Conservatives expect to hold Mid Essex heartlands

CHELMSFORD, Maldon, Witham, Braintree, and Saffron Walden will all have their own MPs from next week, while further north, Colchester, Harwich and Clacton have been included in the merry-go-round.

These are exciting times in the history of parliamentary representation for Clacton and Witham. It means that, for the first time, their names will enter the hallowed pages of Hansard whenever their newly elected MPs speak.

Clacton has always been tied with Harwich, while Witham has at various times been included in the Maldon or Braintree divisions.

Both towns have been given their own MPs as part of a massive shake-up in parliamentary boundaries in Essex. Population growth has dictated that the county should be given an extra MP, and once the Boundary Commission decided that the Chelmsford West division should be redrawn to give the historic borough of Chelmsford its own MP – surrounding rural parts of the borough have been ceded to Saffron Walden, Maldon and Rayleigh – then everything flowed from that.

After the election, Thurrock will be divided between two MPs, with part of the unitary borough lumped in with Basildon South. There have been some other boundary changes in the south of the county, but Harlow, Epping Forest, Brentwood & Ongar, Castle Point, Rayleigh, Saffron Walden Southend West, and Southend East & Rochford retain their names.

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The prize for the weirdest new constituency surely goes to Witham.

It is carved out of chunks of the Maldon, Braintree and Colchester districts, and includes territory which was formerly in the Maldon, Colchester, Braintree and Essex North parliamentary constituencies.

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It’s little wonder that the electorate is confused. Voters have to get accustomed to the new boundaries, in the knowledge that if the Conservatives win the General Election, David Cameron has promised to reduce the number of MPs by 10%, which will result in another major upheaval within months of the new parliament being sworn in.

Because the boundaries are so dissimilar to those fought at the 2005 election, it is impossible to calculate how safe the new Witham seat really is for the Conservatives.

UK Polling Report has calculated a notional 2005 majority, putting the Tories in the lead by 4,524 – a majority of 10.8%, which makes it vulnerable to a 5.41% swing to Labour.

When Witham Conservatives met to choose a candidate more than three years ago, most expected them to go for the archetypal well-heeled white city gent or landowner. That they plumped for Priti Patel, the daughter of East African refugees, shows just how much the Tories have changed under David Cameron.

She wowed those at the selection meeting with a strident, no nonsense, law and order speech.

Mrs Patel is a smart cookie. She once worked for Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party and is thus a thoroughbred Eurosceptic – just what the people of Essex demand.

But it was not just this which enabled her to turn the tables on the others on the shortlist. She gave a barnstorming performance which brought thunderous approval when she pronounced herself a hanger and flogger.

Her Labour opponent John Spademan admits the Tories are confident and says of Mrs Patel: “She is a powerful individual.”

He says: “I have to be dreaming if I think I’m going to win, but you have to dream to be a parliamentary candidate. We are in with a chance if we can marshal all our supporters.

“We are not getting a bad reception on the doorstep. People are very pleasant, and voters know we are an active local party.”

Mr Spademan is a Christian socialist and during the campaign, he has preached at Stanway Kingsland Pentecostal Church, giving a testimony on how he got into politics.

The Liberal Democrats have selected Margaret Phelps, who was the first member of her family to stay on at school beyond the age of 16, and in her own teaching career has taught many talented students who could not afford to go to university.

“I know what a struggle it is to support three children through university and then for them to get onto the housing ladder,” said Mrs Phelps. “I feel very strongly that it is unfair for a child’s educational opportunities to depend largely upon where parents can afford to buy a house.”

She stood in Labour’s Welsh stronghold of Cynon Valley at the last election “to make a stand against the Iraq war and for a return to the supremacy of Parliament under the rule of law.”

Married for more than 40 years to an economist, they have lived in Oxford, Nairobi, Glasgow and Cardiff. Her interests include reading and writing poetry and walking in the Essex countryside.

If the Tories were to lose any seat in this mid Essex belt, it would be Chelmsford. The boundaries have been redrawn to basically what they were in the 1980s when Norman St John Stevas clung on by fewer than 400 votes despite Margaret Thatcher’s love affair with “Essex Man”.

Chelmsford is a target seat for the Liberal Democrats, as they look to capitalise on leader Nick Clegg’s heroics in the televised leaders’ debates, and the popularity of their finance spokesman Vince Cable.

Nevertheless, it would be a pretty spectacular result if the Essex county town was to reject the Conservatives at this election.

The party’s Lib Dem candidate Stephen Robinson detects a “significant” shift in political support towards his party, with enthusiasm among the electorate for his party’s key messages. “Since the first television debate, support for us has mushroomed. This election is about a plague on both your houses and, under Nick Clegg, we have the credibility which people are now noticing.”

Mr Robinson said: “I am delighted with the response that I have been getting as I talk to local people in Chelmsford. There is a mood towards real change and, here in Chelmsford, the only change will be a change from a Conservative MP to a Liberal Democrat one.”

Tory Simon Burns – MP for Chelmsford West since 1987 – says: “At the last three General Elections, county council polls have been on the same day and it is obvious that a large number of voters support the Lib Dems in the council elections but vote Conservative at the General Election.

“Chelmsford is basically a Conservative area. Labour is poorly supported and this time it will get even fewer votes at the General Election – people are switching directly from Labour to the Tories.

“Chelmsford folk want to see the back of Gordon Brown and there is a lot of opposition to Labour’s housebuilding targets. We must let local people determine through their councils the number of houses needed.

“I am encouraged and delighted at the positive response of my campaign on the doorsteps in Chelmsford. The reaction has been even more positive than I anticipated with the Conservative vote hardening up, and switches from people who have not voted Conservative in the past but do not want five more years of Gordon Brown and fear that a vote for the Liberal Democrats would give Gordon Brown another five years in 10 Downing Street.”

In Braintree, Brooks Newmark will be hoping that his record over the past four years will be enough to see him comfortably home. “Braintree wants a Government which is at least sensitive to the concerns of people in rural areas. For the past 12 years, Labour has paid lip service to the needs of rural communities.

“People want change and there is a recognition that they must vote Conservative to get rid of this government. Unlike other parts of the country, we do not have as many people who are dependent on the state for benefits and employment.

“The sizeable number of commuters want more trains a day, which is why I support the proposed loop line at Cressing. I support the re-linking of pensions to earnings and I have backed the new community hospital on the St Michael’s site and I am keen to keep the maternity unit at the Courthold.

“The problems of Braintree town centre are of real concern to traders and small businesses. We have lost Woolworth’s and Marks & Spencer and we need to put a strategy in place to make the centre a more appealing place to shop

“The A120 dualling to Marks Tey is vitally needed, but its construction would have taken up the whole of the regional transport funding pot. I want to see this as a high priority and would like to see the EU asked for financial support because the route is part of the Trans European Network road system. Labour is very good at negative campaigning and are trying to frighten people by alleging we will cut bus passes and the winter fuel allowance. That is nonsense. I recognise we need the biggest swing since 1931 to win the General Election, but I think we will make it.”

Steve Jarvis, opposition leader on North Herts District Council, is the Liberal Democrat choice for Braintree.

“Until the Government abolished them last month, I was a member of the East of England Regional Assembly and the regional planning panel. I used my position there to argue that development plans should be about raising the quality of life, rather than just about numbers of houses.

“I want to make Braintree and Britain a fairer place for all of those who live there.”

Mr Jarvis trained as an engineer before working with a range of large telecommunications and IT companies. For the past 10 years he has run his own small business developing and selling business software. He is married with three grown-up children and his other interests include classic cars and sailing.

Which leaves us with Maldon and Saffron Walden. Boundary changes have made Maldon one of the top five safest Conservative seats in the whole of the UK, while Saffron Walden is not far behind. Stansted airport is in Saffron Walden and despite being in the non political role of principal deputy speaker in the Commons, the MP since 1977 Sir Alan Haselhurst has been in the forefront of opposition to the airport’s expansion.

The Liberal Democrats in the constituency and their councillors on Uttlesford district – including parliamentary candidate Peter Wilcock – also have been fighting the plan for a second runway, and earlier this month, the Labour Party manifesto conceded that it would not be built until well after the impact of a third runway at Heathrow had been assessed.

Both Saffron Walden and Maldon ooze affluence. Labour has no chance of winning either of them and the Liberal Democrats are aiming to be the party which are the main challengers to the Tories but are a long way behind.

UKIP and the Green Party are bit part players in these two constituencies in a contest which will result in both Sir Alan and John Whittingdale comfortably re-elected with the support of more than 50% of those who vote.

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