Focus on Suffolk West

Benedict O'Connor reports from the election campaign in Suffolk West.FEW areas of the political landscape can come as close to the ideal of a Conservative heartland than the constituency of Suffolk West.

Benedict O'Connor reports from the election campaign in Suffolk West.

FEW areas of the political landscape can come as close to the ideal of a Conservative heartland than the constituency of Suffolk West.

Characterised chiefly by the presence of Newmarket, the national headquarters of the twin industries of horseracing and breeding, and the attendant conspicuous wealth, it looks to be as safe a seat as is possible to find.

This view is reinforced by the surrounding traditional Conservative-voting farming community, which has joined with its equine cousin to voice stringent opposition to the ban on hunting, which of course the Tories have pledged to overturn should they gain power.

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Although the sport of kings is no longer the sole preserve of the landed and monied, and is as much a business as a sport, it retains some degree of the aristocratic character of its illustrious past.

However, scratching beneath the surface, the constituency is one of contrasts and is also home to the predominantly working class town of Haverhill, as well as the traditionally low-paid and often seasonally resident workers who form the backbone of racing, further complicated by the presence of two US air bases, and their perennially shifting populations.

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Recent years have seen much inward investment, chiefly in business sectors, and the racing industry is experiencing something of a boom period, with demand for training yards higher than ever.

There has also been some reversal of the trend for residents of Haverhill and Newmarket commuting to the lucrative IT industries of Cambridge, with business moving further out of the city, to more attractive and cheaper areas, allowing some of the economic benefits of such industry to remain local.

Progress has also been made in addressing the age-old problem of a high number of low-paid workers and a small amount of affordable housing, with several building projects underway across the region, and there is a some degree of economic optimism in Suffolk West.

Forest Heath District Council is also promoting ambitious plans to provide a major horseracing museum and tourist attraction and establish an "iconic" structure which would be the east's equivalent of the Angel of the North.

Further investment is planned in the shape of a new sporting village and rowing centre of excellence, backed by Sir Steve Redgrave, which would further increase the population by an estimated 12,000 people, as well as providing something of a shot in the arm for the local economy.

Present incumbent Richard Spring has held the seat since 1997, and was previously MP for Bury St Edmunds, from which the burgeoning West Suffolk constituency grew.

He survived the Conservative mauling of the 1997 election, scraping through with a majority of just 1,867, which was bolstered in 2001 to 4,295, when he polled 20,201 of the 42,445 votes cast.

In racing parlance Mr Spring looks like a "good thing" for the election race, and is sure to go off odds on favourite, but even favourites lose and the ever increasing number of Cambridge commuters, attracted by comparatively low house prices, who inhabit the constituency are something of an unknown quantity in the political stakes, and outside chances can never truly be written off.

Mr Spring, 58, is an MP of 13 years standing and his current portfolio is as shadow minister for financial services. In government, he was Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Northern Ireland Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence during the Major administration.

He is a Cambridge economics graduate, and before becoming an MP was vice president of Merrill Lynch and managing director of a financial services company.

He is joined on the hustings by old adversary Michael Jefferys, the Labour candidate who came within appreciable distance of poaching the seat in 1997, along with fellow candidates Adrian Graves, of the Liberal Democrats, and Ian Smith, of the UK Independence Party.

According to Mr Spring the main campaign issues affecting the West Suffolk electorate arise from Government funding levels, which he has criticised as being consistently below what can be expected for Suffolk and which are among the lowest in the country.

The funding problem, as Mr Spring sees it, has a detrimental effect on most major aspects of life in the county, including health, transport and local government.

He has been particularly vocal about the millions of pounds worth of debt facing the West Suffolk Hospital, which recently failed in its bid for foundation status, and consequent threats to the level of service.

He said: "The situation we have now in Suffolk is something we have never had, there are massive NHS deficits, we have had large council tax increases without proportionate increase in the level of services.

"Also the major transport scheme to improve the A11, the East of England's most dangerous road, has been cut.

"Meanwhile magistrates and post offices have been closed, crime has risen since 1997 and violent crime has soared.

"Basically we have been treated appallingly by central Government."

Michael Jefferys, 52, is currently mayor of Newmarket, and is the assistant head teacher at Newmarket Upper School.

He has lived in the area for 27 years and is the father of three children, and contested the Suffolk West seat unsuccessfully at the last two general elections.

Having said that he polled 18,214 votes in 1997, which was 37.1% of the vote, narrowly behind Mr Spring's 40.9%, forcing the most marginal Tory victory in the seat so far, although some of this Labour gain was clawed back in 2001 when he polled 15,906 votes, behind Mr Spring's 20,201.

He represents the major challenge to the status quo and is campaigning on the strength of the "successes" of consecutive Labour Governments.

He said: "Since 1997 there are two million more jobs and unemployment is at its lowest level since 1975.

"With a record number of people in work we are on the way to delivering full employment in every part of Britain. In this constituency, unemployment has fallen by 60%.

"For Britain to continue to be successful we need to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. In Suffolk West, every secondary school has achieved specialist status, which has brought £500,000 extra funding to each of the schools.

"The Educational Maintenance Allowance has enabled more than 3,500 young people to stay on in education in Suffolk."

Mr Jefferys also pointed to the fact that 51% of young people in Suffolk West achieved at least GCSE passes at grades A to C, compared with 41% in the year Labour came to power, and every three and four-year-old in Suffolk West is now entitled to a free part-time nursery place, benefiting more than 12,000 children in the area and allowing families to address balance of work and family life.

Other successes claimed by Mr Jefferys include the 7,400 people in West Suffolk who benefit from Labour's tax credit scheme, and the 130,000 people across the Eastern region affected by the most recent rise in the national minimum wage.

He added: "Britain has come too far and worked too hard for the Tories to wreck it again."

Liberal Democrat candidate Adrian Graves, 56, has also previously stood for election in the seat, polling 6,892 votes in 1997, which left him in third place.

In 2001 he did not contest Suffolk West, when some of the Liberal Democrat vote ebbed away to 5,017 votes, but the party has never posed any serious threat to the Conservatives or Labour.

He stood unsuccessfully for the European Parliament seat of London South Inner in 1994.

Mr Graves grew up in the seat, where his father was a vicar in Haverhill, but moved to London to pursue a career running his own public relations, public affairs and marketing consultancy.

He and his partner Ann, moved back to Suffolk in 2003 and live at Great Barton, near Bury St Edmunds, and he has one son, who is currently away at university.

Mr Graves reiterated his party's line that they represent the only "real alternative."

He said: "I stood as the Liberal Democrat candidate in my native West Suffolk in 1997. Here we are again in 2005 still facing the same issues and we are pledged to address them.

"Healthcare, from waiting lists to hospital cleanliness, education, from class sizes to university tuition fees, security, from fear of crime to overcrowded prisons.

"Transport, from rural bus services to the performance of our railways."

Other issues cited by Mr Graves include care for the elderly, along with his party's national aim to abolish the council tax in favour of a local earnings-based tax.

His personal ambitions include creating greater openness across all levels of government and tackling bureaucracy, further investment in healthcare, developing sustainable, renewable energy sources and providing affordable housing and encouraging young people to feel valued.

He added: "We are determined to fight a campaign which concentrates on real solutions to the real problems which people face in Britain every day."

Church organist Ian Smith, 38, who lives at Lakenheath was a member of the Referendum Party, prior to joining UKIP in 1999 and unsuccessfully contested the Norfolk South West constituency held by Gillian Shepherd in 2001.

He is married with two sons and is the organist and choirmaster at Thetford Parish Church.

Beside the national policies of his party, he feels the money saved by leaving the European Union could be diverted to local issues such as safety improvements to the A11 and the construction of a bypass at Brandon.

He also wishes to address the issues of the introduction of car parking fees in Newmarket and at the West Suffolk Hospital.

He said: "I think ultimately people are tired of hearing the same old thing from the other parties and are looking for an alternative and hopefully I can provide that."

THIS will be the last time that voters in Horringer, one of the jewels in Suffolk's crown, will be able to send Richard Spring back to Westminster. He's represented the area since 1992, but at the next election this Tory-inclined village is being shifted next door after Conservatives in marginal Bury St Edmunds successfully argued at the boundary inquiry that Horringer should be in the same seat as West Suffolk's largest town.


2001 General Election

*R Spring (Con) 20,210, M Jefferys (Lab) 15,906, R Martlew (LD) 5,017, W Burrows (UKIP) 1,321. Con maj 4,295. No change. Turnout 60.52%. Electorate 70,169. Swing 3.2% from Lab to Con.

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