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No Smoke without Fire?

No Smoke Without FireThere are some unhappy rumblings from UKIP in the Fylde area at the moment. We understand it stems back to the summer's Parliamentary Candidate selection process to chose candidates for the parliamentary election next year.

It seems there were two established UKIP branches in the local area (Lancaster + Fleetwood, and Cleveleys + Blackpool) and they expected to use their constitutional procedures to choose candidates to represent them.

Then the Fylde Branch was established when swimming pool campaigner Bill Whitehead awoke a semi-dormant UKIP organisation in Fylde. That made three Branches overall.

So far so good

In picking its Candidates for the future parliamentary election, we heard Mr Whitehead's name being associated with Lancaster and Fleetwood seat, and Hamish Howitt (of the 'Freedom to Smoke' fame) with the Blackpool South seat.

But it seems his selection didn't go down too well with all the members locally, and there were rumours of discontent spreading around in late summer.

Some say Mr Howitt had his own pro-smoking political party when he was selected, and that should have disqualified him There was also an uncomfortable feeling that UKIP was being used as another anti-smoking vehicle to promote Mr Howitt's personal crusade.

Certainly he boasts of leading a political party called UK-Fags (which thankfully seems to ignore the public school connotations). See for yourself at  www.uk-fags.co.uk

He also contested Tory Davis Davis' seat in the by-election in June 2008 where Davis was returned with just over 17,000 votes (71%) and Mr Howitt achieved 91 votes (0.4%) for (at that time) the Freedom 4 Choice Party, but he slipped to 65 votes (0.2%) in the Glasgow East by election for the same party a month or so later.

Now he appears to be trying his luck with UKIP - to the anger of some members.

The issue that caused this matter to smoulder in the first place - smoking - is a bit like foxhunting in the sense that support or opposition comes with all sorts of hidden agendas and prejudices. For some, it is pollution, and others see it as freedom.

We also hear that one Nick Hogan (also a former pro smoking pub campaigner and the first publican in Britain to go on trial accused of flouting the smoking ban). has also been chosen for the UKIP prospective parliamentary seat at Chorley.

Making matters more complicated, UKIP's recently chosen candidate for the Preston seat has just been deselected - reputedly by the Regional Officer, and allegedly for daring to protest about the pro-smoking pub lobby taking over UKIP in the North West, only to find his seat allocated to - yet another publican.

When Blackpool branch began to complain about Mr Howitt's suitability, its Chairman appears to have been removed from office by UKIP's Regional Officer.

From what we can see, this situation locally now seems to have blown up into a full blown row, with calls for resignations and votes of no confidence being passed by branches - so we've been trying to get to the bottom of it for our readers.

It's not just the smoking issue.

According to the ancient laws of the Meads and the Persians, selection of the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate is usually made via branch nomination - but according to our information, Mr Howitt was selected without this process being applied.

More ructions followed.

Those we have spoken with said their original concern had been the links between Mr Howitt and his former pro-smoking campaign, and the fact that he had stepped outside the law to make his protest. A view was taken by local members that people who break the law don't give UKIP the image it ought to have.

But then a new spectre emerged, that of centralised policy being enforced on branches.

This of course leads inevitably to anger in the branch from those who believe they own the right to manage their own affairs.

Matters came to something of a head when the local organiser was sidelined, and the Regional Officer authorised or created a new 'Blackpool South' branch, with Mr Howitt as Branch Chairman but - so far as we can work out - with no actual members being allocated to it.

This situation allowed for Parliamentary Candidate Selection to be made at a regional level, and gave Mr Howitt a clear field. In effect, it prevented the rank and file in the local branch from exercising its right to select its own candidate. Cynics might have said it was simply a device to by-pass 'a little local difficulty'

As you might guess, this didn't really improve matters between the branches and the Regional Officer - especially in an organisation that claims to value freedom and prize democracy.

Things were at an impasse last week. We heard tell that the Blackpool organiser was concerned about rocking the boat, but he didn't feel the matter had been listened to properly. We understand a meeting of local branches was called to test opinion in UKIP's local organisation.

We have been told that UKIP's Regional Organiser and Mr Howitt were invited to attend the meeting in Cleveleys but did not do so.

If UKIP's Blackpool + Cleveleys branch organiser had been in any doubt about what to do before the meeting, he certainly wasn't afterwards.

We hear the meeting used strong words against the Regional Officer's 'high handed' actions, including a formal and unanimous vote of 'No Confidence' and a call for his resignation was made by the Blackpool and Cleveleys branch, and separately by the Fylde Branch that is chaired by forthright local man Bill Whitehead.

We were also told that those members present with addresses in the Blackpool South area convened themselves into an emergency meeting and resolved a separate unanimous vote of 'No Confidence' in Mr Howitt, and called for his resignation as Chairman of the newly created Blackpool South Branch as well.

Trouble at t'mill as they say.

As usual in these circumstances there is all manner of claim and counter claim, and conspiracy theories flourish, but from what we have been told, as well as Mr Howitt being appointed Chairman of a new Blackpool South branch that seems to have been created just for him, at least one recent UKIP member with pub trade background has been appointed onto UKIP's national Disciplinary Committee - which is seen as very quick work for a new(ish) member.

It has also been alleged that several former publicans across the NW have been absorbed into the UKIP administrative structure, and some believe this is a bad or dangerous sign that UKIP has been, or is being, hi-jacked by the pro-smoking or publican lobby. There seems to be some foundation for this concern because opponents point to UKIP's specific Pub and Smoking Policy and its recent Save the Pub Campaign

The de-selections of non-publican people who were only selected as Prospective Parliamentary Candidates earlier this year adds fuel to the fire (claims of removing 'turbulent priests' spring to mind)

And on the other side of the fence, we guess it will look as though people in the Blackpool and Fylde area are revolting.

And that's about it. We understand Mr Whitehead has written to over 200 UKIP branches nationwide to see whether the influence of the publican / smoking lobby is more widespread than the local area, and whether other branches are concerned about the direction UKIP is taking.

We're not sure how far this row will rumble, but we suspect smoking - or at least someone being fired - looks like the outcome.

Dated:   17 December 2009


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