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.

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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.

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