As a teenager in 1994 Adrian Ramsay took part in a school debate with Charles Clarke. Video footage of the encounter shows the schoolboy challenging the future home secretary and Norwich South MP on whether new Labour was "a brilliant, pragmatic new form of politics" or "a big con to maintain working-class support." It was, as Clarke pointed out at the time, "a very serious question, from a very serious person."
Studying politics at the University of East Anglia in Norwich several years later Ramsay, now a Green Party member, crossed swords with Clarke again. This time Clarke, as the education secretary, was pushing through the introduction of student tuition fees, something Ramsay actively opposed on campus. Today, with the general election weeks away, 28-year-old Ramsay is facing off against Clarke once more - this time in the battle for Norwich South.
Clarke may have been Labour MP for the constituency since 1997, but as the Green Party's parliamentary candidate, Ramsay believes he has a real chance of winning the seat. He may have only won 7.4 per cent of the vote in 2005, but there are good reasons for his optimism. He has been a local city councillor in Norwich for seven years and with 12 other Green councillors, the Green Party is now the official opposition on the city council. This citywide support has given the Greens comfortable leads in the last three local elections and the most recent European election in Norwich South. Sensing a breakthrough, the national Green Party - of which Ramsay is deputy leader - has designated Norwich South one of its three target constituencies in the general election, along with Brighton Pavilion and Lewisham Deptford in London.
Speaking over lunch in Norwich city centre before heading out to do a little weekend canvassing, Ramsay explains the constituency "is very, very mixed," including "some of the most deprived council estates in the eastern region," a large student population and a high number of people working in financial services. He notes the main issue people are raising on the doorstep is the recession. "I attach a large part of the blame to the government and to Gordon Brown who was chancellor for 10 years before he was prime minister," says Ramsay. "He has presided over the deregulated financial sector, which has clearly needed regulating to stop the more risky financial practices. His economic policies are almost indistinguishable from Thatcher's."
In addition, Ramsay argues that Brown has not made good use of public money. "The private finance initiatives mean that our schools, hospitals and prisons are built at far greater cost to the taxpayer because they are built by private companies and the public sector leases them back - just so he can keep it off the public balance sheet in the short term." The issue has particular resonance in Norwich where the popular city centre hospital was closed and replaced by a PFI-funded out-of-town hospital in 2003. According to Ramsay, the new hospital costs "£19 million more a year under private borrowing than it would have done under public borrowing."
With the Green Party backing a Green New Deal to combat the economic crisis, Ramsay is keen to talk about the solutions he would support if elected. "We want the banking sector to be far more like it was in the past, based on building societies, on mutuals and localised lending to genuine community projects," he says. He also mentions localising the economy to help fight climate change and create local jobs, building more council houses, insulating homes and expanding renewable energy, improving public transport, raising the state pension to £170 and raising the jobseeker's allowance. How would all of this be paid for? "It's about priorities," Ramsay replies. "We are saying that we shouldn't be going in for cuts to crucial public services like the others, who are trying to out do each other in terms of their pledges. We think we should maintain funding for crucial services and we would fund it in two ways." First, the Greens would abandon "wasteful, unnecessary projects like Trident nuclear weapons and ID cards" and second, they would increase the public purse "in fair ways that don't hit people on poor incomes, such as the Robin Hood tax on financial commercial transactions, which could bring in £250 billion a year just from a 0.05 per cent tax."
These redistributive, old Labour-style policies are no doubt the main reason Ramsay's election campaign has attracted the support of six former Labour city and county councillors and also six former Liberal Democrat councillors. Clarke himself praises Ramsay as "a fine young man" when I met him on the same day. "I expect him to run a principled campaign - I will try and do the same." And Clarke is right. When I press Ramsay on whether Clarke should be punished for his Cabinet-level role in the invasion of Iraq, he gives a very careful response, refusing to take an easy shot at Clarke personally. Instead, he argues that if international law had been broken, the focus should be on "the prime minister, the foreign secretary and defence secretary at the time."
Clarke, who considers himself a green Labour MP, labels Ramsay's opposition to dualling the A11 (the main road linking Norwich to London) and the expansion of Norwich airport as "foolish" because of the negative effect it will have on local jobs. Ramsay counters that "the more road-building that happens the more it increases car capacity. It doesn't solve congestion or climate change or the ease with which people can get around in the long term." Rather than road-building or regional airport expansion, Ramsay advocates improving the public railway system. "Creating high-speed rail for certain, but also improving the lines to regions - Norwich to London - and also rural rail routes. "We would also renationalise the railways to ensure the money goes in to improving the railways and not in to shareholder profits," he adds.
Wearing a suit and very much the professional politician, Ramsay is the perfect antidote to the crass stereotypes bandied around about Green politicians and activists. But how does he deal with criticism about his relative youth and lack of experience? "Actually I am the most experienced of the challengers to Charles Clarke, having been a councillor for seven years and the deputy leader of the Green Party nationally," he replies. "Most importantly, I'm from Norwich - I know the city, I know many residents and have helped many residents."
Trevor Phillips, an ex-member of the Norwich Labour Party management committee who is now supporting Ramsay, tells me the election "looks like a four-way split," with the Conservatives (second in 1997 and 2001) and the Liberal Democrats (runners-up in 2005) also campaigning hard in the constituency. Although Phillips says that "the Greens command huge local respect and support," a win for Ramsay in Norwich South would undoubtedly be one of the greatest upsets in British electoral history. As Ramsay's publicity repeatedly argues, one more Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat MP in Parliament "will hardly be noticed," but "electing a Green MP for Norwich would provide the fresh distinctive voice that our city and Parliament so desperately need."