Lib Dems on West Sussex County Council today announced they were signing up to the County Times’ Free Speech Charter.
The announcement came as Deputy Chairman (political) of the Horsham Conservative Association Simon Torn today threw his weight behind the document.
Already, the Lib Dem minority group at Horsham District Council have made a commitment to the Charter, but now their county council counterparts have followed suit.
UKIP county councillors, who form the official opposition, have already given their wholehearted backing.
James Walsh, leader of the Lib Dem county council group said he signed up to the County Times’ Free Speech Charter on behalf of his group.
Dr Walsh, a county councillor for 29 years and an Arun district councillor for 39, said: “It’s part of what drives us to become Liberals. We believe in free speech for everybody and believe issues should be decided on their merits and not by party whip.”
Over his time he believed the use of the whip by the Conservative group had worsened, and felt that low turnouts in the local elections were in part due to whipped voting.
He said: “[The Free Speech Charter] is one of the things that would restore faith in the local democracy.
“Opening up democracy and encouraging freer voting would all help turn that around.”
He added: “I can predict on every important vote the arms and hands of the Conservative majority go up as though they are being pulled by a universal string.
“It’s so rare for a member of the majority group to abstain or vote against the party line you can count them on the fingers of one hand.
“I do believe in a party system that people broadly subscribe to the policy and philosophy, but it’s ridiculous to say every issue that comes before the council is a thing for party political dogma.”
Mr Torn, who is also a Horsham District councillor for Roffey South, confirmed his support in an e-mail to the newspaper’s political editor Joshua Powling this morning (Monday March 31).
Despite the Conservative leadership on HDC appearing to ignore the Charter, Mr Torn’s intervention will give the campaign for more open local government a huge boost.
He is the third Tory district councillor to make a commitment. Last week, the council’s youngest councillor Josh Murphy and Council Vice Chairman Christian Mitchell pledged their support.
The Charter - which already has the backing of the Lib Dem minority group on the district council as well as UKIP nationally and locally - has been launched in response to claims that the ruling Tory group at Horsham whip votes, make key decisions in secret group meetings, and vet letters and articles sent to the County Times.
It follows the unprecedented deselection of Mr Mitchell as chairman elect in a whipped vote. He said he had paid the price for articulating his residents’ concerns about massive development in North Horsham.
The Charter states: “I undertake to speak, write and vote on behalf of my constituents without fear or favour of party discipline. If I am a member of a political party, I will respect its values and honour its pre-election manifesto pledges - but I will always put first the people I am elected to serve.”
Future candidates of any political party and none are also invited to be signatories - and two Independent candidates for the 2015 poll have also supported it.
Mr Powling welcomed the announcement by Mr Torn.
He said: “The public has become increasingly disengaged from local politics because so much of the real decision-making is held in secret.
“Single party cabinet meetings, often with informal private sessions, have added to this sense of public disquiet.
“When you have major issues like determining the Preferred Strategy for local planning unless you debate everything openly and frankly, the public rightly become suspicious of how contentious decisions are achieved.
“In the end, it is wholly counter-productive. Even if there is no cause for concern, privacy breeds both contempt and groundless fears.
“The vast outpouring of public support for the County Times’ Charter and our STop Secret campaign demonstrates that residents want to be treated better.”
He congratulated Mr Torn on his announcement.
“Mr Torn, like Mr Mitchell and Mr Murphy are courageous and honourable trail blazers - and the County Times enormously respects their principled statements.”