Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Conservatives are supposed to be the party of competence, effective fiscal management and delivering on clear manifesto commitments. So, the frustration at the leadership vacuum in Government manifested itself across Suffolk in last week’s local elections, and will no doubt deliver a hammer blow in the European elections at the end of the month, especially when loyal activists are refusing to participate.
Suffolk voted Brexit, although significant gains by the Greens raises questions as to whether the mood is changing, especially amongst young voters who weren’t eligible to vote in 2016, and are undoubtedly energised by recent environmental protests.
Whilst Labour consolidated its power in Ipswich, despite its Remainer MP, taking two seats from the Tories who lost another to the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives were also punished elsewhere across the county, with the Greens claiming some significant scalps to put them on every rural council for the first time The average percentage turnout was in the low to mid-30s.
In the first elections for the new East Suffolk Council, boundary changes reduced overall councillor numbers, following the merger of Waveney and Suffolk Coastal, which deserved support for achieving in excess of £20 million in savings through joint working. The Conservatives took 39 of the 55 seats, retaining overall control, whilst losing the former deputy leader of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney’s former leader, both of whom would have been in contention to lead the new council.
In his 21 years, Mark Bee, had also led Suffolk County Council, but he wasn’t surprised at the outcome:
“The Green environmental agenda is very much the zeitgeist at the moment, and people are clearly responding to that.”
Labour now have seven seats, alongside the Green’s four, Lib Dems’ three and two Independents.
Meanwhile, over in West Suffolk, where Forest Heath and St. Edmundsbury had merged into a single authority, 64 councillors were elected, down from the previous 72. Although retaining overall control, with 36 councillors, the Conservatives lost key people, including the former leader of Forest Heath, and another recent County Council leader. Labour took five seats, the Greens one, with the balance going to Independents.
Commenting on the losses, former St. Edmundsbury leader, John Griffiths, whose seat was uncontested, said:
“We have lost some very good councillors, but I’m delighted with the overall majority.”
The merger has already saved £20 million, alongside a major investment programme for new housing and job creation.
Over in Mid-Suffolk and Babergh, which share management and offices at the County Council, but resisted a full merger, neither councils retained Tory majorities. A single vote in Mid-Suffolk could hold the balance of power! The Conservatives now have just 16 seats, with the Greens increased to 12 and the Lib Dems five, with one Independent.
Sadly, the former Leader was amongst those who lost their seats. Nick Gowrley told the Star that, ‘it’s the national picture affecting us. Brexit is at the root of most of it. We have had people saying they are not going to vote Conservative until it is sorted.”
Boundary changes in Babergh reduced overall numbers by 11, resulting in no overall control. But, with Conservatives the largest single party, on 15 out of 32, the council leader, John Ward, will now meet with the eight Independents (including two former Tories), four Greens, three Lib Dems and two Labour councillors in a bid to try to form some sort of coalition with one or other group/s.
Ward blamed the poor performance “on the national picture, and the Greens have been the primary beneficiaries of a protest vote. But I think we can work together to form an administration representative of all views.”
Let these results be a warning: Suffolk is no longer a safe haven for the Conservatives. It will take time to rebuild confidence in what has become a very disappointed and sceptical electorate.