Every vote counts

A THIRD of the seats on Ipswich Borough Council are up for grabs next month.As battle lines are drawn and campaigning gets under way political editor PAUL GEATER today considers the prospects of a change in power at its new headquarters.

By Paul Geater

A THIRD of the seats on Ipswich Borough Council are up for grabs next month.

As battle lines are drawn and campaigning gets under way political editor PAUL GEATER today considers the prospects of a change in power at its new headquarters.

TRADITIONALLY a Labour stronghold, Ipswich has been run by a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition since September 2004 - and the arithmetic would suggest that will not change after May's elections.

However, all the main parties will be looking at individual battles as an indication of how well, or not, they are doing in the town - and will be hoping to build a platform for next year's election which could be for a new unitary authority.

The borough is hoping to be given permission to take over all local authority functions in the town - and if the government gives the go-ahead for that later this year, all 48 councillors will be up for election in May 2008 before the new authority takes over control of the town a year later.

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But this year is a traditional Ipswich election with a third of the seats on the borough up for grabs.

What is significant now is the number of wards where more than one party has councillors - seats like St John's, Bridge, and Sprites.

And the Liberal Democrats are hoping to make a concerted push. They now hold all three seats in three wards. They are now hoping to turn another ward - Westgate - at least partially gold.

Of course all parties have some safe seats - but in 21st century Ipswich it is starting to look as if every vote counts.

This is what Ipswich council looks like today:

nSafe Conservative seats: Bixley, Holywells, Castle Hill.

If any of these seats fall to either Labour or the Liberal Democrats then something very strange is happening that no political pundits in Suffolk or nationally has picked up.

nWards the Conservatives should win: Whitton, Stoke Park, Rushmere.

These are seats that the Tories have won from Labour over the last four years.

They expect to hold them all reasonably comfortably - although in both Rushmere and Whitton Labour hopes that the row over the future of bus routes could cost the Tories votes.

However, last year the Conservatives had majorities of 177 and 364 respectively in these wards, and that could be just too much for Labour to overturn.

nSafe Liberal Democrat seat: St Margaret's.

The LibDems won this seat comfortably last year with a majority of more than 500. More people will vote here than in any other ward, but the result is unlikely to change.

nWards the Liberal Democrats are defending: Whitehouse and Alexandra.

There will be tough battles for both of these wards. In Alexandra the LibDems had a majority of just 131 last year and former mayor Albert Grant is hoping to win back the seat for Labour.

In Whitehouse LibDem standard bearer George King died at Christmas and his party is fighting a determined campaign by sitting county councillor Tony Lewis.

The LibDem majority was 213 last year, a reasonable cushion by council standards, but it could be a tense battle in the seat for new candidate Howard Stanley.

nSafe Labour seats: Gipping, Gainsborough.

Labour may be unpopular nationally, but it would take a political earthquake to dislodge them from these two seats.

nReal marginal battlegrounds:

Priory Heath. This seat has never returned anyone but the Labour candidate, but it includes the growing - and affluent - Ravenswood community. Last year the party had a majority of only 80 in this ward and former council leader Bill Knowles has a real battle on his hands to retain the seat in the teeth of the challenge from Conservative Tanya De Hoedt.

Bridge. The shock of the night in 2004 came when the Tories won this formerly safe Labour ward. Labour held the seat again last year with a majority of 180 and former mayor Phil Smart will be hoping for a repeat of that result next month.

Sprites. After years of chipping away at the Labour vote here, the Conservatives won the seat last year with a majority of 86. Labour will be hoping they can retain the seat they are defending here on the back of threats to the bus service in the area, but this is set to be a bruising encounter.

St John's. Both Labour and the Conservatives hold seats in this traditional ward where the battle is expected to be fierce. Last time well-known councillor Sandy Martin won through thanks to a strong personal vote.

Can his colleague Neil Macdonald repeat that victory this time around?

Westgate. After last year's elections, the most marginal ward of all where Labour won by a mere 20 votes from the Liberal Democrat challenge of county councillor Andrew Cann.

This year Mr Cann is standing again and he can tell the sizeable number of Tory voters in the ward that the only way to stop Labour here is to vote for them - and that could spell bad news for Labour deputy leader Martin Cook.

ON May 3 there are 16 seats up for grabs. Of these six were won by the Conservatives four years ago, three by Liberal Democrats and seven by Labour.

There are 48 seats on the council. At present the Conservatives hold 19, Labour 18, the Liberal Democrats eight, independents two and one seat is vacant.

One of the two independents, Stephen Barker who was elected as a Conservative, is not seeking re-election in May and the vacancy is in Whitehouse following the death of Liberal Democrat George King.

I can't really see the Tories losing any seats and while Labour has high hopes in Whitehouse and Alexandra, they will be doing very well to win either of them back from the LibDems.

Bridge Ward going Tory two years ago looked like an aberration when Labour held on last year, and I don't expect another shock there.

I also expect Labour to hang on in the marginal Sprites ward where former mayor Roger Fern is hoping to return to the council chamber, largely thanks to the row over buses.

But Labour's hold on Westgate looks very fragile, despite a congested field including the Green Party and UKIP.

And Priory Heath is one seat that really is too close to call at this stage of the campaign.

Overall these results would see little change in the political make-up at the borough - and the current Conservative/LibDem coalition should be able to remain in power.

LABOUR group leader David Ellesmere is realistic about his party's chances in next month's elections, but believes that local issues could counteract the nationally gloomy picture.

He said: “There is a great deal of concern about the situation with buses in the town, and not only from those areas which would be directly affected.

“People living all over Ipswich realise how important it is to have an integrated transport network and are keen to ensure that there is no risk to services.

“And there is a great deal of concern about the threats to general council services from the Conservative/Liberal Democrat administration at the borough and the Conservatives who are now running the county council.

“It is always difficult to get the vote out when your party is in government nationally and we know we have a battle on our hands - but on Ipswich issues we have a great deal of support,” he said.

COUNCIL leader Liz Harsant is optimistic that the Conservatives will do well next month - benefiting from an electorate which is unhappy with the national government.

“I think things are looking good for us. There are a lot of people very unhappy with the government and most people seem happy with the way we are running the council at present,” she said.

“I know Labour are trying to raise the issue of the buses, but I was speaking to Eileen Smith (councillor defending Rushmere ward) the other day and she told me not a single person had raised that issue on the doorstep.

“The key issues seem to be grassroots matters and people seem happy with the way we are running the council when it comes to them.”

LIBERAL Democrats are currently in coalition with the Conservatives in the administration at Grafton House, and their leader Richard Atkins is hoping to strengthen their position.

He said: “Our support is going up all over the town. Labour seems to be collapsing and the Conservatives are not actually picking up many votes. That gives us a big opportunity.

“We have very strong hopes of winning in Westgate - we were only 20 votes off there last year - but we are also looking at other wards where our vote has gone up over the years.

“It would be good to get more Liberal Democrat policies adopted by the council but I think we have certainly made our presence felt as part of the coalition over the last two and a half years.”