County Times comment: Less party politics and more free speech

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There was a time when there would have been no headlines about councillors defecting from one political party to another.

A generation ago, many rural councils simply didn’t play party politics at all. You might get one or two wearing a blue rosette in Sussex but most individuals stood as Independents. They still do on parish councils.

They weren’t elected because the Prime Minister of the day was in vogue.

They didn’t get chucked out by the voters because of some scandal in Westminister.

Instead, they were judged by their electorates on the personal commitment they made to their communities - on what they did and who they were.

As former Conservative leader Liz Kitchen once told the County Times editor: “We don’t do party politics here. We just try to do the right thing.”

And she did. We salute her for it.

Even today, there are some remnants of this independent philosophy in the council chamber. We still have two distinguished Independents Sheila Matthews and George Cockman.

The Lib Dems too, although they wear a party badge, rarely if ever allow themselves to be tied to a political whip preferring to express themselves freely in ways that they feel best represent their constituents.

And, to the credit of the ruling Conservative group, this year’s council chairman is a Lib Dem - and Leonard Crosbie has discharged his obligations with honour.

But the rot properly set in with the imposition by the last Labour Government of single-party cabinets and the abolition of the old-style committee system, with the notable exception for planning applications.

With cabinet has come an increasing and inevitable desire for control.

Tory councillors are supposed to have their letters to this newspaper approved in advance; and heaven help them if any is found telling the public through us what’s going on beyond the ever more sanitised press releases. They are branded ‘leakers’. All the key votes in council are predetermined in private and backbenchers have to toe the line.

This censorial approach manifested itself last week when the town centres manager was refused permission to conduct a one-to-one interview with us to promote the town centre events. We were told there was a ‘protocol’ which meant that a Tory cabinet member had to do the interview instead.

We refused. Enough is enough.

And perhaps, in the end, that’s why Roger Arthur defected.

We do not doubt his political convictions or his desire to support UKIP - a party which passionately defends a free press and free speech and refuses to have ‘whipped’ votes in councils.

Tellingly in an email to us he said that he at last felt ‘free’.

“I will be using my new found freedom to expose incompetence and indifference, wherever they might exist, whilst strongly opposing undue intimidation or threats to our democratic heritage,” he wrote to the editor.

If Roger Arthur is the best man to be deputy leader and in charge of finance - and both the Tories and Lib Dems have said that he is - then surely he should be allowed to continue to discharge those roles whatever party badge he now wears?

And if any councillor wants to speak out on any issue through the media that should be their right. Now it’s left to only the courageous like Philip Circus.

Last month, our political masters in Westminster ruled that there should be draconian controls on every local paper - contrary to the advice of Leveson who found them innocent of any wrongdoing - underpinned by statute.

Shame on them all.

A previous generation had the right idea. Keep councils free from politics and let our press do its worst.

But then they had sacrificed their husbands and their sons on the altars of freedom and democracy in two world wars.

It is Principle and not Propaganda that is needed now.