were wavering are now firming support.

They differ on how far higher education is an issue. Gibson reckons to encounter it three or four times a day on the doorstep, Dr Kinghorn less so.

But they agree on one major issue. Dr Kinghorn says top-up fees would be "counterproductive" while Professor Gibson points with pride to leading the opposition when they were discussed by UEA's senate.

Mr Young says other parties are "offering something for nothing. We are the only party that admits you have to tax for a decent education".

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