Spot the difference in Colchester

By Roddy Ashworth

THE people of Colchester seem to have every excuse for being more apathetic than usual in the run up to this year's local elections.

Only a third of the council's seats up for grabs, meaning 40 councillors are not defending their wards, but none of the major parties is really presenting any tangible differences in their policies.

All parties support the four key regeneration zones, all are working towards a new, community stadium in the north of the town for Colchester United and all are committed to raising the town's profile in both Essex and East Anglia.

This strange situation – which effectively sees Labour singing from the same hymn sheet as the Tories and the Liberal Democrats – has come about for a number of reasons.

In a hung council such as Colchester's, with a cabinet made up of members from all three parties, some kind of shared vision is an inevitable necessity.

But unity on almost all aspects of council policy has been further tightened by the way the borough has developed into a more corporate-minded organisation in recent times. In particular, a "strategic plan" for Colchester – signed up to and agreed by all councillors – leaves very little room for political manoeuvre.

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This 50-page document sets a clear direction for the council, identifying its priorities for the next two years and virtually dictating the council's planning and budgetary policy. Without throwing the strategic plan out entirely, any political party able to form an administration at the town hall would find its hands pretty well tied behind its back.

Among councillors and the political groups themselves, however, these elections are important. The tussle for power is a two horse race between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, and it is tighter in this coming poll than it has been for years.

Part of the reason for this is Labour's disastrous collapse last May – it lost eight seats following boundary changes – which has been further exacerbated by two councillor resigning, one from the council and one from the party – the latter, Don Quinn, now billing himself as an Independent Labour member.

Another of the four remaining Labour councillors recently resigned as the party whip at the town hall, has given up attending group meetings and is hostile to at least one of his colleagues' key policies.

Local in-fighting, disillusionment among the party's grass-roots members and a lack of enthusiasm for some national policies – particularly the conflict in Iraq – is not a good recipe for electoral success.

It is even possible that Labour Group leader Tim Young could lose the party's only place at the cabinet table – he runs the borough's housing portfolio – if the group fails to make any headway in the election.

But the Liberal Democrats have also had their dramas in the last couple of months. A trio of their councillors – dubbed the "Highwoods Three" after the name of their ward, but now known as the Highwoods Independent Group (HIG) – resigned from the party in February, claiming Colchester's Lib Dem MP Bob Russell was exerting "inappropriate influence" over town hall matters.

This lead to the party losing its small majority over the Conservatives in the council chamber, and prompted Lib Dem council leader Colin Sykes to offer his position to his Tory rival John Jowers. It was only the closeness of the forthcoming poll and the administrative upheaval a power-swap would have caused that led to Mr Jowers declining to take the helm.

To snatch back their majority, technically the Lib Dems need only to gain two seats. But this depends on the Tories making no gains at all, and does not take into account any deals done with other parties by the four recently established independents. The party already has the tacit support of a further group of non-partisans, the four-strong Tiptree and Wivenhoe Independent Group (TWIG).

The Lib Dems are knuckling down to ensure they keep Mile End, which is vulnerable to the Tories, while they also have their sights set on Prettygate and Christchurch, where former mayor Martin Hunt is jostling with Labour's David Canning to steal the seat from Tory Roger Buston.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are targeting two of TWIG's seats, in both Tiptree and Wivenhoe, and look likely to gain Wivenhoe Cross from Labour, a surprising win for Labour in last year's poll.

The Tories are also keen to take Mile End, and are relishing the opportunity to exploit the possible split Lib Dem vote in Highwoods, where they hope some voters will stick to backing their party while others peel off out of loyalty to the HIG candidate, Ian Ringer.

Labour remains hopeful at Wivenhoe Cross, where two seats are up for grabs but only one Liberal Democrat is standing. The party also has an eye on Wivenhoe Quay and is targeting both Tiptree and Shrub End. However, senior members of the local party have admitted they will be happy if they emerge from the election with just seven or eight seats on the council.

Liberal Democrat leader Colin Sykes said he was optimistic his party would do well in the poll. "The campaigning we have done so far has been very, very encouraging in all our target seats.

"At the moment we are quietly confident we will keep Mile End and take the other three.

"The returns we received from a recent mass canvass in Prettygate were almost like the good old days.

"What is important in this election is what the individual party and their candidate have done on the ground.

"The message coming through is that Lib Dems are respected for doing more for local people – that we work for the area we represent."

Labour Group Leader Tim Young said: "Obviously we hope to make a number of gains and still play a significant force within the new borough council.

"We don't expect any party to have an overall majority, and therefore any discussions afterwards Labour will engage in with the best interests of the people of Colchester in mind.

"Voters in Colchester should look at the candidates and vote for the person they think will give them the strongest and most effective representation at the town hall.

"Labour councillors have a very good track record of delivering that."

And Conservative Group leader John Jowers said: "What we want is the council tax down, the wage base up and the community stadium built.

"The Conservatives have gone from 11 council seats to 24 in six years, because people know we will deliver.

"But now is the time to press on. We have done the new garrison. It's about time we got the community stadium built, and it has to stack up commercially.

"We have the plan, we have the strategy, and we have the financial policies in place. Now we want some action," he said.

"Lib Dems are very good at planting daffodils, but not much else."