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!