Local Elections: Waves of unrest batter Tory prospects: Westminster is not far from the minds of discontented voters at England's most easterly point, John Torode finds (CORRECTED)

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Indy Politics
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 4 MAY 1994) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

Much of Trollope's great novel of Victorian values, The Way We Live Now, is set in the conservative town of Lowestoft and its lush Suffolk hinterland.

'There's lots of quality at Lowestoffe awashing theyselves in the sea' according to the author's old farmer Ruggles of Beccles. In those days the bustling fishing port, England's easternmost point, was also a fashionable and fast-expanding resort. Lowestoft was distinctly sniffy about London's sleazy metropolitan ways, as were the sleepy towns of Beccles, Bungay, Halesworth and Southwold.

A century on, the area has lost none of its stubborn localism. But Lowestoft is rundown and the quality folk have moved on. The town is also fighting a decline in fishing, ship and oil rig building and engineering which has left it the unemployment blackspot of East Anglia. The immaculate inland towns, all flint and red brick, have attracted small businesses and apparently prosperous retired folk - and the farmers are doing well out of set- aside and other Euro-horrors.

Today the area is embraced by Waveney District Council, which has an electorate of 84,746. With 26 seats, Labour controls Waveney. The Tories have 17 seats and the Liberal Democrats a mere five. Only one-third of the seats are up for grabs so it is inconceivable that the council will fall to the Tories.

While Labour runs the council, the MP, David Porter, is a Tory. But then he is a local lad of modest background and independent mind who still lives in the town.

Driving to Beccles to hearten natural Conservative supporters at a lunch given by the Norfolk and Waveney Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mr Porter says the local election is being fought on national issues, and this is wrong. Even so, he adds: 'I've a lot of sympathy with the views (of those who are critical of the Government). I like to take my (Government's) policies to the Lowestoft fish market. If I can sell them there, they are OK. I have reported to the Prime Minister that I have not been able to sell many recently.'

Mr Porter seems keen to distance himself from his Government. 'I rejoice in being a local man in a local community,' he says.

Over the poached salmon, the Rev Peter Farrow, the local industrial chaplain, deplores the fact that people are treating the elections as a referendum on John Major's government. 'But to look on the bright side, it must mean that they are pretty satisfied with the way the council are handling things.'

Trevor Westgate, 36 years on the Lowestoft Journal, agrees. 'This is hardly the Socialist Republic of Waveney. Labour has established itself as a moderate, credible force over the past four years.'

For example, people look with pride at the multi-million pound regeneration of the esplanade at Lowestoft which fronts some of the finest beaches in England.

It is not that there are no local issues. There are. Lowestoft is divided - rather than linked - by a bridge across the harbour narrows. It is raised at least 13 times a day causing monumental traffic jams. The Government has shelved plans for a new crossing, just as it intends to abolish the local health authority and has refused assisted area status to Waveney. Local Tories, including Mr Porter, are at one with Labour in their condemnation of such decisions.

However, out on the stump in the pretty villages around Southwold a few miles down the coast, the Labour councillor, Ray Breach, has found a genuine local issue - and it plays to his advantage. He lives in Wangford village and is instantly accessible. His Conservative challenger, Valerie Pulford, lives in Leicestershire, and can stand only because she owns a holiday home locally.

Mr Breach points this out to habitual Conservative voters. They seem shocked at the prospect of letters and long-distance phone calls if problems arise.

Otherwise national issues dominate. 'I'm totally fed up with the way things are. I'm not voting Tory,' Cyril Salisbury, a retired professional man, said. 'Not to put too fine a point on it, I've got a bit of savings and the interest rates are going down and down.' Eileen Herbert said she would vote Labour because of the imposition of VAT on fuel.

At Oulton Broad, on the outskirts of Lowestoft, Marie Rogers, a Labour councillor, exploits this mood. She heads her leaflet listing three reasons for voting Labour 'Reason One - To deliver a clear verdict on the Tory government.'

Houses in her ward are immaculately maintained, many with two cars and a boat in the drive. It is natural Tory territory, but not this year. Robin Pitcher, a retired butcher, is typical. A 'bit of a floater', he will be voting Labour. 'It's personal and political. That Major, he's a wimp. And unemployment is so high.'

A few doors down lives Howard Birkett, a burly Cumbrian. He is a private security officer 'doing all right' but shocked at the wages earned by many in the area. 'There are a lot working 80 or 90 hours a week for pounds 2.30 an hour. It is time we had a national minimum wage.'

Not once in two evenings on the knocker, has anyone mentioned a local issue. And not once has a regular Labour voter announced an intention to support the Tories. The movement is all the other way.

After an evening supporting Mrs Rogers, Waveney's Labour leader, Bob Blizzard, a teacher, concludes: 'Like it or not, it is going to be a national referendum here.' Waveney, it seems, does not approve of the way Westminster lives now.

CORRECTION

On 29 April we said Valerie Pulford, the Conservative candidate for the Southwold, Suffolk ward in the Waveney council elections 'lives in Leicestershire'. We have been asked to point out that although Ms Pulford has previously worked in Leicestershire, her only residence now is in Southwold.

(Photograph omitted)

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