Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Sisters 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.
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.
Three founders of Momentum talk to Ashish Ghadiali about the two years that have transformed their lives and the fortunes of the British left.
The real story behind the fire in Grande Synthe’s Linière refugee camp, Dunkirk. From 'Bordered Lives – How Europe fails refugees and migrants' by Hsiao-Hung Pai
Javier Pérez De La Cruz writes about the working class Berlin neighbourhood wrung dry by gentrifiers.
Across the world, thousands of protesters are taking on the planet’s biggest fossil fuel companies. We should support them – and if we can, we should join them. By Kara Moses
Students are suffering the effects of financial instability, stress, and slashed mental health services. Mark Crawford reports.
They're not defending free speech - they're just seeking to shore up their own power, writes Ilyas Nagdee
How can the heavily-armed Israeli state claim to be victimised by one teenage activist? By Richard Seymour.
Governments are manufacturing a new 'enemy within', write Yasser Louati and Malia Bouattia
The online currency started as an alternative to the failed financial system – but as a huge bubble inflates and bankers board the bandwagon, Tom Walker argues bitcoin has drowned in greed
Oliver Lemon explores what a 'robot tax' could look like, and whether it's an idea whose time has come.
Jeremy Hunt is poised to flog the last of the NHS
Peter Roderick sounds the alarm on an 'attack on the fundamental principles of the NHS'.
Viva Siva, 1923-2018
A. Sivanandan, who died this week, was a hugely important figure in the politics of race and class. As part of our tributes, Red Pepper is republishing this 2009 profile of him by Arun Kundnani
Sivanandan: When memory forgets a giant
Daniel Renwick calls for the whole movement to discover and remember the vital work of A. Sivanandan, who died this week
A master-work of graphic satire
American Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley’s comic commentary on America, the US Jewish diaspora and Israel is nothing if not near the knuckle, Richard Kuper writes
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns
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