Cllr Chris Whitehouse is a Conservative councillor on the Isle of Wight and Chairman of award-winning communications agency The Whitehouse Consultancy.
Back in February 2016, many readers of this column would have been somewhat dubious when it reported the plan of the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council effectively to crowdsource the writing of the Manifesto for the local government elections held on 4th May this year. The Group went ahead and launched the Island Conversation, which was a genuine consultation with the people of the Island about what their priorities were. It asked real, open questions about how best to improve the services the Council provides and how to boost the economy and improve the quality of life.
The exercise didn’t throw up any huge surprises, but it achieved two useful results. First, it convinced many stakeholders, particularly from the business and the education sectors, that the Island Conservatives were serious about consulting with them and genuinely seeking their opinions on how the dire performance of the then “independent” controlled Council could be improved.
Second, with a bit of tweaking, it gave confidence that the key issues it had identified, and on which it had sought input, were resonating with the electorate.
Indeed, the professionalism with which the exercise was handled contributed significantly to the sense that the Conservatives, although a minority of 14 councillors out of a total of 40, were a competent administration in waiting, under a competent Leader, Cllr Dave Stewart, whose 30 years in the police had given him great leadership and team-building skills.
So, when the independent administration collapsed in January this year, riven by infighting and demonstrably failing to deliver the leadership the Island desperately needed, the Conservative Group was able to step up immediately to deliver a genuinely strong and stable coalition with UKIP and a small group of genuinely independent councillors.
That minority administration was able to hit the ground running in part because it had a sense of the key priorities for the Island drawn from the Island Conversation, and in part because in opposition it had adopted a shadow-spokesperson approach so that key players were up to speed on the policies for which they suddenly became responsible. This was with absolutely no warning, such was the lack of professionalism of the former Leader, Cllr Jonathan Bacon, and Deputy Leader, Cllr Steve Subbings, who simply abandoned the bridge, resigned by email and left the ship heading straight for the rocks claiming, quite wrongly, that it was impossible to set a lawful budget.
As this May’s local government elections loomed, the minority Conservative-led administration was seen as competent, professional and effective. What’s more, it had its Manifesto ready to go and played back to the electorate the very themes that the consultation had confirmed they wanted to see underpin the strategy for the future of the Island.
The result? The number of Conservative councillors saw a jump from only 14 to 25, giving the new Leader of the Council, Dave Stewart, the clear and unambiguous mandate he needed immediately to return to Cabinet governance and to start delivering on the objectives first set out 17 months earlier. There’s no doubt that the vigorous local election campaign and the demonstrable competence of the new Council administration contributed to the truly staggering size of the majority of 21,069 votes won by the Island’s Conservative Parliamentary candidate, its excellent new MP, Bob Seely.
John Stafford asked that the results of this exercise be shared. Well there you go, the Island Conservatives took control with a comfortable majority and returned to Westminster a Conservative MP selected only days before General Election polling day. Island Conservatives had, to be blunt, brand credibility, clear and honed messages, and a well-organised and motivated team.
Those victories, of course, were not solely attributable to the Island Conversation process, but rather perhaps to the foresight and planning approach of which it was the product, but the lesson would seem that other Conservative groups might consider adopting a similar approach in future.
As for the key principles of the Island Conversation, they will now form the basis of the 10 year strategy for the future of the Island which is now being prepared and which will set out in detail how the Conservative administration will deliver the objectives set for it by the electorate. Job well done by the Island Conservatives. Shame about the party nationally.
As for former councillors Bacon and Stubbings, the clue is in the “former”. The Island electorate threw them both out, along with other key players from their inept and dysfunctional administration who had done such damage to the Island’s reputation and public services.