Profile: Alex Aiken, Westminster City Council

Westminster comms head Alex Aiken has no time to miss national politics.

Profile: Alex Aiken, Westminster City Council
Profile: Alex Aiken, Westminster City Council

Ironically for a man who has spent much of his life involved in Tory politics, one of Alex Aiken's defining moments came on the left wing.

At 13 he was playing in that position for the Barnet Beavers when he had his leg broken, and he is convinced his football career never recovered.

But the Premier League's loss was the Conservative Party's gain, and 23 years on John Major's former head of campaigns is now leading comms for the Tory-controlled City of Westminster.

The miserable lines of the tower housing Westminster City Hall would make a former Eastern bloc architect wince, but it is from here, 17 floors above Victoria, that Aiken runs his team.

When he joined three years ago, the failing department's performance fitted its dreary surroundings. Today, the council features in regional and national media on issues of environment, education and London government.

Internally, there used to be nothing beyond departmental newletters, but Aiken has boosted his team from a dozen to 17, and the council's PR operation received a clean bill of health in a recent audit.

There is certainly no shortage of news in this area of 200,000 residents: London mayor Ken Livingstone's congestion charge and the ever-present debate over late licensing are two of the hottest topics in a borough which takes in Oxford Street, Soho and the Houses of Parliament.

The council dropped its vehement PR campaign against the £5 charge last year, after an agreement with Transport for London, but it has launched a commission to provide evidence to Livingstone that any extension of the zone must be carefully considered.

On licensing, the City of Westminster is attempting to marry the needs of residents who want to sleep with the demands of the West End's tourist trade. Compromise will be key, says Aiken. Residents elect councillors, after all.

More controversially, Aiken also now spends a day a week overseeing PR at the borough of Richmond, west London. The move has angered Liberal Democrats there, who see a former Tory party PR man from a Tory-controlled council being brought in by another Tory authority, and have cried foul.

Aiken attempts to put this ball safely into touch, saying he will be judged on his behaviour in the post. But he adds, matter-of-factly: 'I think there's a fair amount of local government communications that's poor quality. There are 300 heads of comms - you can't tell me that every one of them is good or excellent.'

Genial and funny, Aiken is an entertaining mixture of the diplomatic and the provocative. He joined the Conservative Party PR machine after an economics degree at the LSE, where he was that rare bird, the Tory student activist.

He left seven years later after setting up its new campaigns unit - along the way gaining brief tabloid exposure by wrestling a Daily Mirror-sponsored giant chicken to the ground before it could get near then Prime Minister Major on a kissing babies tour.

Given that he quit over a disagreement with the way William Hague wanted to sell the party ('keep the pound' and not much else), Aiken's thoughts on Iain Duncan Smith are instructive. 'Westminster's Civic Renewal programme is inclusive for all the communities in Westminster, which is more than 100 nationalities,' he begins carefully. 'My advice to IDS is you have got to be inclusive. There is still too much focus on newspaper headlines and not enough winning hearts and minds on a long-term basis. But IDS is learning.'

As a public servant, his scope for criticism is limited, but the party might do well to listen. The Times journalist Philip Webster recalls Aiken's time at Tory party HQ: 'He was popular with the press corps. Very energetic, on the ball. He's quite a bright spark and had a good reputation.'

Although Aiken has recently taken part in projects to export good communications practice to fledgling democracies such as Serbia and Outer Mongolia, he rules out a return to politics. 'There is a big job here at Westminster for a year or so, ensuring that comms is enshrined throughout the organisation,' he says - although a post at an intergovernmental organisation, 'a big British plc', or even a move abroad are also on his future wish list.

And there will always be football, of course, with his team, Westminster Wanderers. Students of parliamentary behaviour will be pleased to learn that political teams fit their stereotypes.

For example, fixtures against the press gallery have been suspended after their last meeting, the Battle of Kennington Park. 'There was a lot going on off the ball. Our goalie was hospitalised.' And an XI from the late James Goldsmith's Referendum Party had the unmistakable air of an undisciplined rabble. 'They were crap,' Aiken says cheerfully. 'They're all mad.'

HIGHLIGHTS

1995: Chief press officer, Conservative Party

1997: Head of news, Conservative Party

1999: Head of campaigns unit, Conservative Party

2000: Head of comms, Westminster City Council

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