Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Portsmouth’s smeargate: dirty politics in the age of austerity

Democracy takes a hit as local politicians play dirty against anti-cuts campaigners, write Sarah Cheverton and Tom Sykes

April 21, 2016
6 min read

sisters uncutSisters Uncut stage a protest at a meeting of Portsmouth City Council. Photo: Sisters Uncut

Last month our hyperlocal news website Star & Crescent was the first media outlet to report on a leaked email sent by Conservative councillor Scott Harris in which he expressed that ‘it might be a good idea to play dirty’ in the 2016 local elections.

In the email—sent to all Portsmouth’s Conservative councillors—Harris revealed that he was ‘compiling some stuff’ on Jon Woods, a social worker for Portsmouth City Council and a trade union activist; on Sameen Farouk, a local resident and campaigner; and on Shonagh Dillon, CEO of a local charity, Aurora New Dawn. All three individuals have been active critics of Portsmouth City Council’s cuts programme. One of the tactics proposed in the email was a vindictive complaint to Farouk’s employer, with the intention of getting him dismissed from his job.

After the story broke, Harris faced calls to resign and apologised for his conduct (if only to Farouk). Despite this, local Conservative councillors have continued to make negative statements about Farouk and Aurora New Dawn.

Council leader Donna Jones described Farouk’s behaviour as ‘horrific’ in an interview with The News. The reason why? Mr Farouk had submitted Freedom of Information requests on a variety of local issues, none of which have been challenged by the Council as ‘vexatious’ (the mechanism by which local authorities can challenge FOI requests that are frequent, offensive, or overly burdensome). Readers unfamiliar with the regulations and processes around FOIs were implicitly encouraged to believe the leader is right to assess as ‘horrific’ a citizen’s democratic right to interrogate the decisions of local government.

Jones also made a series of false claims in The News about Aurora New Dawn, a Hampshire charity working with victims of domestic and sexual violence. She said that the charity was complicit in a ‘hate campaign‘ questioning the wisdom of reducing the council’s specialist service for domestic violence victims by £180k without any clear plans to safeguard victims and their families.

Despite the campaign against cuts to services for domestic violence victims—led by national direct action group Sisters Uncut, and supported by the End Violence Against Women coalition, trade unions and Star & Crescent—clearly being run and supported by a diversity of partners, Conservative councillor Rob New—the cabinet member responsible for cuts to domestic violence services—has also targeted Aurora New Dawn.

He has blamed Shonagh Dillon personally for ‘orchestrating a campaign of protest‘ and has strongly implicated her in a direct action taken by Sisters Uncut at a Council meeting in December. According to New, Dillon used ‘her domestic abuse provider [sic] to further a hurricane of disruption that was led by Sisters Uncut against this city council.’

Like Jones, New has offered no evidence for his claims and was quickly proven wrong when a Sisters Uncut spokesperson stated that they were solely responsible for the direct action.

Democracy compromised?

Whilst the accusations made by Portsmouth councillors are no doubt damaging on their own terms, together they reveal the presence of a more worrying trend, with serious implications for local democracy.

Jones has attacked the protest against council cuts by stating that ‘we have had democracy compromised in Portsmouth.’ She was joined in this sentiment by John Ferrett, the right-wing leader of Portsmouth’s Labour group, who have entered into an informal coalition with the Conservatives and UKIP in Portsmouth and chosen to abstain on the most recent cuts. ‘I’m not a fan of direct action in a democracy,’ Ferrett tweeted.

For senior local politicians this shows a breath-taking ignorance of local politics. Almost all political progress made in the history of Portsmouth—from pamphleteering against the corruption of the monarchy in the 1810s to university students disrupting arms industry events two centuries later—has been won by ‘ordinary’ people standing up to elite interests, often by taking direct action.

A more critical observer might conclude that rather than local residents and a charity disrupting local democracy, it is being compromised by Portsmouth councillors themselves. When public servants like Scott Harris refuse to resign despite being caught conspiring against the very people they are supposed to represent, then local politicians start to look as arrogant, self-serving and disconnected as their national counterparts when they accept cash for questions or blow public money on cleaning their moats.

Thanks to the eccentricities of our electoral system, the Tories narrowly won the 2015 general election with only 24% of the eligible vote. Jones and other Tories conclude from this that their austerity agenda has broad public support. So when they make damaging cuts that directly contradict the will and needs of the people, nobody should be surprised when groups like Sisters Uncut resort to peaceful direct action as the only available democratic platform left. That local councillors are quick to attack political resistance by the electorate to their policies as abuse, as ‘horrific’ and as somehow against the ethos of democracy itself speaks to a level of privilege and power that should concern us all.

Yet perhaps these actions are less surprising in a political landscape where the Prime Minister responds to criticism over closing children’s centres by telling his opponent to ‘put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem.’ The electorate are becoming increasingly accustomed to a politics that harnesses insults, insinuation and intimidation instead of evidence-based debate—but at what price?

Whether by chance or design, the worst consequence of the smear campaign in Portsmouth has been to deflect attention away from the real scandal: needless Tory cuts that will almost certainly result in the deaths of more Portsmouth women. Alongside these victims are the voters of Portsmouth who are caught in an elaborate web of ‘he said, she said’ facilitated and encouraged by the mainstream local press. Far more of a threat to democracy than direct action, this dirty politics is causing the electorate to become ever more disengaged and disenfranchised with politicians at a time when it has never been more important to take a stand.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright