Suffolk Coastal battle shapes up

LARGELY rural, dotted with market towns with its main urban area - the seaside resort of Felixstowe - at its southern tip, Suffolk Coastal is a huge constituency.

LARGELY rural, dotted with market towns with its main urban area - the seaside resort of Felixstowe - at its southern tip, Suffolk Coastal is a huge constituency.

For the five candidates seeking to be its next MP, it's an enormous amount of ground to cover - and a huge undertaking to represent effectively such a diverse area and communities with often conflicting interests.

Conservative voters in rural areas will always point the finger at Labour for not dealing with countryside issues and targeting instead cash and projects at areas where its support is strong.

Suffolk Coastal is mainly a prosperous area, boasting Britain's biggest port and BT as its main employers, and has low unemployment, though low wages to match in some areas.

From genteel Southwold in the north, through swathes of farmland and heaths, and including towns such as Woodbridge, Leiston, and Aldeburgh, it is a long coastal strip which has long been traditionally Conservative.

John Gummer has been its MP for the past 22 years.

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Back in 1992 he had an impregnable majority of 19,285. That has been cut drastically in recent years - in 1997 it was down to just 3,254, though it perked up again to 4,326 last time around.

It is hard to see the seasoned campaigner losing out this time.

Labour have a strong candidate in David Rowe but the party took a battering at the district council elections two years ago and now only have two of the 55 seats on Suffolk Coastal, while the Liberal Democrats have grown stronger.

Their candidate David Young though does have a lot of work to do to overhaul Labour and get into second place.

A total of 77,423 people are entitled to vote - the turn-out was 66.4 per cent last time - and Labour will be looking to the urban areas such as Leiston and parts of Felixstowe to ensure their support casts its votes.

John Gummer, Conservative

A Suffolk MP for 26 years, former Cabinet minister, and respected worldwide for his work on the environment and climate change, Mr Gummer is one of the Conservative party's elder statesmen.

Married with four children, two sons and two daughters, Mr Gummer, 65, relishes an election campaign, always enjoying the hustle and bustle and debating with people on the doorsteps.

“I cannot say I understand the polls at all - everywhere I have been so far, I have found Liberal Democrat and Labour voters saying they will be voting Conservative or not voting at all,” he said.

“There is a lot of concern about a great many issues but the council tax, MRSA and the NHS and hospitals in general, and coastal erosion, are the topics most people want to talk about.”

His campaign issues include improvements to Felixstowe General Hospital - on which he has taken a lead role - and rail freight to take lorries off the A14.

David Rowe, Labour

Deputy leader of Suffolk County Council, Mr Rowe, 38, has lived in Felixstowe and Trimley all his life and works as an environmental protection officer.

His high profile should be an enormous advantage and he believes it is essential MPs are local.

“I believe it is important that MPs know and live in the area they represent, that they are committed to their community and work hard for the issues that affect it,” he said.

“I have experience of representing local people: my commitment to them is long-standing.

“I would want to champion local issues, in particular, better local healthcare and childcare, job and education opportunities, and leading the fight against anti-social behaviour in Suffolk Coastal.”

David Young, Liberal Democrat

Mr Young, a former Royal Marine commando officer, knows he has a battle on his hands to overtake Labour, let alone topple Mr Gummer, but believes the seat is winnable.

“It's a big seat and a big challenge. I want my message to be positive - I am not into having a go at the other candidates or attacking them, I want people to look at our policies and make a decision on how to vote,” he said.

“We have ten commitments and those are what I am talking to people about on the doorsteps as well as listening to what people have to say.”

Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Waveney District Council, and owner of newsagents in Lowestoft, he has been working hard to get to grips with the rest of the constituency.

“Felixstowe is the jewel in the crown and I am getting to know the town very well! I am keen to get more clinics into Felixstowe General Hospital, and to see action on the dock spur roundabout to separate port and town traffic,” he said.

Paul Whitlow, Green Party

Middle school science teacher, Mr Whitlow, a divorcee who has two sons and two step-sons, is a town councillor in Halesworth where he has served as its chairman, and is a former Waveney district councillor.

He defected from Labour to join the Green Party two years ago.

He is particularly interested in rural transport issues and also preserving the environment, reducing the amount of energy used and reducing waste and pollution produced by over-consumption in the western world.

“People may think the Green Party is only concerned about climate change and energy, and we are concerned about leaving a world better for our children than we had for ourselves,” he said.

“But we also have strong policies on the NHS, the economy and road and rail transport.”

Richard Curtis, UKIP

Engineer Mr Curtis has had a tough start to his election campaign - called away to work in a shipyard in Japan for nearly two weeks.

Waveney candidate Brian Aylett has been standing in for him, while his election team are working hard in his absence.

“I am really looking forward to getting back and working on the campaign - it's been a bit disappointing really to have to work,” said Mr Curtis.

“We have some strong policies and we did very well in the European elections and I am sure we can build on that success.”

2001 general election result:

John Gummer (Con) 21,847

Nigel Gardner (Lab) 17,521

Tony Schur (LD) 9,192

Michael Burn (UKIP) 1,847