Tories retain Essex, Labour in meltdown

LABOUR'S presence on Essex County Council has been all but wiped out as results from the local elections came through with relentlessly gloomy news for the party.

Graham Dines

LABOUR'S presence on Essex County Council was all but wiped out yesterday as results from the local elections came through with relentlessly gloomy news for the party.

The Tories increased their majority and the Liberal Democrats also made significant gains in the poll, leaving the Conservatives with an even stronger controlling grip on the authority.

But Labour went from being the main opposition at County Hall to having just one single member of the 75-strong council, which only 15 years ago it dominated.

Labour group leader Paul Kirkman was defeated in his home division of Basildon Pitsea and a further 11 of the party's councillors were also swept off the board. In the mid-1990s, Labour was the biggest group in the council with 33 seats.

The Labour vote appeared to split across the parties, with far-right group the BNP making headway in a number of areas.

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Some areas saw the BNP peak at up to 12 per cent of the popular vote, overtaking Labour.

Julie Young, for the St Andrews and Wivenhoe seat in Colchester, was the only candidate who managed to secure a Labour win in an often uphill struggle to shake off the public's anger at the state of the nation's economy and the Westminster expenses scandal.

Speaking after the poll, a shocked Mrs Young said she would have to rethink how she dealt with the administration in the future.

She added: “I think that I was successful because of the doorstep canvassing I did.

“Having said that, I have never in my life been abused as much as I have in the last six weeks.

“I think the national picture has very much affected the results. People seemed to think that because you are a politician, you can be sworn at and called every name under the sun.

“People who have worked with me have been called cheats and liars and been sworn at when they have just been trying to deliver leaflets. Lots of people said they just hadn't got the stomach for canvassing.”

She said she had “no idea” what she could do at the moment but added: “I shall continue representing local people to the best of my ability which is what I always have done.

“I will still do my casework, I will still battle on when problems in my division come up and I will continue to do my best for local people.

“I will have to use different methods to co-operate with the administration to get the best for my division.

“I'm very sorry to lose dedicated and talented colleagues in Braintree, Harlow and Tendring.”

Lord Hanningfield, Conservative council leader, said: “I think we've done well. Even people who might not have thought to vote for us were supportive when we mentioned things like keeping post offices open, opening the Bank of Essex and helping local businesses.

“Essex County Council does things that other councils don't do in terms of supporting the community. We try to do things other councils wouldn't want to face up to.”

He added: “The most disturbing thing about this election has been the BNP getting a sizeable percentage of the result.

“It's very depressing just knowing people vote for them.

“People who vote for them are not in favour of the value of the individual. The expenses row is one thing, but the BNP is the least genuine of all the parties.”

Lord Hanningfield said he expected some “extraordinary results” in the Euro elections on Sunday night but said his message for Essex was “steady as she goes and forward with new initiatives”.

He added: “Given these times, keeping people in work is a priority.

“We need to especially look out for young people. I want us to help with apprenticeships and other initiatives.

“There will be a very difficult few years for young people and we must be right at the forefront in making certain those young people are properly looked after.

“It's a challenging time. I think we will have a General Election before long. That will lead to a very political climate which isn't always helpful because it stops you getting on with the job.”

Anne Turrell, the Lib Dem leader of Colchester Borough Council, won the Mile End and Highwoods ward to become a county councillor.

Also a first-time county councillor is Kevin Bentley, the leader of the Tory group on the same borough council, who won Stanway and Pyefleet.

Tom Smith-Hughes, leader of the county council's Lib Democrat group, said: “This has been a very unusual campaign. It's been very difficult to get a discussion with the electorate because of the MPs' expenses row.

“Clearly the meltdown of the Labour group was in no way linked to county council issues but was a very strong reflection of the electorate's attitude to the Government, which seems to be dealing more with its own internal problems instead of facing up to the challenge of the economy.

“Nick Clegg has said nationally that Labour is finished and as far as Essex County Council is concerned, that certainly seems to be true.

“Not so many years ago Labour were the biggest party on the council.

“We don't think the size of the Tory majority will be helpful to anyone. I fear the Tories will feel they have an overwhelming mandate. They must, however, listen carefully to the public. They haven't been doing so.

“Our main aim in this campaign was to consolidate our position in Chelmsford and Colchester. In Chelmsford, we now have five seats while the Tories have four.

“We campaigned on our record in our constituencies but also sought to bring to public attention the failings of the Tories. We will now seek to help put right some of those failings.”