Suffolk politicians face 2021 elections with some concern

Endeavour House, Ipswich

All 75 seats at Suffolk County Council are up for election in May. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Today can be seen as the official first day of the 2021 election campaign - local councils across Suffolk have entered the period they call "purdah" when officers are not able to take on any political roles whatsoever.

And this year's local council elections are set to be the biggest voting-fest we have seen in the county apart from general elections - with well over a week of voting and counting for many people.

The third Police and Crime Commissioner election looks fairly straight-forward now and people are getting used to the concept of voting for someone to oversee the work of the police.

The turnout for the election this year may be rather better than in the past because it's on the same day as the county council vote - and thousands more people have registered for postal votes this time around.

But it's the election for a new county council in Suffolk that is looking rather tasty this year - and where there could be some really interesting developments.

Both of the two largest parties on the council have serious issues to face.

Several leading cabinet members are leaving the authority - deputy leader Mary Evans isn't seeking re-election and neither is cabinet member for finance Gordon Jones. They will be big losses for leader Matthew Hicks.

Current SCC leader Matthew Hicks

Suffolk County Council leader Matthew Hicks is leading some key members of his group. - Credit: SCC

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Then there have been culls of councillors among some Conservative Associations. This has seen former council chairs deselected - Jane Storey from the Elmswell/Woolpit division and Guy McGregor from Hoxne on the Suffolk/Norfolk border.

Neither have ruled out the possibility of standing as Independents in opposition to their party - a move that would result in their expulsion by the Conservatives.

We saw what can happen when parties split like this four years ago when a de-selected Conservative stood against his party, split the vote and allowed a Labour councillor to be elected.

I understand the Tories are relaxed about the position in Hoxne - but have real concerns that a split vote in Elmswell/Woolpit could let in the Greens where their current candidate won a seat on Mid Suffolk council a couple of years ago.

It's not just the Tories where splits have opened up - the Labour group is losing more than half its current members at May's election.

Some of these departures are the normal "churn" of councillors - you always find a few retiring or moving on. But with six out of 11 councillors stepping down, one of those not seeking re-election said of the group leadership: "To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one councillor is a misfortune, to lose six looks like carelessness!"

There have been claims of bullying within the group, Labour leader Sarah Adams had to make a public apology to her colleague Sandra Gage at a council meeting, and there have clearly been tensions within the county council Labour group.

Whether a new cohort of councillors will be able to restore a sense of unity to the group remains to be seen.

Neither the Greens nor the Liberal Democrats have any kind of profile in parliamentary politics in Suffolk - but in local elections where councillors can rely on local support, they can do very well.

The Greens won some surprising seats last time - taking Lavenham and one of the Beccles seats. They fancy their chances in Mrs Storey's seat and in a few other places.

The LibDems are defending seats held by two of the most experienced councillors, David Wood and John Field, who are standing down. Both of those seats are coveted by other parties - and without a personal vote built up over years or even decades, they may be difficult to defend.

One last point. People who stand for councils tend not to be doing it for the money. Most councillors do work pretty hard but the financial reward isn't that great!

I've seen ludicrous suggestions under some of the stories we write about local politics suggesting that council leaders earn sums straying into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

I realise that most of these comments are motivated by sheer malice with no regard for the truth - but the fact is that for the level of responsibility they have the rewards are very modest.

In 2019/20 Suffolk County Council leader Matthew Hicks earned £43,000 from his role - a reasonable salary, but not exactly excessive for someone running a £500m operation!

And Ipswich Council Leader David Ellesmere took home £16,500 from the borough - a far cry from the £200,000 that one ill-informed comment suggested!