E-voting dominates Ipswich interest

IPSWICH is in the forefront of a nationwide pilot scheme to encourage greater voter interest. Almost 8,000 people have signed up to use 21st century technology being introduced for the first time in East Anglia.

By Graham Dines

IPSWICH is in the forefront of a nationwide pilot scheme to encourage greater voter interest.

Almost 8,000 people have signed up to use 21st century technology being introduced for the first time in East Anglia. Dubbed e-voting, the project will allow residents to vote by e-mail, mobile phone text message, touch-tone phone, and interactive television, as well as by post or going to the polling station in person.

James Hehir. Ipswich council's chief executive and returning officer, is delighted by the interest shown in the experiment, which is being closely monitored by the Government.

"It's too early to tell how it will affect turnout – it depends what happens on the day, but certainly I think that nearly 8,000 people can't be wrong and it's been well worth doing."

And Ipswich certainly needed to do something. The turnout in recent elections in some parts of the borough has been shamefully low. Last May, seven of the 16 wards – Bridge, Gainsborough, Gipping, Priory Heath, Westgate, Whitehouse and Whitton – attracted less that 30% of voters to the polls, with only St Margaret's approaching respectability with 47.4%.

Most Read

Although it may be apathy, a curious "couldn't care less" attitude by people the first to moan when council tax goes up, the council was determined to make it easier, especially the younger generation living frenetic lifestyles, to be able to vote from home or the office, or on the move from their mobile telephones, televisions or computers.

Whatever happens on polling day, Ipswich will remain solidly Labour. Last year's all-out election contested on new boundaries was nothing short of an absolute disaster for the Conservative Party.

The Tories had confidently predicted in advance that, at the very least, they would run Labour close. But of the 48 seats contested, Labour won 35, the Conservatives 9, and the Liberal Democrats 4.

What went wrong? In part, it was down to organisation. Labour's party machine in Ipswich is impressive, with a constituency office, an agent-secretary, and plenty of volunteers. In contrast, the Conservatives do not have the money to match Labour despite much enthusiasm among a hardy band of leaflet deliverers.

Secondly, Ipswich is a town relatively content with its lot. The majority of voters seem to support higher Whitehall and local government investment in health and education.

For many, the high levels of council tax – the combined county, borough and police levies make Ipswich one of the top rated Band D districts to live in England – are irrelevant.

The biggest proportion of properties in the town is in the lower levels of Bands A and B and therefore the a minority of householders bear the brunt of the tax.

Council leader Peter Gardiner says he was "delighted" that last May the people of Ipswich shared Labour's priorities and gave the party a thumping majority.

"We do not take this support for granted though. In the past year we have been working hard to deliver on the promises we made last May," says Mr Gardiner.

"We have expanded the community caretaker service, improved street lights in 18 roads, introduced a permanent `NightBus' service, improved cleaning in the town centre, opened new toilets at Major's Corner, extended the brown bin recycling scheme to cover a further 9,000 homes, worked with housing associations to provide over 100 much needed new affordable homes, improved play areas at Castle Hill Recreation Ground, Bourne Park and Alexandra Park, and provided a new roof for the Regent Theatre.

"If re-elected we will continue to deliver on our priorities. We will improve street cleaning in residential areas, provide better street lighting in more roads, provide more new CCTV cameras in the town centre, introduce a new doorstep recycling scheme for paper and cans, and improve more play areas."

Mr Gardiner added: "Our positive programme is in stark contrast to the Tories and Liberal Democrats. While usually content just to carp and criticise from the sidelines, on the rare occasions when they do come forward with alternative proposals they are ill thought out and uncosted. Their sums just don't add up."

The Conservatives, although badly battered last year, are optimistic that they can make some gains, and will be disappointed if they do not win Rushmere, Stoke Park and possibly Whitton from Labour.

Crime and transport are the two Conservative campaign themes. "Crime is spiralling out of control and sweeping across our town," says Ipswich constituency chairman Jeffrey Stansfield.

"Since last December, there have been more than 10 raids on local stores throughout the town. This threat is reaching crisis point and action must be taken now – We do not want our town to be swamped by criminal gangs and drug dealers.

"Politicians and the police must wake up and get a grip before we sleep walk our way into a town run by criminals. Conservatives are the only party which has the credibility to be 'tough on crime.'"

Mr Stansfield claims traffic in Ipswich is grinding to a halt and as congestion gets worse "Labour cheers with delight."

He added: "Labour's anti car measures and the latest round of traffic lights and lane restrictions bring this a step closer. The new one-way system around the town is also playing its part in jamming things up.

"Labour and the Liberal Democrats have scuppered all new road building in Ipswich thus ensuring no worthwhile economic development."

Liberal Democrat group leader Inga Lockington said an environment had to be laid to enable the council and citizens to respect and value one another.

"We support local forums with delegated powers to deliver local solutions. Councillors and their communities would meet with a designated officer responsible for locality services, street cleaning, lighting, pavement maintenance, dumped cars, crime, parking, traffic and waste management. Each forum would work with local police, Ipswich Primary Care Trust and businesses and be represented by a designated Executive member.

"Lib Dems support the establishment of an arms-length Trust to provide for the future of Broomhill Pool, upgrade inadequately metalled roads and prioritise maintenance of pavements and cycle tracks, provide fuel-efficient street lighting to optimise safety and environmental care, work with young people to reduce crime and alienation, promote neighbourhood and pub watch schemes, build environmental statements into all Council policies and contracts, guarantee access for all to council services and ensure a brown bin service to anyone who wants it, promote doorstep collection of dry recyclables, and optimise Park and Ride to reduce traffic congestion and street parking."

Mrs Lockington added: "Because Lib Dems believe that taxation is necessary for a decent society but wasting tax is wrong, we will bear down on financial waste but test all cost cutting proposals for future impact."

But all eyes will be on the turnout. Will e-voting really make a difference?

And the big imponderable for the political parties is the effect of the Iraqi conflict on the way people vote. Those traditional Labour voters who opposed military action and who wish to register a protest won't turn to the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats could cash in.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter