Today was the first day of the election campaign. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was the hundredth day, but the official campaign begins with the prorogation of Parliament.
The campaign here in Ipswich kicked off with both Labour & the Tories heading to Ipswich railway station to hand out literature to commuters using the Great Eastern Main Line to get to jobs in London. Transport is a vital issue in this campaign, recognised as such by BBC Suffolk who held a recorded election hustings on the subject, which was broadcast this lunchtime.
Ben Gummer, the Conservative incumbent, trumpets his role in the GEML Taskforce, which has resulted in some direct funding for refurbished trains and some infrastructure alterations, and has led to significant proposals as part of the new rail franchise which will be let early in the next Parliament; new faster trains, a regular 60 minute service from Ipswich rather than the occasional one we have now, and crucially a more reliable service.
Mr Ellesmere counters that Labour will match any funding the Government puts forward, but given Labour’s transport spokesman, Michael Dugher, has pledged to scrap the franchise system if he takes power in May – he says he’ll bin it within weeks of taking office – it is difficult to see how Mr Ellesmere thinks most of the improvements, which are reliant on the new franchise, will be anything apart from delayed. Indeed, when asked specifically to explain it, Mr Ellesmere declines to respond.
Mr Gummer’s much vaunted wet dock crossing – itself an idea that the Borough Council has repeatedly backed in local plans – is beginning to attract some funding, but whether it will be delivered is still in question. Mr Gummer claims he can deliver it within five years, though he would no doubt insist that this was dependent on a Conservative Government being returned. For his part, Mr Ellesmere says that the £2 million bung from the Chancellor – Mr Ellesmere is good enough not to call it a bung but I will – would be better spent on a proper transport study, including the options for a northern bypass.
There are, of course, lots of other issues that are vital to this election. Ben Gummer won the 2010 election mostly on the back of concerns that Labour were running down Ipswich Hospital; services had been transferred to Norfolk & Norwich or Addenbrookes time and again. After the privatisation of Community Healthcare under the 2012 Health & Social Care Act, Mr Gummer is unlikely to have such an easy ride on healthcare, despite the fact that Ipswich Hospital is now amongst the best in the country.
Alongside the NHS, there are real differences between the two parties on benefits and welfare. The Conservatives have promised another £12 billion in cuts to welfare after the election. These cuts will fall on some of the poorest in society; I’m still yet to work out how making the poor and vulnerable even more poor and vulnerable helps them. However with unemployment at the lowest rates on record here in Ipswich, and full employment just around the corner, the Tories plans to get people into work do seem to be working. Sadly many of those now in work remain on benefits, effectively a subsidy to business for refusing to pay decent wages.
Labour say they would work towards an £8/hour minimum wage, and encourage more businesses to pay the living wage. David Ellesmere has proudly ensured that Ipswich Borough Council becomes a living wage employer. The Tories prefer to use the tax system to reward work, pledging to increase the basic allowance – the part of your wages you don’t pay tax on – to £12,500.
Ultimately while the commentariat and politicians will spend the next 38 days arguing about personalities and knocking down straw men, there are only really two issues – the economy and the NHS. If people, walking into polling stations, decide that the economy is the most important question of this election, Mr Cameron is likely to be returned as Prime Minister, and Ben Gummer may well be the first Tory to win a second term in Ipswich since the war. If voters decide instead that the NHS is the key question of this election, Mr Miliband is likely to be returned as Prime Minister, and David Ellesmere will become the new Member of Parliament for Ipswich.
Other candidates are standing in this election, including Chika Akinwale (Lib Dem), Barry Broom (Green Party) and Maria Vigneau (UKIP).
In 38 days these debates will be moot; voting will have started and we’ll be awaiting a result.