Conservatives at West Sussex County Council denied any political whipping in their group, with some describing a County Times campaign for free speech as a ‘stunt’ to sell newspapers, last Friday.
The Free Speech Charter was launched last month following the unprecedented deselection of Christian Mitchell as Horsham District Council’s chairman elect in a whipped vote by his own Tory group. He said he had paid the price for articulating his residents’ concerns about massive development in North Horsham.
Since then members of UKIP, the Liberal Democrats, Conservative Party, and Independent candidates at both HDC and WSCC have signed up to the Free Speech Charter. Tory county council leader Louise Goldsmith said last week that she too intended to sign as a ‘reaffirmation of what we currently do.’
Following this success Mike Glennon (UKIP, Lancing), leader of the UKIP main opposition group at WSCC, put forward his own free speech motion calling for an end to political whipping at last week’s full council meeting.
“Parties fight elections based on manifestos and the electorate have a reasonable expectation that a party will pursue its election pledges,” Mr Glennon said.
“But what happens when the interests of local communities come into conflict with a party manifesto pledge. Who are we accountable to, party or public?
“In local government here in West Sussex, a senior Conservative was castigated for backing common sense and local residents views on a vital local issue.
“But his party punished him. This is not in keeping with what 21st century political ethics should be.
“Representatives should be free to back communities before party diktats.”
Mrs Goldsmith (Con, Chichester West) said: “I am committed to sign the charter because it is what I am doing every day. It is reaffirming what I do and it is no big deal.
“And I can go out and face any one of my residents and say for the older parties that is what we do every day and that is what we work towards.”
Before the meeting David Barling (Con, Bramber Castle) had joined Mrs Goldsmith and fellow Conservatives Brad Watson (Con, Southwater and Nuthurst) and Liz Kitchen (Con, Warnham and Rusper) as the fourth Conservative county councillor to sign up to the Charter.
The Charter states: “I undertake to speak, write and vote on behalf of my constituents without fear or favour of party discipline. If I am a member of a political party, I will respect its values and honour its pre-election manifesto pledges - but I will always put first the people I am elected to serve.”
James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East), leader of the Lib Dem group, said: “I agree with Louise that’s what I’ve been doing every day for 40 years on the local authorities I have served on and I believe that’s what most people here do and could sign up to that with no problem at all.”
But despite their leader committing to sign it several Conservative councillors condemned the Free Speech Charter as a ‘stunt to sell newspapers’.
Philip Circus (Con, Storrington), also current chairman of Horsham District Council, said: “The origin of this is the Free Speech Charter by the West Sussex County Times. The purpose of that undoubtedly is to boost circulation of the County Times.”
Jim Rae (Con, Roffey), another county and Horsham district councillor, added: “I serve as a West Sussex county councillor and I serve on another council in West Sussex as a Conservative councillor. Neither of those groups have or operate a whip. They do not now and they never have done.”
He added that he would not sign up to a media-led Free Speech Charter which to him was simply a stunt to help a business sell more newspapers.
Labour leader Brenda Smith (Lab, Langley Green & West Green) said: “I find this a bit of a case of teaching your grandparents to suck eggs.
“I have an understanding of where this motion came from and originated, and I cannot accept the fact that those of us who stand for election on the principles of a bona fide political party should renegade on those principles to be directed by a non-elected local media.”
Bill Acraman (Con, Worth Forest) said UKIP’s motion and the West Sussex County Times Free Speech Charter ‘implies that there is something we ought to start doing that we have never done before’.
He added: “There has never been whipping within the Conservative group and I am pretty sure there has not been whipping in the other two major parties either.”
He moved an amended motion, changing the words to say the council ‘confirms its continuing principle’ not to use a party whip in political groups, which was passed with just two abstentions.
Mr Glennon said the Conservative amendment ‘captured the spirit’ of his intentions, but showed the party was in ‘denial’.
After the meeting, Editor In Chief Gary Shipton said he very much doubted the Charter would sell more newspapers. “The public are totally disengaged from local politics. This is exclusively about fulfilling our public interest duty,” he said.