Chris Whitehouse: Don’t extrapolate too much from the Isle of Wight local election results

18 May

Chris Whitehouse leads his lobbying agency, Whitehouse Communications, and is a former Cabinet Secretary of the Isle of Wight Council.

In his recent article, Henry Hill rightly highlighted some of the more worrying trends in the South East – exposed by a rigorous examination of some of the local government election results. The Cassandra-like tone of Henry’s analysis should indeed raise a few alarms with the Conservative Party big-wigs, but, on one detail, I suggest a different take.

It is true that the Conservatives on the Isle of Wight lost what was a comfortable majority (holding 25 of 40) seats to end up with no overall control (18 Conservatives out of 39 seats), but the result was much more worrying for Labour and the Liberal Democrats than the Conservatives.

Labour has now only one councillor. The same goes for the Liberal Democrats. The rest are a hotchpotch of: Independents – 13, Greens – two, Island Independents  – two, Our Island – one, and Vectis (former UKIP) – one.

As I have written previously, politics on the Isle of Wight is visceral. It is conducted in a gold-fish bowl of media attention with several local radio stations, weekly newspapers, and online sites reporting every word and sneeze of the more prominent councillors with an obsessiveness that is hard to believe. These news outlets rely on the councillors, and their opposition candidates, to fill page after page in print and online. There’s no hiding place.

The Island also has 33 parish and town councils, ensuring that there is a forum in every town and village for grievances to be aired, quotable comments to be made, and misunderstandings (fake news!) to be promulgated.

That’s no excuse for failing to deliver a Conservative majority on the Council, but if we dig deeper, the real reason is tactical voting on a scale that is unlikely to work in many areas. Indeed, it’s pretty unprecedented in my four decades of doorstep campaigning.

For example, Dave Stewart, the Conservative Group Leader, who lost his own seat, was not at all unpopular locally or across the Island. The issue for him was that Labour, the Lib Dems, and the hotchpotch of independents did not field candidates in his ward, leaving the Green candidate to hoover up any and all anti-Conservative votes. We all dream as campaigners of “decapitation strategies”. But in most cases they are pure fantasy. Yet, the Island electorate and political networks have a brutal record, having removed the then Conservative Leader, David Pugh, back in 2013, and taken the Conservative majority away; and they then took the scalp of the Independent Council Leader through the ballot box in 2017.

This time, in another ward, Cowes North, only Labour fielded a candidate against the Conservative; and, again, the anti-Conservative vote was unified, and thus the Conservative candidate was defeated.

Freshwater South cost another Conservative scalp – there was only one, independent, candidate against him.

Of course, several of the so-called “independents” are nothing of the sort, but they keep their former Liberal Democrat and Labour party membership cards out of sight because that would make them unelectable.

What’s more, there were boundary changes on the Island, using the current map for the first time.

In terms of issues, the chain ferry across the River Medina has cost what to Islanders seems like a fortune, but has, since being brought into service on the Conservative watch, been intermittently out of action, impacting particularly East Cowes residents and businesses. So, it’s hardly surprising that an outspoken local independent candidate was able to shovel in the protest votes, having clearly forgotten to highlight the fact that the demonstrably unsuitable vessel was commissioned by a previous Independent administration.

I won’t bore readers with a detailed examination of all 39 wards, but you get the picture? It’s hard to imagine any other area that would permit such tactical agreements between parties and independents, that would be so obsessively covered by the local media, in which what would otherwise be minor issues get blown out of all proportion, and where the responsibility for such mistakes lies is soon forgotten in the hurly burly.

Whatever the picture elsewhere, the results on the Isle of Wight are hardly a cause for optimism for Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour or Sir Ed Davey’s Lib Dems. Watch out for the Greens, though; they are full of energy and know both how to mobilise younger voters who don’t normally bother with local elections, and how to deploy their resources with targeted precision.

As one of the former team of former Conservative Leader, Dave Stewart, I can only say that in 40 years of political engagement, I have never seen his commitment to the local community bettered anywhere else. He took the Conservative team from opposition into control as a minority administration, and then from that platform to control in the ensuing election. I salute his period in office and observe that the Island’s loss, will be Cunard’s gain!

Chris Whitehouse: One elderly recipient burst into tears with joy that we had made the delivery. My own story of anti-communist smuggling.

29 Mar

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy.

Reading the article by Harry Phibbs about his youthful exploits smuggling leaflets into the then communist Soviet Union, I admit it, I too was a smuggler. In my case a smuggler of books into the then communist Czechoslovakia through an informal network in which my contact was Alex Tomsky [see here and here] who was a senior figure in the charity, Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, particularly, back then, in the then Eastern Bloc. Tomsky was known by Margaret Thatcher and lent her a book every month for three years.

I made the run to Prague three times (1988-1989), each time accompanied by a different friend, two of whom I cannot name, but the third trip was with David Paton, now Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University.

The deal was simple. A benefactor (not the charity itself) would pay the flight and hotel cost for a budget weekend break in Prague. As book-runners, we would place our own things in the hand luggage, but the main suitcase was filled with books. Our task was to take that suitcase through customs checks and then deliver it to an address we were given.

We were assured that there was not much chance of us being caught, books not being as detectable as, say, drugs or explosives; and that if we were caught the outcome would likely be an interview with the authorities, a night in the cells, then deportation. It seemed a great prospect for an adventure, with little downside. But, for those to whom we were delivering the books the risks were much greater. Their interrogation would no doubt be much more robust and intense, and the subsequent spell in prison, indefinite.

The books were a variety. Bible tracts to political pamphlets; George Orwell classics to Ivan Klima and first editions of Czech writers whose manuscripts had been smuggled out of the country on trips by other smugglers. The recipients were yearning for this content to feed their craving for news and for new ideas, for hope that the situation might change.

One elderly recipient actually burst into tears with joy and relief that we had made the delivery – then a sobering dark cloud descended on a young Chris Whitehouse. As the books that we’d smuggled were unpacked, I realised with a shock that one of those pamphlets was one of which I had been the author, on the subject of abortion law reform. That somebody would be willing to risk a long prison sentence, in God knows what conditions, for something that I had written and published with no thought of its value, was a truly humbling moment.

We met a wide range of subversives, from Catholic priests to punk underground bands, from intellectuals to the publishers of samizdat leaflets; and we got an early liking for real Budwar and Pilsner Urquell beers long before they were widely available in the West, even meeting for drinks with the team who were working closely with Vaclav Havel who went on to be President of the country with the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia following the “velvet revolution” in 1989.

The only downside for this trip was that at that time, wheels on suitcases were not that common, and I’m sure my arms stretched a little carrying that full case of books through customs trying to make it seem so much lighter than it was.

But this was not my first experience of communism and the excitement of visiting the Eastern Bloc. My first visit was to communist Poland in 1981 as a guest of the “official” trades union movement in that country. To be fair, they treated us well, with time in both Warsaw and Lodz, followed by a trip to Gdansk where we were allowed to meet the local Solidarity leader, soon to be President, Lech Walesa. We hadn’t expected this, and had come unprepared, so we took a collection in Western currency (then worth in cash much more than the official rate) to contribute to the movement’s funds. Our guides were shocked, but there wasn’t much they could do about it.

Martial law was declared in Poland that same year, but communism fell in November 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down on 9th November. I had also visited the Wall, in 1981, whilst on a trip to East Germany with the British East German Friendship Society that offered a week-long tour to foster relations between the two peoples for just £100. I wasn’t, needless to say, a supporter of the communist government of that country, but at that price, who could decline? Every town we visited had a prominent display of opposition to the deployment of cruise missiles by the United States of America.

Crossing the East German border on a train at midnight, whilst it was being searched by guards with Alsatian dogs was an experience I’ll never forget.

On all those visits, the strongest emotions were of excitement on my part, but of fear and resentment amongst the people. We weren’t to know it at the time, but those were the dying years of the Soviet Bloc. The people we met weren’t without hope, not anywhere we went, but they were definitely without expectation.

Chris Whitehouse: Councillor allowances should go up, not down

1 Jan

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy, and previously served on South Bucks District Council and the Isle of Wight Council.

As an instinctive supporter of the initiatives of the Taxpayer’s Alliance, I was perturbed by the argument put forward by Harry Fone, the Alliance’s Grassroots Campaign Manager, that councillors’ allowances should be cut to reduce their annual cost of £255 million. This is short-sighted and would be completely counter-productive.

First, I am staggered that the total cost of such allowances is as low as £255 million to fund the thousands of individuals who give up their time to serve their local communities. If the sums in question were broken down over hours served, the rate for most councillors would be demonstrably insulting.

Second, Fone is identifying a problem correctly, namely that despite the generally altruistic desire to serve in public office, the current arrangements, in some areas, are not attracting candidates of the right calibre properly to set strategic objectives and to hold senior management to account for producing and implementing strategies to achieve them.

Third, for all local government’s moans about government interference and control, the reality is that councillors today, particularly during the pandemic, are in some cases taking decisions which impact directly on the life chances and the quality of life of thousands of their residents. Nothing has impressed me more than the way in which some of our councillor colleagues have stepped up to provide real leadership to their communities, to drive forward new school, public health, and social care strategies; to think outside the box about practical changes to policies that will help local economies and reconfigure services rapidly to meet their local need.

Even in good times, the relevant cabinet portfolio holders may have to make individual decisions of huge impact and importance: to close a school, to reorganise a service, to set budgets, to recruit senior officers, to close a care home and rehouse the residents. The responsibility is huge, and I have seen it weigh heavily on colleagues under pressure, and indeed on me when, for example, I found myself Children’s Services Portfolio Holder as an Academy Trust announced the closure of one of our local high schools on the morning of the elections to the council.

Very few councillors will ever have had to take such important decisions in their personal or professional lives – and council Cabinet Members certainly shoulder more responsibility than any backbench Member of Parliament – and I should know having worked in Westminster for nearly 40 years. Put simply, MPs have influence on government and law (a little) but local government makes decisions, day in, day out.

Let me be clear, I also served in local government for many years as both a district councillor in South Bucks and, more recently, as a member of the Isle Wight Council, which is similar to a unitary authority, but with a few shared arrangements with Hampshire. During my service on both councils, I never claimed any expenses, declined special responsibility allowances, and each year donated my basic allowance to local charities and voluntary organisations. I was happy to do so, because I could afford to at the time. But in most cases, the allowances really are paltry and are not the motivation of most councillors – of all political parties and none.

Take that allowance away and the practical consequence is the disbarring from public office of whole sections of the population, particularly carers and single parents, and those whose income ties them to a business or job with no flexibility. In short, the role starts to make sense only for those who no longer have to work, draw a pension, and have no caring or home-making responsibilities.

Do the Taxpayer’s Alliance really want councillors to be a self-selecting bunch of largely retired, white men? Because that’s what they will get if allowances do not attract individuals of calibre, of motivation, and of decision-making experience.

Tinkering with already modest, in some cases derisory, allowances will merely exacerbate the situation that in some areas we are already missing the input of younger talented individuals from a wider range of backgrounds, who can be trusted with their hands on the levers of power – for there really is power in local government.

No, we need to approach this from the other end. Given the huge, and growing, responsibilities of local government, and the pressure on and accountability of its cabinet members, what do we as a party need to do to ensure we are attracting and fielding the right candidates who can deliver effective and efficient services to our local communities? Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, needs to set local government free to reinvent itself for its local communities after the pandemic, and encourage them to make their own decisions, for which they are accountable to their local electorate, about how best to recruit, retain, and motivate candidates of the highest possible calibre.

Chris Whitehouse: The Medicines and Medical Devices Bill faces challenges with the Lords. Ministers must prepare now.

3 Aug

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy.

Matt Hancock and Jo Churchill may have seen their Medicines and Medical Devices Bill sail serenely and swiftly through the Commons, but it’s heading for choppier waters in the House of Lords when it returns from its summer recess.

It’s not that their Lordships oppose the Bill in principle. After all, it’s a relatively simple and necessary measure to repatriate powers to the United Kingdom, post-Brexit, to regulate the safety and licensing of human and veterinary drugs and devices.

But, their Lordships have sniffed below that beguiling surface a constitutional truffle of the kind their House loves to expose, and they seem determined to dig it out and have their day with it.

That constitutional truffle is not that this Bill is, as Labour sought to portray the Trade Bill in the Commons, an attempt to bring in American companies to take over the NHS, nor is it that it would put patients at risk by cutting costs or lowering standards.

No, while those themes will no doubt be aired, the real issue of fundamental concern is the sheer all-encompassing sweep of the powers that it gives to ministers and the authorities that answer to them.

The current Bill is 46 pages long, so can be as daunting as many Government Bills when read for the first time. But, in reality, it divides into three substantive parts each only a few clauses long: Medicines, Veterinary Medicines and Medical Devices, and each of those parts is significantly repetitive.

Arguably there is only one section, Section 1, in each part that does much of any substance legally, and that is to grant to the minister and the authorities the power to make regulations on, broadly speaking, any matters they wish affecting medicines development, safety and marketing.

One could commend the open and transparent simplicity of this approach in giving the minister future-proof flexibility to evolve regulations to secure the UK’s position as a world leader in medicines and medical technology.

Unfortunately, our truffle hunters in the Lords don’t see it that way. Indeed, the Lords Constitution Committee has recently been excoriating in its analysis of the measure; as has the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee – both Committees being scathing of what they consider the unnecessary and unjustified use of a “skeleton bill”.

Mutterings of “Henry VIII” powers are to be heard in the corridors of the upper House – or at least in their Zoom chats and WhatsApp groups – such powers being ones given to Government by Parliament to make up new laws, as it goes along without the need for future parliamentary consent.

There is talk of “sunset clauses” being introduced so that even if Parliament consents to give ministers such powers, the lawfulness of exercising that power could be time-limited and a renewal of parliamentary consent must be obtained to go beyond the expiry date.

And there is a warning, being gently sounded in ministerial ears at this stage, that the generous scope of the Bill and its very simplicity almost invites further amendments of the kind we saw in relation to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill – introducing a human rights threshold as part of the campaign to block on security grounds the greater involvement of Huawei in Britain’s telecoms networks.

Tacking amendments are on the agenda not just for the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, but also for the Trade Bill, and ministers need to be alert to this, to understand that their Lordships have genuine and serious concerns, and are not as easily whipped as the Commons.

If the Government sees it fit to give itself capacity to create new regulations on a very extensive list of subjects, why shouldn’t the Lords simply add a few more permissive powers to that list?

Whether it’s the introduction of a human rights test into trade agreements, or further regulation of the trade in human organs harvested from the Falun Gong in China; the use of Uighur slave labour and the incarceration of an entire ethnic community in concentration camps, or the clamp down on democracy in Hong Kong; the excesses of kleptocrats in Russia, or religious persecution around the world; there are many Lords sensing that as the political seizure of Covid-19 passes, Government should no longer be allowed to take the passage of legislation for granted.

There’s also concern that the long-awaited Cumberlege review on medicines and medical device safety risks being swept under the carpets of the corridors of power, and that lessons from vaginal mesh use and the harmful effects of Primados for pregnancy-testing risk not being learned. Their Lordships are revolting, and are preparing to flex their ermine-clad legislative muscles in all these regards.

If I were Gerry Grimstone, charged with taking the Trade Bill through its Lords stages, or James Bethell piloting the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, I would be using the opportunity afforded by the summer recess to look for compromises, to identify which amendments they can in practice accept that would not wreck their Bills and would so allow them a somewhat smoother passage than they might otherwise receive.

In particular, there is a gathering squall behind one on human organ farming from China; one to which ministers, in the current climate, would be well advised to respond with as much sympathy as they can muster.

If ministers choose not to heed such advice, then they will simply store up for later in the session that task currently being undertaken by Diana Barran in seeking to find a human rights threshold for Government itself to introduce into the Telecommunications Bill prior to its delayed third reading – after the pincer movement by Iain Duncan Smith in the Commons and a plethora of pesky Peers in the Lords made it clear that they will have such an amendment if the Government is to have its Bill.

With so much important legislation now before the House of Lords, and with NHS and social care reform coming early in 2021, Government ministers need to identify the real fights, and to allow the Lords to pursue its own issues; for despite the recent nomination of 36 new peers, there’s no Conservative majority in the Lords!

Chris Whitehouse: Raab delivers on Magnitsky sanctions

7 Jul

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy.

Dominic Raab’s publication of the details of his new Magnitsky-style sanctions regime has been long awaited, but was worth that wait. The new scheme is another means of deploying Britain’s soft power around the world – a stick to balance the carrots of diplomacy and overseas aid.

No longer can individuals who benefit from corruption and egregious human rights breaches expect to live comfortably, free from repercussions, avoiding any unpleasant consequences of their actions. That leaving the EU means, for the first time, that the United Kingdom can act alone in bringing forward such sanctions is a further leap forward in our nation stepping up to fulfil its global potential, to play its full role on the world’s stage.

As Bill Browder, the man acknowledged by Raab in his statement as being behind the global campaign for Magnitsky sanctions, following the death in Russian custody of his business colleague, Sergei Magnitsky, told this column: “Although the UK is a relatively small country, it has an outsized role in the world, because this is where everyone from the developed world wants to buy property, keep their families safe and store their money.”

Without this sanctions regime, Browder explains: “In the past, whenever a dictator perpetrated an atrocity, the most the British government and many others did was to issue statements of condemnation, at which the perpetrators simply laughed. This Magnitsky sanctions regime creates real world consequences of which they’re rightly terrified.”

Raab, to be fair, has consistently, since 2012, declared that he was “passionate” about the introduction of a sanctions regime, believing that it would have real impact, particularly when used alongside those of other sympathetic nations.

There were some who feared that Foreign Office officials would water down his plans, this column included, and leave us with a regime that was not fit for purpose and did not strike the necessary fear into the hearts of those targeted by its restrictions on financial assets and freedom of movement. Maybe we should have had more faith, because the scheme now published puts considerable power into the hands of Ministers, provided, of course, due process is followed, to stop kleptocrats “laundering their blood money”, as Raab put it, in the United Kingdom

That we had the first designations, the historic early targets of this tough new regime and the very day it was presented to Parliament is a clear indication of the planning, the preparation and the determination on the part of Raab and his team. Rightly, some (though by no means all) of those complicit in Russia of the violent death in custody of Magnitsky, and of the state-sanctioned theft of assets from Bowder’s Hermitage investment fund are among the first to be hit. Let’s hope that others from that benighted kleptocracy follow in the future.

Rightly do we see targeted some (but again far from all) of those Saudis responsible for the shocking murder of tell-it-like-it-is journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, and the subsequent beheading, dismemberment and disposal of his body inside the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul.

Others announced include against some of those responsible for the worst aspects of the systematic mistreatment of the Rohingya people of Myanmar, and those responsible for the sending to the Gulags of North Korea hundreds of thousands of innocent people in that country.

But now that the regime is published and the criteria for inclusion within it is known, we can hopefully expect a gradual extension of the lists of not only the perpetrators of the atrocities against Magnitsky and Khashoggi, but also the inclusion of others implicated directly in the genocide of millions of Uighurs in China, imprisoned in concentration camps to wipe out their sense of religious and cultural identity. We also need to see movement against the senior Chinese Communist Party officials responsible for the now internationally recognised harvesting of human organs from members of the Falun Gong community, among others.

And closer to home, with the threat to the basic freedoms of speech, thought, association and protest of 350,000 British National (Overseas) passport holders, and the wider people of Hong Kong to whom we owe a particular moral and historic duty, should we not be bringing forward in the immediate future sanctions against that city’s puppet of the Chinese Community Party, as identified in the Commons debate by Iain Duncan Smith, namely its Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and her head of police, the latter of whom is directly, personally and professionally responsible for the sustained campaign of brutal police violence against protestors.

When it comes to eating a large slice of humble pie for suggesting that Raab risked not meeting the Conservative manifesto commitment to introduce a regime that delivered a truly effective Magnitsky sanctions regime, this column could not be more delighted than to have to ask, Oliver Twist-like: please sir, can I have some more!

In introducing the sanctions regime that he has, Raab has made a bold and decisive leap in the right direction. There is further to go, particularly into widening the scope of the regime to include a wider range, in particular, of human rights abuses, and we can only welcome his commitment to make further progress in that regard; but we can be proud as a party of what Raab has already delivered.

Chris Whitehouse: Faith leaders have a moral duty to be better prepared for the next pandemic

27 Jun

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy and is a papal Knight Commander of Saint Gregory.

Lockdown gave an unprecedented character this year to the major celebrations of the great Abrahamic faiths.

Those in the Jewish community endured Passover unable to join with family, friends and their wider community to celebrate the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

Those of Muslim beliefs found themselves daily breaking their Ramadan fast alone, not together; and approached the culmination of that celebration, Eid, at best in small household groups rather than with communal rejoicing.

]The Christian faiths marked the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday; the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus on Good Friday; and the resurrection of their Christ on Easter Sunday, without the usual community support in the dark hours or the joyous celebrations of the greatest day in the Christian calendar.

No amount of digital alternatives – Zoom meetings, live-streaming of services, on-line communal singing of religious songs – can really substitute for the mutual support in a time of crisis that comes from being together both physically and emotionally with those who share values and beliefs.

All those whose beliefs and cultural traditions involve them coming together to pray, to worship and to be in social communion have suffered as they endured separation from their wider communities; but for those, in particular, whose faith is nurtured through holy sacraments, their separation from what they believe to be the source of grace has been particularly painful.

Gathering in supportive worshipping communities and maintaining those horizontal relationships with other people is important.

But for those whose beliefs involve a sacramental tradition, that vertical relationship to God that comes through their access to his grace in the sacraments (for example, of holy communion and confession), to deny them that access is to starve them of the spiritual nurturing and sustenance their faith teaches them to crave.

For many of those Christians for whom the sacrament of communion, central to the mass, is the beating heart of their faith, to be able to be present in that sacrifice only remotely has not, for many, been to sense participation. On the contrary, it has exacerbated the sense of separation.

For a church founded on the blood of martyrs, persecuted, tortured, and executed for their subversive beliefs, it has been particularly uncomfortable to see the doors of our Christian churches locked when they could, and should, have remained open to allow private prayer and socially distanced participation in services.

That Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey have remained closed, doors locked to keep out their faithful, whilst the local Sainsbury’s and Tesco have remained open, delivering socially-distanced access to physical food and drink, has been to exacerbate that pain of separation. Why a Warburton’s white medium sliced loaf, but not the bread of life itself?

That church leaders surrendered to this position at the outset of lock-down was perhaps understandable given the sense of crisis and uncertainty that prevailed at that time, but the closure could and should have been only temporary whilst practical precautions were introduced. It was not for our political masters to decide on the importance to the faithful of access to spiritual sustenance compared to other goods and services.

This plague has claimed many lives, including those of ministers of religion, and for their passing we mourn; but that they may have spent their final weeks denied the opportunity to share the sacraments with and to minister to the spiritual needs of their flocks must have been a cause of frustration and anguish to many. Not to hide behind locked doors did they tread the long and difficult path to religious ministry, but to share the love of God with his people and to be with them in their times of need.

Where was the priest to baptise my new grandchild? To marry my daughter whose wedding was postponed? To hear my confession and grant me absolution? To offer the sacrifice of mass and to let me take a personal, risk-assessed decision as to whether I should receive holy communion? To give the last rites to friends of faith who have died during the pandemic? To comfort my elderly and vulnerable mother, alone and fearful in her home?

For many people, these things are not just rituals, they are the building blocks of faith, the foundation upon which their lives, their families, their values, and their political views are based. Many are understandably frustrated, indeed angry, that these needs have been ignored.

Faith leaders will have had troubled consciences about these decisions; and there is no desire to exacerbate their doubts and fears; but their redemption can come only through them learning from these tragic few months, and by them making plans for the future so that when the next plague comes they are ready, their lamps are full of oil, and their wicks trimmed.

Church doors closed for a few hours for a deep clean and some social distancing sticky tape is acceptable; those doors being locked for 15 weeks is not. It must never happen again.