All eyes will be on Stowmarket

THE first major electoral test in Suffolk since David Cameron became Tory leader - and the Liberal Democrats were overcome by revelations of alcoholism, rent boys, and closet gays - takes place on Thursday in the county council's Stowmarket South division - an area normally the fiefdom of the Labour Party.

By Graham Dines

THE first major electoral test in Suffolk since David Cameron became Tory leader - and the Liberal Democrats were overcome by revelations of alcoholism, rent boys, and closet gays - takes place on Thursday in the county council's Stowmarket South division - an area normally the fiefdom of the Labour Party.

Tory Keith Myers-Hewitt won it last May as the party romped to control on the authority, but following his death, Labour are going all out to take it back. If the Conservatives come a cropper, it will be the first major loss the party has suffered since Cameron's election.

It will take a swing of just 1.42% for Labour to win, but it may well be the reaction of the 1,036 people who last time voted Lib Dem eight months ago to the scandals that have rocked their party which will determine the outcome.


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And as the 73,000 members of the Liberal Democrat Party ponder which one of the three men seeking to lead their party is really up to the job, I have a message for them from four Lib Dem voters of my acquaintance - how could a party which has won the moral high ground with sound and ethical policies on social justice end up in such a mess?

These four people, who live somewhere off the A140 in the Suffolk Central and Ipswich North constituency, were appalled at the treatment handed out to Charles Kennedy, from which all the party's woes have stemmed.

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They are not alone. An opinion poll of party members has shown that 40% would like to see Charles Kennedy back in charge. Liberal Democrat grass roots appreciate that Mr Kennedy was the most successful leader the Liberal Democrats, in all their various guises, have had for more than 80 years. They have 62 MPs and their vote increased by a quarter under his leadership.

But it is very difficult to excuse alcoholism - it's self inflicted, just like drug addiction. And once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, there is never any full recovery.

There was a plan for Mr Kennedy to stand aside, and receive treatment while the party was in the care of an acting leader, and he would return at some later date. That was scuppered when most of his front bench team let it be known they could no longer work with him.

They knew what the voters didn't - that over the years, his constant denials of having a drink problem were a sham.

Opinion polls show that support seems to be draining away from the Lib Dems. The hoped for bounce in the polls from a lively and open leadership contest was hit for six by the Mark Oaten rent boy revelations and then Simon Hughes backtracking on denials that he was gay, which was as much an open secret at Westminster as Mr Kennedy's drinking.

The damage may be too late for the Lib Dems to repair in time for this year's council elections in London, the big city authorities, and urban areas in the shires including Ipswich and Colchester. They will be desperately hoping that the voters' have short memories when thousands of Lib Dem councillors seek re-election in the shires in the 2007 all-out elections.

But it would be a brave person indeed to wager that the Liberal Democrats will come out of the next General Election with more than two thirds of their current tally of MPs. The electorate is unforgiving - as Michael Foot after the 1983 election debacle and John Major after 1997 know to their bitter cost.

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