Home Page So what does last night's Tory disaster mean in the long term? 10/01/14

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

It probably came as no surprise to anyone that UKIP won yesterday’s two by-elections. After their county council success in May and then the town council win in the autumn, it was always possible that they might take a borough seat as well.


What was surprising, at least to me, was the fall-off in the Conservative vote. Les Ager was a very popular man, so his successor was always going to find it hard to top the poll as clearly as he did, but in fact the Tory vote all but disappeared and left them well behind Labour, who held up surprisingly well.


So what does this mean in the long term? Haverhill never was a Conservative town – at least, not since the town expansion of the 1950s. For years it staunchly elected Labour councillors to borough and county, who had no chance of making any significant difference because those councils were packed with Conservatives from the rural towns and villages.


Apart from the blip at the height of Tony Blair’s popularity in the late 1990s when Labour did briefly manage to grab power in St Edmundsbury and share it in Ipswich, Haverhill has been pretty much unrepresented at local government level.


At national level it has always been part of an extensive rural constituency centred on clearly Conservative towns. First it was joined with Bury St Edmunds, then with Sudbury and now it is partnered with Newmarket.


There has never been a real prospect of anyone other than a Conservative being returned to Parliament from south-west Suffolk. Again the Haverhill vote has not received a representative return, although in recent years the increased Conservative trend in the town may mean that is no longer the case.


If the Conservative vote is really falling away as dramatically as last night suggested, that may change again, although it would be a brave person who extrapolated anything at all from an 18 per cent poll.


After all, 80 per cent of those who voted supported parties which are in favour of increasing the town council’s council tax precept, if necessary. Last week a local newspaper poll on the subject found 80 per cent were opposed to such a rise. Draw any conclusions you like from that – the main one being that both sample sizes were minute.


It seems most likely that the current political climate is no different from what it has always been – anti-St Edmundsbury. The question is whether or not this particular little nudge will have any more effect on the borough’s leading councillors than its many predecessors.


Thinking has changed at St Edmundsbury over the years about Haverhill. It used to be acceptable to ignore the town altogether. In the 1970s and 1980s, Haverhill’s councillors were routinely shouted down or made fun of by the intellectual Tory heavyweights who ran the borough.


After the Labour success of the 1990s was rescinded, the new Tories in charge took a different view. They felt a need to at least placate the town in some way. This was partly because of the seismic effect of Labour having ever got into power in Bury of all places.


But it was also partly because the Tory party needed to rebuild some support in the town in order to hold on to a constituency which was now slightly less predictable. The Tim Yeo affair had resulted in most Haverhill Conservative activists turning their back on the party. Richard Spring had to work very hard to achieve the notable success and popularity he eventually enjoyed in the town.


Like Eldon Griffiths before him – and, unsurprisingly, unlike Tim Yeo – he came to love Haverhill almost above the rest of his constituency, because of its can-do approach and its unusual and interesting challenges. We have yet to see whether Matthew Hancock will develop the same relationship.


Precisely because Haverhill has been so marginalised, and has therefore had, to a large extent, to make its own community and solve its own problems, it has become a more resourceful place, which in turn has reduced its Socialist tendencies.


Dissatisfied with the inaction of the Tories, these aspirational voters now look further to the Right and have decided to see what UKIP can do. The independence and generally populist approach of UKIP goes down well in the town. ‘Why do we have to put up with all the failures and the shenanigans of these politicians?’ is a popular question to ask at the moment.


Haverhill, historically a Non-conformist town, does not like being told what to do by anybody. Mostly it is apathetic, but when it does come to a view, that view tends to be revolutionary against the status quo, fired by a belief that things should be better.


Currently the status quo is Tory and Lib-Dem nationally, Tory at borough and county level and Labour at town council level. So anyone who claims the old parties have failed the town is halfway there before they start.


Whether or not what happens in Haverhill matters to St Edmundsbury in the long run will have to wait till the next election. Haverhill only has eight of the 44 seats on the borough council, so even if they all went UKIP, it would have little effect unless the same thing happened in Bury or in the villages.


Also, borough elections often coincide with Parliamentary ones, when protest voting is less in evidence. Nevertheless, those in power at St Edmundsbury must have looked at what happened last night and begun to think about their future with slightly less certainty.


Sadly, if the past is anything to go by, they will probably throw up their hands in despair at ungrateful Haverhill, because they actually believe they have done very well for the town.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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