Colchester Lib Dems in turmoil

LIBERAL Democrats in Colchester were thrown into turmoil last night after three borough councillors quit the party, launching a blistering attack on the town's MP, Bob Russell.

LIBERAL Democrats in Colchester were thrown into turmoil last night after three borough councillors quit the party, launching a blistering attack on the town's MP, Bob Russell.

Mr Russell said it was a "mystery" why they had chosen to single him out, adding he had helped and supported them throughout their entire time at the council.

Gerard Oxford, his wife Beverley and Ian Ringer – who all represent the Highwoods ward – had been due to consider their positions at a meeting next week, after discussions with Lib Dem council leader Colin Sykes.

But the trio who also held senior positions within the local party, resigned as Liberal Democrats immediately after what they described as an "unhelpful" intervention by Mr Russell.

Mr Sykes' leadership of the hung council is now open to challenge, as he no longer heads the largest political group.

The Oxfords and Mr Ringer later said the issues which led to their resignation stretched back over a year.

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They included what Mr Oxford described as "inappropriate influence" that Mr Russell – a former councillor with 30 years service – allegedly attempted to extend over current councillors, in particular those involved in local campaign matters.

As well as no longer sitting as Liberal Democrats in the chamber, Mrs Oxford resigned as the secretary of the party's Colchester constituency executive and the secretary of its campaigns committee.

Mr Oxford has given up his positions as Deputy Chairman of the Lib Dems' constituency executive and chairman of the campaigns committee.

Mr Ringer has also quit his role as Colchester Lib Dem's constituency membership secretary.

Mr Oxford said: "We have had a dispute with the party for over a year, with particular reference to some senior figures, including the town's MP.

"We thought that Lib Dems had principles about how they behaved in the party. We thought they had principles about right and wrong.

"We do not think that now."

In a letter written to the three councillors shortly before their resignation, Mr Russell urged them neither to resign from the party nor resign the council whip.

"You must do what you think is right, but either move would lose you considerable respect and friendship from those who hold you in high regard," Mr Russell wrote.

"The only people who will rejoice if you leave our group will be our Tory and Labour opponents; the former are beginning to get their act together while Labour would welcome a diversion from their own serious problems (locally and nationally.)

"If you go the main losers will be those of your colleagues who are seeking re-election this May, notably Anne Turrell, whose Mile End seat is vulnerable."

Mr Ringer accused Mr Russell of trying to put unfair pressure on councillors.

"We didn't take the decision lightly. He wrote us letters and emails saying we weren't working hard enough. But that's none of his business. He is not a councillor," he said.

Council leader Colin Sykes said he was saddened the three party members felt they had to resign from the Lib Dems at the town hall.

"This appears to be a spat between them and Bob. It's not to do with the group or with me, as far as I know."

He added that Mr Russell's influence over the Lib Dem group was not as great as before the MP gave up his council seat after the last General Election.

But he added: "Bob is a former long serving councillor and a former group leader. He is used to voicing his view and having it listened to.

"The world and the group have moved on from the point when Bob was group leader, and sometimes it's difficult to give up something you are used to doing."

Mr Russell said he was baffled at being singled out and denied interfering with town hall matters, as he was no longer on the council, or attempting to exercise any inappropriate influence over local Lib Dems.

"It's all so mysterious. I am not going to say anything bad about them. It would be wholly inappropriate.

"I am disappointed they are lashing out at me, but they might as well go for the top guy instead of somebody lower down the list.

"It does not bear any logic whatsoever, and nobody in the party can fathom out what it is all about.

"They have done nothing more than lash out at the MP who has done nothing more than give them total support and encouragement."