County prepares for election year

AS county councillors return to Endeavour House after the festive season, many of them will be feeling more than a touch of anxiety – 2013 is election year and there are bound to be changes.

The last elections were in 2009. That was a year when the unpopularity of the Labour government under Gordon Brown reflected on local elections across the country. In Suffolk the party only won four of the 75 seats on the county council – all of them in Ipswich.

There’s only one way for Labour to go this year, and they are likely to go up a long way in Suffolk!

In 2005 Labour won 10 of the 13 seats in Ipswich. I would not be surprised to see them repeat that – and to also pick up a fair number of seats in other towns like Lowestoft, Bury St Edmunds, Haverhill, and possibly Stowmarket and Sudbury.

I can see the party winning between 22 and 27 seats on the county council, which would give it a strong opposition voice.

Labour led the county council in coalition with the LibDems from 1993 to 2005. I can’t see that happening again for three reasons:

1) The Tories might be below Labour in opinion polls, but the government today is nowhere near as unpopular as John Major’s was in 1993. And much of the anger is targeted at the LibDems anyway.

Most Read

2) The LibDems are going to suffer very badly in this year’s elections – they will lose many, if not most, of their seats and Labour leader Sandy Martin has already ruled out a coalition with them in Suffolk.

3) The boundary changes introduced before the 2005 election has made it much more difficult for Labour to win seats in the county. There are fewer true urban seats than there were before then.

The LibDems currently hold 11 seats. A few long-serving members may be saved by their personal vote, but I would not be surprised if their number came down to four in May – I would be astonished if any new LibDems were elected.

There are currently two Green councillors – both of whom have strong personal support – two popular independent councillors and UKIP’s Bill Mountford who caused a shock when he was elected in 2009 (when the county council election was held on the same day as the euro-elections).

I suspect all these five could hold on to their seats – and it is possible Green or independent councillors could pick up one or two other rural seats where people want to protest about the Conservative administration, but can’t forgive the LibDems for the national coalition.

So my prediction, four months from election day, is that the Tories will retain power at Endeavour House, but instead of winning 55 of the 75 seats they will have to make do with 40-45 seats (which would still give them an overall majority of between five and 15).

With Labour on 22-27 seats, the LibDems on four, and the “others” on five or six, the dynamics of the administration at Endeavour House will change – but will not be overturned.

County council leader Mark Bee has shown he will listen to concerns from backbenchers – and is prepared to have a dialogue with political opponents.

That could be vital in the political landscape that follows May’s county council elections.