Focus on Harwich

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the issues in Harwich, a key seat which Labour is determined to hold. HARWICH may give its name to the constituency that covers a large chunk of the Tendring peninsular, but the parliamentary seat sprawls south to include seaside communities in Dovercourt, Walton, Frinton, Clacton and Jaywick.

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the issues in Harwich, a key seat which Labour is determined to hold.

HARWICH may give its name to the constituency that covers a large chunk of the Tendring peninsular, but the parliamentary seat sprawls south to include seaside communities in Dovercourt, Walton, Frinton, Clacton and Jaywick.

And like so many coastal areas of Britain, the Conservatives were routed in 1997 and failed to win them back in 2001. From Scarborough & Whitby to St Ives, Morecambe to Hove, Ayr to Conwy, disenchanted British resorts sent Labour, Liberal Democrat and Nationalist MPs to Westminster.

Harwich was no exception. Labour candidate Ivan Henderson won by 1,216 in 1997 - in no small part, claim the Tories, to boundary changes which moved 10,000 rural, mostly Conservative inclined, voters into neighbouring Essex North, and to the intervention of anti-EU Referendum Party.

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But in 2001, Mr Henderson actually doubled his majority, as the voters switched from the Liberal Democrats and the Referendum Party's successor UKIP to Labour.

Seaside communities have changed. They have large elderly populations on pensions and fixed income, together with disadvantaged families seeking cheap and plentiful bed and breakfast accommodation.

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Add to this a feeling that the Tories took these towns for granted and failed to invest in adequate public services and the result was goodbye to the Conservatives.

Local lad Ivan Henderson, who has drafted in two former regional directors of the Labour Party Graham Manuel and George Catchpole to run his campaign, is taking nothing for granted. "What I have to do is ensure the national positive stories are turned into local good news so that people know that the investment is paying off in health and education."

Mr Henderson proudly points to changes in the constituency since 1997, starting with new schools - Bishops Park secondary with 900 pupils in Jaywick, two primary schools in Frinton and Harwich, a neighbourhood nursery attached to Harwich primary with a Sure Start centre, and a rural primary school being built in Little Oakley.

"On top of that, there's a massive investment in Colbayns Secondary School with cyber cafes and a sports block that had been promised for more than 20 years.

"There has been positive investment right across the Harwich constituency and much of it has come about because there has been a Labour MP working closely with a Labour government determined to end years of underinvestment in this part of Essex.

"There is no doubt that the Labour Party is going to be re-elected at the election - the only way to keep the new facilities flowing into Harwich, Clacton and Frinton is to ensure a Labour MP is returned as well."

He says Harwich community hospital will have two operating theatres and more services, a direct result of Labour listening to what the residents have been asking for.

"The opposition does not think a lot of primary care trusts and wants to scrap them. But the most positive thing for my constituency since I was elected has been bringing local decision making back to the local area on health needs.

"Decisions about health needs were being made by people too far away - the primary care trust knows what is needed in the Tendring area, and is delivering more services locally so my constituents do not have to travel to Colchester.

"The New Deal, which the Tories want to scrap, has been a tremendous scheme, welcomed by the job centres and also the Colchester Institute's Clacton centre which has been involved in its implementation. It has allowed the long term unemployed to talk about their needs, social problems such as drug, alcohol, learning, rather than just signing-on. The gateways they went through in the interviews got to the bottom of the problem about why they were not being employed.

"Another example of the Government's investment in the constituency is transport. The Village Link service is regular and very well used, giving access to Clacton and Harwich from the rural areas and also allowing people to travel between the two towns. Prior to 1997, because of bus deregulation, the route had been removed and the only way to travel between Harwich and Clacton by public transport was a circuitous route changing trains in Manningtree and Colchester."

The Harwich constituency has the highest ratio of pensioner voters in the UK. "There are 5,000 households on the pension credit, 12,000 over 75s get free TV licences, more than 5,000 people got extra help to pay for their council tax."

Mr Henderson dismisses Europe as an election issue. "Europe is not top of the voting pile for the vast majority of electors in the constituency. The nonsense spouted by the Tories and UKIP plays on the fears of voters.

"Harwich is a port and many jobs depend on our trade with Europe - why jeopardise all that by severing links with the EU? European co-operation is good for Britain."

The intervention of Respect, the party formed by ex-Labour MP George Galloway after Tony Blair took Britain to war in Iraq, could make all the difference to Mr Henderson's chances of survival.

Candidate John Tipple, born in Clacton and active in constituency politics for 30 years, is unrepentant at the possibility. "I was absolutely delighted when Ivan was elected in 1997 - we had got rid of the Tories at long last. I assumed Labour would renationalise the railways and help rebuild the Merchant Navy.

"How wrong I was. Our MP even quit the RMT Union, along with John Prescott. He has not stood up for employment in the constituency - dock workers permanent jobs have been stolen from them in Harwich and given to Polish and Filipino employees.

"We have a Labour MP who has voted against single parents, for students' tuition fees, and supported the Iraq war."

If Mr Henderson does lose, it will be to the Conservatives, who rejected all aspiring candidates involved in local politics and opted for outsider Douglas Carswell, who at the 2001 election stood against Tony Blair in Sedgefield, and substantially reduced his majority.

He now lives in Clacton and until a few months ago, was working at Conservative Central Office, fine tuning party's policies on policing, immigration, older people and special needs education.

"My campaign will focus on law and order, yob culture, zero tolerance policing, and the frustration of residents of Clacton, Harwich, Frinton and Walton with petty vandalism and not so petty crime.

"Labour talks about making all these wonderful investments in public services - but take for example, the minor injuries unit at Thorpe-le-Soken which is being closed, a cutback in GP services which means that local people will have to travel to either Colchester or Clacton. This is an example of higher taxes not being invested in services for the community.

"We had the big saga about the closed maternity unit at Harwich being closed down, and sure, the Labour MP is talking about how this is being re-opened, but who closed it in the first place?

"GP surgeries in Holland-on-Sea have been rolled into one. That may result in more services, but try telling that to someone in their 80s or 90s who lives in Holland-on-Sea who does not have private transport to reach the super centre."

Mr Carswell said he was "really quite annoyed about all Labour's so-called extra investment. Much of it is the Private Funding Initiative and that means it is not the Government paying for it but taxpayers over the next 25 years.

"Labour dares talk about all this cash injection in education, but is trying to shut down the Leas School - it accommodates 70 special needs children, who currently go to a good school which works very well and is popular with parents.

"The Labour Party blames the Tory Essex county council, but this Government's Education Act specifically stipulates that local authorities have to follow a policy of so-called inclusion. It doesn't matter which party is in control of county hall - it has to do what the Labour government says. The 5,000 local voters who signed the petition to save the Leas know full well that when Labour goes on about how better education is, it isn't for local children with special needs."

Mr Carswell says that "without question" Europe will play a major part in the campaign. "Voters know the European Constitution is part of Blair's agenda for regional government and to take Britain further into Europe by stealth.

"We have a credible policy on Europe - we want to repatriate powers from Brussels. I find it encouraging that several hundred people who voted UKIP in last June's European elections out of frustration have said they will be voting for me."

The most energetic Liberal Democrat campaign seen in the constituency since 1987 is being waged by Keith Tully, who believes the voters' lack of trust in Tony Blair and the Tory decision to choose a candidate from outside the area has given him a real chance of pulling off an upset.

Mr Tully, 53, who describes himself as a single parent having raised two children on his own, joined the fray because of his opposition to the Iraq war.

He has been leading the fight for the improvement of the A120 from the Port of Harwich to Colchester.

"The present road is the worst maintained trunk road in East Anglia. It is used by heavy lorries every day but there is not money to pay for the upgrade because it was spent on invading Iraq."

He has concentrated his campaign on crime, vandalism, pensions and health and replacing council tax with a local income tax.

"Harwich Hospital lost its casualty department on Ivan Henderson's watch and patients have to go to Colchester. There are deep concerns over mixed wards in hospitals and there are no National Health dentists in Harwich Town and just one in Clacton - that's a scandal."

He supports renewable energy but opposes building offshore wind turbines at Gunfleet Sands, preferring instead under sea turbines.

Jeffrey Titford stood in 1997 for Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party and took 9% of the vote in this Eurosceptic heartland of East Anglia. Two years later, he became an MEP for the UK Independence Party, was re-elected in 2004, and is now trying again to win a seat at Westminster on a ticket which unashamedly calls for Britain to quit the EU.

However, UKIP does not appear on the ballot paper - after consulting the Electoral Commission, the Acting Returning Officer for Harwich John Hawkins allowed Mr Titford to use the label "We Want Our Country Back."

Mr Titford, who will stand down as a Euro MP if he wins the General Election, says: "A lot of pro-Europeans people try to hide away from the fact that `Europe' is a big influence on our lives. As an MEP, I know how much control comes from Europe and at Westminster, UKIP MPs will punch above their weight as we have in the European Parliament."

Mr Titford says his party has mainstream policies on immigration, health, deregulation of small businesses, and claims that it is possible to increase pensions by £25 a week - which in elderly Harwich may well be a vote winner - if Britain withdraws from the EU.

He believes one of the worst example of Government failure is to be found in Jaywick. "There have been Labour promises of money to change the conditions of the people who live there -- but nothing has happened. The people there are angry and I think I will win that area.

"I have been in the Harwich area nearly all my life, have been a local councillor, and I will be standing as the local man for the Harwich constituency. I've been in the European Parliament for nearly six years and I have spoken up on coast erosion, fishing and farming, matters which deeply affect this part of Essex."

A late entrant into the fray is 64 year-old Christopher Humphrey, of North Road, Clacton. He was not allowed to use the banner of his Official Fidgeyitous Party because it had not been registered with the Electoral Commission "so I'm standing as a nobody, no description on the ballot paper."

This is his 13th election, having contested the General Election in 1987 and receiving 161 votes and for a number of county and district contests, once as the Ha Ha Woof Woof candidate.

"I'm not sending out any literature - if people don't know me, I don't want their vote." He is campaigning to bring back capital punishment for child murderers, to legalise cannabis for a good night's sleep, new hospitals for Harwich and Frinton, and the abolition of council tax, car tax, and the television licence fee.

Harwich is a seat the Tories must win. But anyone who bets on the outcome is braver than I am.

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