Friday 5 December 2008

Hidden agendas

"The Field" is not a magazine which features on my regular reading list, but my attention was drawn to an article in the November issue, written by the Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance. He is also known to us locally, of course, as the Conservative candidate for the parliamentary election.

The article quotes extensively the founder and director of a rather shadowy organisation called Vote-OK. Vote-OK proudly boast that they helped to unseat a number of Labour MPs in the 2005 election, and are aiming to do even better in the next election, because they have had time to "bed down in the target constituencies". The impression given by the article is of an objective interview; but it seems that there may be a much closer relationship between the two people involved.

Vote-OK have a web-site, which spells out what they are about, with rather more honesty than when they're out on the ground campaigning. They are a single-issue group, properly and legally registered as a third party organisation with the Electoral Commission, which seeks the repeal of the Hunting Act by removing anti-hunting MPs (Labour) and replacing them with pro-hunting MPs (Tory). They concentrate their efforts on marginal constituencies, and organise thousands of volunteers from local hunts to turn out to support the Tory candidates.

Specifically, they claim to have unseated 29 MPs in the last election, and to be targeting another 139 for the next election. Although their FAQ's section declines to identify which MPs and constituencies they are targeting, I think we can probably take it as read that Nick Ainger and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire will be receiving the 'benefit' of their attention.

And that means that people locally should know a bit more about them. There are two aspects in particular which might cause people to ask some searching questions.

Take, for example, the comments about them in a report by the Electoral Commission on the 2005 General Election. The report described them thus, "Vote OK was an innovative and unusual ‘single-issue’ campaigning group in that it did not campaign at all on the issue in question", and "Vote OK did not campaign on the issue of hunting". Yes, that's right. They campaign in a range of constituencies in pursuit of a single policy objective which they endeavour never to actually mention!

Indeed, according to this report from the Mirror on a more recent election campaign, their volunteers are actually under clear instructions not to talk about hunting at all, and to give the impression that they are Tory Party workers.

Secondly, what exactly is their relationship with the Countryside Alliance? They claim, again in their FAQ page, to be entirely independent of the Alliance, but they were actually founded by three former members of staff of the Countryside Alliance, and the Electoral Commission report refers to them as having "emerged out of the Countryside Alliance". The 'emergence' of this new group appears to be a means by which an apparently all-party group has spawned a political wing which specifically aids the Tory Party.

More evidence for the relationship between Vote-OK and the Countryside Alliance comes from 2005, when the Guardian published a leaked transcript of a conversation between the Chief Executive of the Alliance (and now Tory candidate for this constituency), and the people involved in setting up the new group. The transcript indicates that the said Chief Executive took a big part in setting up Vote-OK, and in advising them on how to get rid of Labour MPs.

Amongst other things, he advised them against physical assaults on Labour MPs, with the words "Alun Michael [the rural affairs minister] with blood running from his nose lying in a ditch because somebody decked him might give the person who did it a warm feeling for a short time. It might also do untold harm." Warm feeling? Only 'might' do untold harm?

Perhaps most telling of all, in terms of clarity about their objectives, methods, and hidden agenda, is this extract from the Guardian's report:

Mr Hart then went on to spell out the strategy. "It would be much cleverer if we never mentioned hunting at all ... We've got to go into these constituencies campaigning on health, education, crime."

In short, it's a clear declaration that these one issue campaigners should avoid all mention of their core issue, but instead pretend to be interested in more general questions. And it provides further evidence for the view held by many local Conservatives that their party has been infiltrated and taken over by single-issue campaigners. Entryism used to be a problem for the Labour Party; but it seems that it's the Tories who are the victims these days.

It means that we have a Conservative Party largely financed from the profits of the sort of activity which has brought the world's banking systems to the verge of collapse, and a candidate who seems to consider that issues relating to health, education, and crime are relevant primarily as a ruse for hiding the real agenda. The hidden agenda behind all of this is the repeal of the Hunting Act, but those involved are doing their utmost to avoid discussing this objective with those whose votes they seek.

Now, as I said earlier, none of this is actually illegal under current rules. Some might think that it should be illegal for an organisation to campaign semi-secretly in an election whilst doing what they can to conceal what they are doing and why; but as things stand, it seems that it is not. However, for me, being entirely legal is not at all the same thing as being entirely honest with the voters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said, this needs to have much greater exposure before the next election comes around.