Focus on Ipswich

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the tussle for Ipswich, one of the few seats consistently won by Labour in East Anglia.IPSWICH is an enigma – a parliamentary constituency which carries the name of the town but only includes 75% of its voters.

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the tussle for Ipswich, one of the few seats consistently won by Labour in East Anglia.

IPSWICH is an enigma – a parliamentary constituency which carries the name of the town but only includes 75% of its voters.

With the remainder of Suffolk's county town gathered into the rural clutches of Suffolk Central since 1983, Ipswich constituency is an interesting mix of council estates, leafy prosperous streets, new estates, and luxury flats.

When Margaret Thatcher was re-elected in 1987 with a substantial, but reduced majority, the Ipswich bucked the trend and the Conservatives gained the seat from Labour.

It remained Tory for just five years, falling to the popular and populist local Labour politician Jamie Cann in 1992 by just 235 votes. The Blair landslide of 1997 increased Cann's majority to 10,436.

But Cann was an ill man, and lived for just six months after his re-election. The by-election that sent Chris Mole to Westminster produced a Labour majority of 4,087, with the Liberal Democrats taking votes from both Labour and the Conservatives.

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Since the war, the town of Ipswich has produced some well loved MPs – Labour's Vernon Stokes, Sir Dingle Foot, Ken Weetch and Jamie Cann, with Conservatives Ernle Money and Michael Irvine still fondly remembered.

Chris Mole has yet join the league of distinguished gentlemen and despite defending an 8,081 majority – for electoral purposes, by-election statistics are discounted – he must have regard to the changing demography of the town.

Legions of luxury, expensive apartments and houses are springing up all over the constituency, compensating for the 1990s movement out of Ipswich of Tory-inclined middle class voters to the estates of Kesgrave and Pinewood.

Ipswich has taken to heart Government edicts to build on brown field sites. In addition to the vast acres of the Ravenswood development on the former airport, and the select St Mary's development off Woodbridge Road, every piece of land in the town centre and around the docks is bulging with upmarket flats.

With property prices 20% lower than Colchester and Chelmsford, workers in the City of London are snapping them up as a means of getting a foot on the housing ladder.

The first sign of a shift in Ipswich's voting came last year, when Labour lost control of the borough council after 26 years to an alliance of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. One of the intriguing aspects of this election is that two of the council's partners in coalition – Paul West and Richard Atkins – are standing respectively for the Tories and Lib Dems.

Chris Mole believes voters are content – they've got jobs with decent pay, they don't feel particularly overtaxed – and they won't put that at risk by letting the Conservatives back in.

He's proud of Labour's spending in Ipswich. "Under Labour, the investment in maternity, cancer and accident and emergency services at Ipswich Hospital has been tremendous," Mr Mole says the new Garrett Anderson annexe due to open in 2007 will help the hospital meet its targets to reduce waiting times from nine months to three years.

Two new schools have opened in Ipswich, the first for 25 years, at Ravenswood and Piper's Vale. "I look forward over the next 10 years to the Government's promise that all high schools are going to be renewed and that major improvements are planned for primary schools."

For 11 years, Chris Mole has actively campaigned for a university in Ipswich and this has now been fulfilled with a pre-election announcement that it is to be built. "It will serve the county as a whole but with its base in Ipswich, there is no doubt it will strengthen the local economy in terms of the number of students and their spending power who will be living here, and the activity that supports the university itself.

"The knock-on effect is a new college of further education. That's more millions of pounds of investment in Ipswich."

Record numbers of policing in Ipswich and community support officers have allowed more high visibility policing and reassurance in the town centre and south east Ipswich.

There is concern in Ipswich at the train service to London, especially since the creation of a single franchise into Liverpool Street. "The bottom line is we are still catching up with decades of under investment in the infrastructure – I trust that `One' railways are going to respond to concerns over the timetable, but I don't think everyone is going to be happy."

Mr Mole acknowledges Iraq is a key concern. "I voted against the Government on the first Iraq resolution because it was not clear to me that ministers would allow a substantive vote on the decision to take military action. This was my way of sending a message that I felt that vote was necessary.

"When the substantive vote was taken, I backed military action not because of weapons of mass destruction but on humanitarian grounds. On balance I think it was the right thing to do."

Paul West again stands for the Conservatives and believes the stigma of voting Tory in the past 10 years no longer exists. "That's because Michael Howard is strong and respected – he stands up for what he believes is right."

Mr West says the doorstep campaign has been overshadowed by public hostility to Labour's negativity, a lack of trust in the Prime Minister, and that after eight years voters feel let down.

"Asylum and immigration, pensions, council tax, transport are issues concerning Ipswich. Then there's hospital cleanliness – people who regularly visit friends and relatives at Ipswich Hospital see dirty corridors and raise concerns. This anger is not being driven by politicians – there is a problem which needs sorting out."

The development of Ipswich concerns Mr West. "In the next 15 years, 15,000 new homes are projected for Ipswich with an additional 5,000 on the borough's boundary – people are wondering how the town can cope with moving people around, transport, health services, and schools.

"Expansion always runs ahead of services and infrastructure. What we are saying is that it needs to be the other way around. We need a proper plan in place."

Linked with this is the university. He backs the project but would rather have seen a site chosen on the outskirts of the town that could have better handled the traffic. To solve the town's transport problems, which will increase because of the extra students, he favours a tram link from the station through to the waterfront serving the university site and the entertainment complex at Cardinal Park.

Mr West – whose wife is a daily commuter to London – says Ipswich's expansion is attracting more rail passengers, but they are becoming increasingly fed up with cramped conditions, late services, and cancelled trains.

"The Conservatives need to acknowledge that the way privatisation was done was clumsy and has not led to the improvements we would have liked," conceded Mr West. "Equally, Labour needs to acknowledge that it has not addressed the problems and we both need to discuss where we go from now without all the political point scoring."

Liberal Democrat Richard Atkins was only chosen a few weeks before the election but dismisses the notion that Ipswich is a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives. "There are people in this town who are unhappy with both parties – we are picking up the disenchanted and adding them to our core vote."

The by-election in 2001 boosted the Lib Dem organisation in Ipswich, gaining the party members and supporters on a scale not seen for decades. Liberal Democrat advances on the borough council have added to Mr Atkins' optimism that Ipswich will produce a result that could send shockwaves through Tory and Labour ranks.

"There are a lot of people out there who are concerned at the war the Iraq war was conducted, the lack of weapons of mass destruction, and that it was all down to regime change.

"We are getting voters coming across to us who have not forgotten the Tory years and are uncomfortable with the idea of another Conservative government."

One of his key messages to voters will be the abolition of council tax, to be replaced by a local income tax if there is a Charles Kennedy-led government. "The people most likely to vote are the elderly, and some of the people most affected by the rises in council tax are the elderly. The revaluation exercise which has just started will make the tax more unpopular and will be a major problem for the Tories who introduced it and Labour who have maintained it."

He doubts that Labour's massive investment in public services has produced the results Tony Blair claims. "How many extra nurses do you see on the wards? What is the reason we have to import nurses from the Philippines and elsewhere? Why are we not keeping British nurses in the profession? Putting in layers and layers of management is not the solution and does not change the morale of staff."

Mr Atkins is an enthusiastic supporter of the university project. "The percentage of Suffolk 18 year olds going on to higher education is lower than the rest of the country. Many of those who do and either stay in that area or go somewhere else but do not return to their home county – it's a brain drain from Suffolk which is desperate for our future."

Standing on a "local issue of national importance" is Sally Wainman, who is determined to save Broomhill Pool from closure. A staff nurse at Ipswich Hospital, Mrs Wainman says: "One of the Government's stated aims is to reduce obesity in children and improve their diet. Access to regular exercise, like swimming, is needed to go hand in hand with dietetic changes."

Mrs Wainman, who will have the label Independent next to her name on the ballot paper, adds: "My route into politics has been through my life-long love of swimming – for 2½ years I have campaigned for the restoration of Broomhill Pool – but I am concerned about other local and national issues.

"These include the plight of railway commuters struggling with One's timetable, the need for affordable housing of good quality, and the prospect of a massive building programme across East Anglia without the necessary infrastructure to support it."

The fledgling English Democrats are fielding Jervis Kay in Ipswich. As one of the country's leading lawyers, he says Labour's plans to lock up people without trial "are reminiscent of Nazi Germany in 1937."

Mr Kay accuses the Government of dismissing England by granting Scotland devolution and then stuffing the Cabinet full of Scottish MPs to rule the roost over England. The English Democrats want a proper parliament for England and also oppose Tony Blair's policies of taking Britain into a "totally undemocratic, federal European Union."

Alison West, who works as a clerk in the social care division of Suffolk County Council, is fighting Ipswich for the UK Independence Party. "I'm finding support from first time voters and those who feel they have no voice because they are ignored by the other parties.

"As soon as I say I'm from UKIP, people shake me by the hand and wish me good luck, saying: `We've got to get out of Europe.'

"Voters are fed up of Britain being treated as lap dogs by the rest of Europe while the main parties insult their intelligence by saying they are fighting this country's corner," says Mrs West – who is no relation to the Conservative candidate.

"Small businesses are very responsive to the UKIP message. They are being overwhelmed by bureaucracy and regulations and pushed into the ground."


General Election 2001

*J Cann (Lab) 19,952; E Wild (Con) 11,871; T Gilbert (LD) 5,904; W Vinyard (UKIP) 624; P Leech (Socialist Alliance) 305; S Gratton (Socialist Labour) 217. Lab maj 8,081. No change. Turnout 57%. Electorate 68,198. Swing 0.4% Lab to Con.

By-election November 22 2001

C Mole (Lab) 11,881; P West (Con) 7,794; T Munt (LD) 6,146; D Cooper (Christian People's Alliance) 581; J Wright (UKIP) 276; T Slade (Green) 255; J Ramirez (Legalise Cannabis) 236; P Leech (Socialist Alliance) 152; N Winskill (English Ind) 84. No change. Turnout 40.26%. Electorate 68,244.

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