Freemasons' role deepens political divide

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The Local Government Ombudsman is investigating allegations of Masonic interference on the Isle of Wight.

Candidates standing for election to the country's first new unitary authority have been called upon to declare whether or not they are Freemasons, after claims that at least one-fifth of them belong to the secret society.

Freemasonry on the Isle of Wight is not simply a joke about leather aprons, funny handshakes and rolled-up trouser legs - there are serious concerns about its influence over local democracy.

The Local Government Ombudsman is already investigating allegations of Masonic interference with planning decisions on one of the island's three local councils which merged into one on 1 April. Albert Annett quit as planning chairman of the now-defunct Medina Borough Council and resigned from the Conservative Party because he claimed he could no longer take the pressure from an alleged Masonic cabal on the council.

Yesterday, Mr Annett claimed that 12 of the 18 ruling Tory group on Medina council were Masons, some of them occupying influential positions. "You do not sit there for five-and-a-half years as committee chairman without knowing what is going on," he said.

"It really came home to me when I was told that the local lodge had told people not to vote for me, because a decision had not pleased them. I often had the impression that matters had been discussed and decided before council meetings."

He is to give evidence to the ombudsman, but in the meantime has supported calls by a newly-formed Isle of Wight Democracy Group for the 123 candidates to the new authority - which replaces Medina and South Wight borough councils and the old county council - to declare their allegiances.

The group says that at least 23 of the 123 candidates fighting for the 48 places on the new Isle of Wight council belong to one of the island's 16 lodges - about half of those holding high masonic office: 20 are said to be Tories, one a Liberal Democrat and two are Independents.

Yesterday, Miles Clarke, a former Tory councillor and now a spokesman of the cross-party democracy group, said: "Candidates should declare their interests so that the electorate know who they are and what their commitments are. Had I known who of my fellow councillors were Masons, I would have been better able to represent both my constituents and my party."

Debate has raged in the letters columns of the local newspaper, with those prospective councillors who are "out" as Masons dismissing the allegations from Mr Annett and others as "unfounded".

Mike Fletcher, former leader of the Tory group on Medina council and a declared Mason, said the claims were nothing more than unsubstantiated "innuendo" and was confident that the ombudsman would give Medina a clean bill of health. He disputed the figure of 23 Masons standing for election, but would not say how many he knew to belong.

But with a depressed economy, low wages, high ferry and service charges, and many jobless residents - unemployment at nearly 12 per cent makes it the black spot of the South-east - freemasonry is well down the list of concerns of most of the electorate.

Tourism can no longer be relied upon to sustain the island's seaside towns and resorts. Ryde is full of shops and businesses to buy or let. Cowes thrives only in Cowes week. Blame is laid largely on the shoulders of central government, so the smart money is on the Liberal Democrats, who had a large majority on the county council, to win this two-horse race on Thursday.

Barry Field, the island's Conservative MP, has only a small majority over the Liberal Democrats.

Labour, which had no seats on the county council and only three on Medina council, is only contesting 11 of the 48 new places and will be lucky to get two or three. Kenn Pearson, chairman of the local Labour Party, denies the party's situation there is "a lost cause", claiming that it has been victim of tactical anti-Tory voting.

But there is little evidence that Tony Blair and New Labour's impact on middle England has reached east and west Wight. Islanders tend to be committed Tories; those who are not, vote Liberal Democrat. The problem for both parties - and this may be the decisive factor at the end of the day - is apathy. "I think people are so fed up they won't bother to vote at all. The winner might be the party who can get people to turn out," said one observer.

Morris Barton, the likely Liberal Democrat leader of the new authority and the only candidate unopposed by Tories on Thursday, has no doubts that the general election campaign has begun already and that his party will cash in on concerns over education, health, unemployment and those living with negative equity.

Like Mr Pearson, Mr Barton is not a Mason and believes there are few votes to be gained by that issue. But no one - not even those who fear a Masonic takeover - advocates "outing" Masons as Peter Tatchell has attempted to do with bishops. With only a few declared, and the rest determined to stay in the closet, voters will simply have to monitor the handshakes on the doorstep.