Politicians prepare to pound the streets

LAST night's full meeting of Ipswich council marked the end of term for the administration at Civic Centre. Council politics has now effectively come to an end - for the next six weeks politics will move out on to the streets as the parties try to win votes for May's elections.

LAST night's full meeting of Ipswich Borough Council marked the end of term, for the administration at Civic Centre.

Council politics has now effectively come to an end. For the next six weeks politics will move out on to the streets as the parties try to win votes for May's elections.

It has been said before many times - but this time around the elections really are crucial and really could determine the direction the town heads in for many years to come.

It is the first borough elections since the Conservative/Liberal Democrat administration took over at Civic Centre . . . and if the rumours from Whitehall are true it could be the last before a wholesale reorganisation of local government.

So where do the parties stand? What is the likely outcome of this year's election? What are the factors that will determine the result?

The first question is easy to answer. Labour is in a fix. It is defending seats that were last fought in 2002 in what was a highly successful year for the party.

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That year the entire council was up for election after the boundaries were redrawn and Labour exceeded all its expectations. It won seats it expected to lose - and seats that it did lose during the following two years.

So this time it is defending wards where it has only one councillor left from the three it won in 2002, in places like Stoke Park, Alexandra, Whitehouse, and Whitton.

If it hangs on to all these seats it will be a great success - but it would not actually improved its standing on the council.

Labour only needs two seats to regain control. But realistically its only real hope is to snatch one of the Conservatives' three Rushmere seats. If it did that and held on to all the seats it currently holds, it would leave the council very finely balanced with 24 Labour councillors, 15 Tories, seven Lib Dems, and two independents.

Labour's best hope could be the emergence of the independent group which is threatening to run several candidates in key wards.

No one expects these dissident Conservatives to win any extra seats on the council, but they could keep out their former party in some key seats - allowing Labour to either hang on or snatch an unlikely victory.

The Liberal Democrats are hoping to snatch the third seat in two wards where they already have two - Alexandra and Whitehouse - and to grab a seat in a fourth ward, Westgate.

It will be interesting to see what happens to their vote - Labour will be telling voters that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for a Tory-led council.

The Lib Dems will be claiming that their presence in the administration has prevented the Conservatives from pursuing hard-line policies and has been good for the council.

And of course all this local debate ignores completely what impact national events - the loans for lordships row, and the changes in leadership for the Tories and Lib Dems - will have on voters in the election.

The big unknown, of course, is how many will actually bother to turn out and vote. The battle for the politicians over the next six weeks is to persuade people that there is a point in getting down to the polling station.

AS he delivered his tenth budget speech this week, nothing could convince me that this was not Gordon Brown's swansong in that role.

As the scandal over loans for lordships continues to swirl and the education debate seems unlikely to die down naturally, I am convinced that Tony Blair's tenancy of 10 Downing Street can be measured in weeks or months rather than years.

His presence is clearly now doing his party seriously damage - he is right at the heart of the loans row and while the letter of the law has clearly been observed there is a very nasty whiff of hypocrisy seeping out of Number 10.

Mr Blair was right to hammer the Conservatives for their attitude towards cash for questions in the 1990s, but is now seen as a hypocrite as he allowed Labour to get round the strict disclosure rules he brought in by seeking loans instead of donations.

Labour's men in grey suits will undoubtedly start putting pressure on him to step down during the summer, especially if the party does badly in the local elections, because his presence at the top is now much more of a liability than an asset.

Mr Brown might be seen as more traditional Labour and less charismatic - but he's been untainted by these suspicions of hypocrisy.

And all the polls suggest that without Mr Blair at its head Labour would still have a clear lead over the Tories.

I'm now convinced that Gordon will be in the top job by the time the Labour conference comes around in October. Labour officials and MPs are as keen as most other people to keep their jobs and will be very keen to tell their current leader “Thanks, and good luck for the future” if they think it will improve their chances of staying in power.