News from British and Canadian Conservatives

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Liberal Legend: Can Toby slay the Dragon?

The last four years have not been terribly happy for Shepway Liberal Democrats, but the last eight weeks stand out as particularly unhappy ones. Rocked by a series of defections to the Conservative Party, local leader Lynne Beaumont was forced onto the defensive. She came out spinning as ever.

Thursdays must be a particularly difficult day. The Folkestone Herald is published, complete with the latest commentary on Lib Dem infighting. This week is no exception. This time Lynne Beaumont is facing calls for her resignation from her former rival Toby Philpott, who was deposed as the Lib Dem PPC last year. As Toby puts it:

It is time to cut the personal abuse and get serious about the state the Party is in before it gets too late.

Judging by this week's Herald, the call has fallen upon deaf ears. It would seem that Lynne Beaumont still won't accept responsibility for anything that has happened. Instead she states:

When Toby was here it went disastrously wrong and I don't really want to comment on what he has to say.

She promtly goes on to comment on what he has to say:

He is a very good writer but cannot communicate face to face and that was partly his downfall. I'm certainly not going to stand down because a non-member has called for me to do so. If the members want me to then I will because I want what's best for the group."

That's certainly an intersting take on the situation. It's a departure from the official line previously trotted out by Pravda. The reference to his real contribution to our campaigning could be seen as a rather double edged complement though, given that they won fewer seats than at any time since the merger with the SDP.

The suggestion that things went wrong for the Lib Dems after Toby was selected is a little odd. In the two years or so before his selection, Shepway Lib Dems had split into two parties, suffered multiple defections to Conservative, Green, Independent and Shepway Independents, lost two leaders and suffered heavy defeats in the Folkestone Town Council, Kent County Council, European and Parliamentary elections. If that's not things going wrong, the last two months must be deemed a great success!

I can't help but feel that the statement that Toby Philpott can't communicate face to face is bizzarre. In November 2006, he was one of three candidates put to the local membership as a potential Parliamentary Candidate. Cllr Beaumont was another of the candidates. Given her high profile and support from her husband who had been PPC in the last two elections, she was the clear favourite. Yet, the members chose Toby. If he can't communicate face to face, how bad must Cllr Beaumont have been at that meeting? Can someone who has lost half her elected representatives been seen as a good communicator?

I think that the most peculiar part of her statement is that she won't resign on the basis of comments by a non-member, but will resign if the members want her to. Toby is a member of the Liberal Democrats, albeit in Bromley. Moreover, there are very few members left to call for her resignation now - most of her opponents have long since left. A rational individual might take that as a sign that they are unhappy with the leadership. But who said that Lynne Beaumont was rational?

It's not over yet. Toby has already responded to her comments on his blog. He is considering a formal complaint to the Lib Dems and possibly the Standards Board over the matter. And so the saga continues!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The "Shaky Apples" fight back

The recent rash of defections from the Lib Dems to the Conservative groups on Shepway District and Folkestone Town councils have been pretty astonishing. However, the Lib Dem response has been even more bizarre. Local Leader, Lynne Beaumont, proclaimed that the remainder of the group is solid (despite local rumours that she is frequently calling councillors to be sure of their loyalty) and that the "shaky apples have fallen from the tree". I find that an odd thing to say about people who, only 15 months ago, the party was upholding as the best people to represent and run our local area! If she was happy to field candidates who she regards of such a low calibre, how can local people trust her selection of candidates in the future?

Thursday's Full Council meeting of Folkestone Town Council saw political fireworks, with arguments coming from the all three factions sides. Paul Marsh of the People First Lib Dems was critical of the defectors, particularly Peter Gane who had previously objected to People First entering into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2005. The best line of the night undoubtedly came from Martin Salmon, now Conservative councillor for Folkestone East. He told the Beaumont First Lib Dems that he would rather be a "loose apple" that the "withered old fruit left on the tree". Touche.

Good night for Conservatives in by-elections

This Thursday's by-elections were generally a good night for the Conservatives. Of course, the biggest election of the night was the Parliamentary by-election in Haltemprice and Howden, which David Davis held comfortable. No surprises there given that Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP and the BNP all decided not to stand candidates (Labour were too scared, and the others supported David Davis' stand for civil liberties). However, is suggesting that the fact that the Greens, who came second, did not pick up many votes suggests that there is no longer the level of anti-Tory voting that we evident through tactical voting against Conservative candidates in the last three general elections. That could be down to David Cameron's decontamination strategy, or disatisfaction with Labour. Most likely, it's a combination of the two.

In local government, the Conservatives picked up a couple of extra seats, one each from Labour and the Lib Dems, which is a particularly good sign.

Sadly, the Lib Dems retained Canterbury's Barton ward, by a majority 16 votes larger than last year. I have bloggef previously about the curious habit for Lib Dems in that ward to resign, or not seek re-election. No Lib Dem candidate has contested two consecutive elections since 1999 (which is as far back as Canterbury's website records the results). Moreover, the Lib Dems have won every scheduled elections, and the Conservatives both previous by-elections. That didn't happen this time, which may be partly down to a change in candidate. Both previous victories saw Michael Northey as the victorious Conservative candidate, and he obtained more than 100 votes more than any other Conservative candidate in the 2007 locals.

Interestingly, the Barton Lib Dem vote increase of 9% precisely matches the 9% recorded by Labour last year, and this year they did not field a candidate. Meanwhile, the Conservative share of the vote also increased (by 4%), which came at the expense of the "others".

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The real opposition?

The Lib Dems have often touted themselves as "the real opposition." I've never seen much evidence for the claim - they were pretty quick to hop into bed with Labour in both Scotland and Wales, the moment they got a whiff of power.

However, one thing is certain. Ever since the acrimonious split with People First in 2004 (following tax and toilet-gate), the Lib Dems have been the official opposition in Shepway. I don't believe that they can be classed as an effective opposition though. With only 5 councillors remaining after a series of defections to the ruling Conservatives, the rump Lib Dem Group is now too small to function as an effective Opposition. Moreover, they lack the required leadership or the experience, with only one councillor having more than 15 months' experience in the role. The third party, People First, have the experience to offer a more purposeful opposition, but two people can't possible offer the level of in depth scrutiny of every single piece of council business put forward.

For a time, it seemed that Folkestone Town Council would become the de facto opposition. However, defections have deprived the Lib Dems of even that last crumb of dignity.

In my opinion, the Conservative Group has the depth of experience, independence of thought and necessary skills to ensure that the leadership's decisions are fully scrutinised, and many of the 1100+ party members in the district will continue to actively probe the individual councillors and hold them to account. However, I'm not sure that is enough. It is important for democracy at large that the democratic institutions of opposition not only exist, but are seen to exist.

Shepway isn't the first council to have to consider this situation. For several years, the London Borough of Newham had no opposition to the Labour administration at all. Adur is so overwhelmingly Conservative that the largest opposition is the Independents, who were previously part of the local Conservative-Independent Alliance. Even they only have two councillors, with one Lib Dem rounding the council off. However, Newham has an elected Mayor and Adur is small enough to have "alternative arrangements". Shepway's Leader and Cabinet system is more politicised.

Conversely, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has apparently taken the bizarre step of abolishing the Official Opposition status, because they were unhappy that the Conservatives were the opposition after Respect collapsed on itself! They have now given the chief scrutiny roles to their own councillors, and even have a Cabinet member on the scrutiny committee. The Conservatives there rightly refuse to take their seats on the committee in protest, but attend in an individual role to oversee the committee.

The new balance of Shepway District Council:
Conservative 39
Lib Dem 5
People First 2

Spinning Here: Lib Dems bury bad news again

Today, the Lib Dems finally reported on their regularly updated website that two more of their councillors, including their Deputy Leader, had resigned. They did so on Friday, so it took four days for them to admit to the embarrassment of losing yet more members to the Conservatives. However, apparently it was not the most significant issue affecting Shepway Lib Dems today. That was the closure of Eat in the Motorway Service Station! Really? More important than losing yet more Councillors? I suppose that it happens so regularly now that it almost isn't news, whereas this is the first Eat to close in Shepway!

I am a big fan of Eat's food, so I'm disappointed that they have gone and feel sorry for any staff who have lost their jobs. I hope that other outlets will be able to hold out for the busy summer months and later, the opening of the hotel, when hopefully trade will pick up. It certainly does seem to be awfully quiet up there at the moment.

Of course, this isn't the first time local Lib Dems have buries bad news on their website. They have previously buried bad news by reporting a missing dog (who they later reported as found, you will be relieved to hear). When Cllrs Peter and Christena Smith suspended their membership pending investigation for benefit fraud, they were conveniently kept off the top spot on the website by a story about bogus callers in Charles Crescent. Unfortunately, the subsequent guilty verdict and sentencing weren't deemed important enough for comment on the site (in contrast to the missing dog, of course).

Lib Dems lose status as Folkestone's largest party

After losing control of Folkestone Town Council last month, the Lib Dems now suffer the shock and indignity of losing their status as the single largest party. Having won 11 of the 18 seats, against 3 Conservatives, 3 People First and an Independent, they now have only 7 councillors, a figure matched by the Conservatives. Meanwhile, having battled to have their leader recognised as Leader of the Council, they have been ousted from all positions of responsibility, with the Mayoralty, Deputy Mayoralty and Chairmanship of the three councils held by Conservative and People First councillors.

Over the past 5 years, there has been little local news to cheer the Lib Dems. After winning only 4 seats in the first Town Council elections, they suffered a series of splits and defections at District and Town level, depriving them of power in Shepway and Group Status on Folkestone Town Council, where they were down to one representative for a time. Added to that, their poor European Election result, which saw them beaten by UKIP as they took barely 10% of the vote and the massive swing against them at the General Election was all capped off by a miserable 10 seats on Shepway District Council. The strongest of the few rays of light in those wilderness years was victory on Folkestone Town Council, where their 11 members dwarfed the other groups, none of which had more than 3 councillors. Yet now, they have thrown it all away.

The new composition of Folkestone Town Council is:
Conservative 7
Lib Dem 7
People First 3
Independent 1

Welcoming the new Conservative Councillors

Cllr Martin Salmon, Folkestone East (Folkestone Town Council)

The Worshipful Mayor of Folkestone, Cllr Peter Gane, Folkestone Cheriton (Shepway District Council and Folkestone Town Council)

Cllr Sue Wallace, Folkestone Harbour (Shepway District Council and Folkestone Town Council)
Well, it's been another busy few days for defections from Shepway Lib Dems. I welcomed Emily to the team a couple of weeks ago, but it's about time that I extended the same welcome to Cllr Martin Salmon of Folkestone East, who has also joined the Folkestone Town Council Conservative Group. Meanwhile, Peter Gane and Sue Wallace have now both confirmed that they have joined the Conservatives on both Shepway District and Folkestone Town Councils. By my reckoning, it is the first time that we have had a Conservative District Councillor in Cheriton since 1983. I don't know the last time that Folkestone Harbour was 100% Conservative, but you would have to go back to the 1980s, if not further.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Bognor Lib Dems following Shepway;s example

I've recently noticed that two Lib Dem Councillors, including the Mayor, have defected to the Conservatives. That has deprived the Lib Dems of a majority on the council for the first time in 18 years. Is there something in the waters of the English Channel that's making so many Lib Dems switch to Conservative lately?

So, welcome to the party The Worshipful Mayor of Bognor Regis, Cllr Mrs Jennifer Gillibrand and Cllr Rob Gillibrand.

Skimming Device on Sainsbury's Cash Machine

Kent Police have warned people to be vigilant when using Folkestone cash points, after a skimming device was found on the cash machine at Sainsbury's Bouverie Road West branch. The device was found on Thursday morning (3rd July, 2008).

If you may have used the machine, your bank details could have been compromised. Police are advising people to check their bank accounts and report any fraudulent transactions to the card issuer.

Cannabis Factory found in St George's Road


Almost 1,000 cannabis plants with a potential street value of tens of thousands of pounds have been discovered at an address in Cheriton, Folkestone.

A warrant was carried out by Kent Police at the house in St George's Road on Thursday 3 July when the plants, which were at varying stages of growth, were found.

Police are investigating the discovery and asking anyone with information, particularly about people and vehicles coming and going from the property to contact Folkestone Police Station.

Kent Police would like to hear from anyone with any information on 01303 850055

Alternatively contact Kent Crimestoppers on 0800 555111. Your anonymity is guaranteed and you may be eligible for a reward.

Bartonitis strikes this Thursday

Canterbury's Barton Ward will be heading to the polls in a by-election this Thursday, following the resignation of one of the ward's three Lib Dem Councillors.

What is it with Barton Lib Dems? This is the third by-election in the ward in the last 7 years, all of which have been caused by Lib Dems not staying the distance. Is it really that bad representing the people of Barton? It has always seemed a pretty nice area to me!

The Conservatives have good form in by-elections in Barton, with a 100% record. Michael Northey won the seat twice, but on both occasions he lost it at the following full council election. In 2003 his losing margin was just 2 votes, and there were 11 recounts, if I remember correctly. Last time around, the Lib Dems won by 180 votes, with the Conservatives as runner up then Labour, the Council Tax Payers Party (England's Own) and an Independent.

This time, the Conservative candidate is Mark Evans, who is up against candidates from the Lib Dems, Greens and the Council Tax Payers Party (England's Own). This time, there is no Labour candidate and no independent, but there is a Green instead.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Shepway Lib Dems rocked by yet more defections

At least two more Lib Dem Councillors have walked this weekend. Following Friday's crisis meeting with the local Lib Dem leadership, Cllr Peter Gane, long serving member for Cheriton and current Mayor of Folkestone and Cllr Sue Wallace of Folkestone Harbour have both taken the decision to leave the Lib Dem groups on Shepway District Council and Folkestone Town Council. The moves reduce the Lib Dems to just 6 seats in Shepway and 7 in Folkestone.

There has not yet been any confirmation from Shepway Lib Dems, and the new status of the councillors is yet to be formally announced. However, rumour has it that Peter Gane has applied to join the Conservatives and Sue Wallace is said to be moving to People First. There are further rumours that another Lib Dem District Councillor will be changing her allegiance as well. To add to the crisis in the Lib Dems, another Town Councillor is said to be likely to resign, forcing a by-election in a marginal ward. I won't name names until the rumours have been substantiated. I don't believe it would be fair on the individuals involved to do so at this stage.

For the time being, it seems that the composition of the local councils is now as follows:

Conservative 37
Lib Dem 5
People First 2
Independent 2

Lib Dem 7
Conservative 5
People First 3
Independent 3

I will have further updates once the new alignments have been confirmed.