Colchester campaign is an unequal two-horse race

COLCHESTER broke the mould in 1997. More than 60 years after the Liberals last held a seat in Essex, Bob Russell took Colchester and sent shockwaves through the political establishment in the county.

Not content with this ground-breaking achievement, Mr Russell bucked the trend and increased his majority in both 2001 and 2005.

The Liberal Democrat is aiming for his fourth election victory in a row and it would be an unwise gambler indeed who would bet against him once again representing Britain’s oldest recorded town.

Mr Russell is an unashamed localist, proud of Colchester and proud to be the town’s MP. He sees localism as a virtue and while championing some bizarre causes – including rubber band collectors – his brand of pavement politics seems to suit the voters of Colchester.

Much of his success can be attributed to the way he has marginalised the Labour Party in the borough. His triumphs have been based on the message that a vote for Labour in Colchester is a waste – the only way to stop the Tories from being elected is to vote for him.

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That’s worked for the past three elections, when the Conservatives were basically despised and not to be trusted with government again.

Labour’s vote in the constituency has shrunk to less than 20% and the party wasn’t helped in 2005 when local activists chose one of the most left-wing candidates in Britain to defend Tony Blair’s record, Laura Bruni.

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Until a few days ago, it looked different this time. Mr Russell was fighting the public perception that David Cameron has taken the Tory Party by the scruff of the neck and made it human again. Secondly, Labour has an energetic young candidate who learnt his political skills while working for Ivan Henderson, the Labour MP for Harwich from 1997 to 2005.

The Tories need to be 9% ahead of Labour in the opinion polls to defeat Labour nationally – a 9% increase in the Tory vote share at the expense of Labour would still leave Conservative candidate Will Quince well short of victory.

And this time Mr Russell is battling not Tory unpopularity but Labour’s. He has to convince former Tories who have over the years defected to the Lib Dems not to return home. His undoing will be voters jumping directly from Labour to the Conservatives – as reflected in the opinion polls – and Lib Dems deciding that Cameron is the person to lead the UK out of recession.

Nick Clegg’s performance in the first televised leaders’ debate stunned the Tory and Labour parties and made Mr Russell’s task much, much easier.

Colchester as a parliamentary constituency did not exist before 1997. It was created out of Colchester North and Maldon & Colchester South in the great boundary changes which contributed to the Tories’ ill fortune.

For 12 years, the Colchester seat has been co-terminus with the old historic borough, while the leafier suburbs have been in the Essex North seat. This time, the constituency loses Stanway, where support for the Tories and Lib Dems is about even, making it much more of an urban seat.

But it still includes the garrison. Many of the officers, troops and families stationed in Colchester are not on the electoral register, but vote in their home towns, while most of the remainder do not take an active role in local politics.

In 2003, Mr Russell, as a garrison MP, took the brave decision to vote against the Iraq war on political grounds, but once military action started against Saddam Hussein, he put his full weight behind the military fighting for Queen and country.

But perhaps the greatest enemy of all candidates in Colchester in this election is apathy. Just 56.83% of the electorate bothered to turn out last time – shamefully low – whereas in Essex North, 65.66% on the electoral register voted.

Mr Russell says: “This election campaign will be hectic but not be as sapping as my work as an MP. I regularly work a punishing 15-hour day and hold seven-hour advice bureaux at the weekend. 1997 was an incredible campaign for us, winning a seat for the Liberal Democrats in the East of England, Holding on in 2001 required a lot of work as did 2005, when an unpopular Labour government might have tempted voters to back the Tories.

“Throughout my political career, I have never taken any vote for granted. But our feedback is encouraging – even if people think its time for a change, they see nothing of any substance in David Cameron. The garrison only accounts for 2,500 voters out of 80,000, but it is the civilian spin-off of the garrison and the university which is important to this town in employment terms. Colchester is a town with a garrison, it is not a garrison town.

“I take a keen interest in defence I am parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion, I have been to Iraq once and Afghanistan twice is support of our fighting men and women. And I attended a four-day NATO training exercise in Germany. Our troops are professional and deeply impressive.”

Tory Will Quince, a national accounts manager for Britvic who lives in Prettygate, says he has a big team of volunteers which is growing all the time. “It is amazing that so many people are willing to give up their evenings to help my campaign.

“The two main campaign issues are the cost of living and the anger and concern at the over development in this town. Another 2,200 homes are planned at the top of Mile End Road, Paxman’s and Severall’s. It is putting pressure on the facilities in the town. This is all due to the government’s top down dictak on housing.

“Colchester is a relatively safe town but there is a public perception of crime and anti-social behaviour which must be addressed. Many think the town centre is intimidating at night.”

Mr Quince added: “Bob Russell is known in the town but if he is re-elected, he and all the other Lib Dems will help to prop up the Labour government if the election does not result in one party with a mandate. If we are to get rid of Labour and Gordon Brown, people must vote Conservative.”

Jordan Newell, who is Labour’s candidate, says this election will be dominated by modern media campaigning “but it does not make up for the personal contact with voters. Labour will be concentrating on getting our core vote in Greenstead and Berechurch out.

“I think this election is like February 1974 all over again. There is a mood of uncertainty among the voters, who have no great enthusiasm for any party. I blame the expenses uproar for that.

“Some of the issues on the doorstep have surprised me. Support for local pubs is strong and I have had many emails from constituents urging me to resist the repeal of fox hunting laws.

“In Colchester, we have the only Labour county councillor on Essex County Council. We have a depth of strength and Labour will be concentrating on getting our core vote in Greenstead and Berechurch out

“I think we will surprise people at this election. I know the value of localism. I commute every day to London and as I do not drive, I use the buses a lot. I share the concern of constituents at the transport in the town.”

John Pitts, the UK Independence Party candidates, says he is determined to turn Colchester into a strong three way fight between the Lib Dems, Tories and UKIP. Labour is finished in this town, There are so many Tories fed up with David Cameron reneging on his promise of a referendum on Lisbon Treaty that they are turning to us. Cameron changes his mind every two or three weeks – nobody knows what the Tory Party stands for any more.”

The Greens will be hoping to build on the support they have received in the town in recent local government elections and there are a number of other parties including the English Democrats and Independents.

But the fight is between Mr Russell and Mr Quince, which at this stage in the campaign looks somewhat unequal.

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