Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Constituency profile: Ipswich

A little look at the politics and the people of my home town, which had a Tory-Liberal Democrat administration before it became fashionable.

The historic Wet Dock - one of Ipswich's more sought-after areas
As the administrative capital of Suffolk, and one of the few English counties with no motorways, it's hardly surprising that the town of Ipswich has tried for city status in recent years. Despite first impressions, an 'everyone knows everyone' vibe radiates from the main shopping streets to its football ground. The earliest continuous settlement in England, dating back to the seventh century, Ipswich was, and still is a major East Anglian shipping port. The town's name comes from the medieval Gippeswyk, meaning 'town on the Gipping' (the river Gipping a tributary of the picturesque river Orwell – inspiring the pen name of the author of 1984 and Animal Farm).

Deceptively close to the capital – London is but an hour away on the Great Eastern main line – Ipswich has many parallels with towns such as Reading or Northampton, but none of the advantages of Norwich, its historic rival.

Yet for all its market-town spirit, there's still a somewhat urban feel about the town centre, which in parts retains a weathered 1960s grittiness. The local football team, Ipswich Town, much maligned since its Premier League days is a constant reminder of this contradiction – a large stadium on Portman Road surrounded by tall modern office developments.

Ipswich has actively sought new economic fortunes in the last 20 years or so, with the decline in big industry biased towards agriculture and the growth of the DINKY - 'double income, no kids' - class. Under Labour, the local authority aspired to attract young professionals to new and converted apartments on the Wet Dock, providing desirable homes for the workforce of Ipswich's insurance giants which have clustered there over the past 40 years or so, as well as those who choose to commute further.

Apart from short interludes in the seventies and late eighties, the town's industrial past has unsurprisingly lent itself to long periods of Labour rule. Surrounded by Conservative MPs (Tim Yeo to the south, and Dan Poulter to the north) as well as a Tory Suffolk county administration, it was hardly surprising that the MP for the majority of the town would slip out of Labour's hands in 2010. Benedict Gummer, son of former Suffolk Coastal MP John, keeps the family torch burning in this corner of East Anglia, beating the Labour incumbent Chris Mole by just 2,000 votes.

Yet some locals feel that the sort of growth in evidence in the town just a few years ago has already begun to reverse:

Ipswich has had a somewhat depressed feel in the last, say, two years compared to the buoyancy of four or five years ago” says Rob Adams, a local financial adviser.

Adding weight to this view was the announcement by French insurance giant Axa, who in recent weeks have announced that up to 56 jobs are under threat. “The greatest indicator of this is the rapid development and expansion of the building around the docks. As well as the new apartments, a lot of bars, restaurants and hotels also opened, making for a very desirable residential area” adds Rob.

But with the economic 'pulling in of horns' brought about by the banking collapse of 2008, that expansion has ceased."

This new type of development contrasts with the high-end properties around Christchurch Park in the centre of the town, the traditional retreat for those who 'made it' and chose to live within the borough's boundary.

The town has benefited from a higher proportion of students, making for a night-time 'buzz', and as Rob observes, “it's no coincidence that one of Ipswich's most thriving bars is just a stone's throw from the main University College Suffolk building!”. New facilities house clinical skills, sports and exercise laboratories which are giving local young people new opportunities.

It wasn't always like this however.
The gap between the old, industrialised town and the new centre of aspiration was hard for some. Like many provincial towns, Ipswich suffered its own brain drain and despite a number of good or outstanding schools, many young people have fled the area.

I counted down the days to leave, got as far away as possible and won't go back!” said another native, Anna Browning, now resident on the south coast. “I didn't feel it had any character or anything going for it – it was just another place at the end of the A12”.

Some locals are more optimistic about the town's fortunes. The choice of MP for the area will more likely reflect national opinion, but the make-up of the council has pointed towards the 'new politics' for some years. And, if the Westminster coalition government was an unholy alliance in 2010, this was nothing new in Ipswich. The borough council was run by Labour for a solid quarter-century until 2004 when a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took over. Frequent borough elections have not altered this arrangement and although Labour is currently the largest party - with 23 councillors - it remains in opposition. The controlling majority is composed of 18 Conservatives and 7 Lib Dems and there are few signs that this may change any time soon.

On a county level, Labour support continues to be concentrated in the tough Priory Heath and Gainsborough, and despite the general collapse in support for the party in the Suffolk county elections in 2009, it continues to hang on to two seats in the centre of the town.

This core support, coupled with tendency of this urban concentration to turn red, means that Labour could well regain the parliamentary seat at the next general election.

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