Oldham’s Toxic Politics | Part 1

Sir David never served in high office as many would see it, for him the highest office possible was serving the people he stood in parliament to represent. Like many, he was one of the important cogs who would ensure that the machinery of Parliament worked as it should, often unseen by the public eye, facilitating debates and laws to be passed as a committee Chair. He was always fair, respectful, and kind, even when MPs might seek to test that manner by pushing the boundaries, as we all do at times.

The weekend brought back a dark reminder of the killing of Jo Cox, an inspirationally fiery and a passionate soul who lived her values in everything she did. Both losses are completely senseless and as Parliament reconvened for the first-time following conference recess, the sense of shock, upset and anger was palpable.

THE CHANGING POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT

Social media acts as more than a platform, it is an active facilitator of abuse, harassment, and radicalisation. The self-moderation afforded to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube (though there are many others) is not something other parts of our media have the luxury of. Newspapers are covered by press regulation, and though some argue it should be tougher, there is at least a body to complain to, and the same is true of TV advertising. Its beggar’s belief that my child watching the TV is protected by a 9pm watershed barring bad language, but they can see obscene abuse, false accusations, and death threats against their political parent.

Complaints to platforms, which can run into hundreds of individual complaints, too often don’t even get a reply, and worse some platforms such as Twitter have separate rules for public figures which allow a significantly greater level of abuse, not just accepting that it is part of the job, but actively encouraging it.

Current measures and proposals to reign in social media giants to a level playing field fall short in my view, not just at protecting individuals but to protect the fragile balance of our democracy. My longstanding personal view is that adding another level of oversight isn’t enough, for a true level playing field platforms should have the same legal responsibly as print and TV media; that they themselves are the publisher. This would change the approach by the platforms overnight and when faced with a long line of likely defamation, harassment, and abuse claims, they would soon clean up their act.

I am fortunate that I do not attract the sustained abuse faced by many in politics, including journalists and leading campaigners, especially women and those from minority backgrounds. But even with this every MP has faced threats, sustained abuse, and harassment which with the best will in the world, impacts on how we carry out our role.

AN OLDHAM PERSPECTIVE

In Oldham we have been faced with a near three-year long divisive campaign of misinformation, abuse, harassment, and threats to safety. It has made the political discourse toxic, threatening and dangerous. Though recently this has been covered in national newspapers; it is important this experience is told first-hand.

Most of the content is originated by Raja Miah, a failed former Free School CEO who was taken to task over safeguarding and allegations of financial irregularities at the schools he ran. Miah is currently on police bail for Racially Aggravated Public Order and Malicious Communications offences, but is welcomed onto platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and is freely drawing in subscriptions and donations for his content through Buymeacoffee, Paypal and Crowdfunder UK.

The real consequences of this online campaign of hate are profound. It affects all local MPs, our staff, family, and friends. For my own part I have reported threats of my partners workplace being published, photos of my children being used in attacking posts, our home address being solicited and shared online, our movements when campaigning have been published with encouragement to turn up and confront us. My own family members have been singled out for abuse and harassment when they did not choose to come into political or public life.

And it goes beyond Members of Parliament. The campaign to target the former council leader with the most horrendous false claims that he was covering up child abuse in the town lead to intimidating protests outside his family home, abuse in the street and ultimately in his defeat at the ballot box. It is the same relentless campaign which has now driven him out of the town where he was born and raised.  

With a new council leader in post, her ethnicity and religion are used to attack her further, with accusations that as an Asian Muslim woman, she represents a Muslim takeover of the town, and she does not have the interests of all Oldham at heart. Even on the firebombing of her car in what appears to be a targeted attack, countless posts followed, including comments that she should have been burned alive and had her family home set on fire.

Throughout the course of the misinformation campaign several journalists have observed the growing conflict and stepped up to shine a light on it. The cost for some has been significant in personal abuse where they themselves are labelled as paedophiles and accused of being part of the fabricated conspiracy. Some have been threatened with being hunted down, and some with violence. Anonymous accounts set up solely to harass, defame and conduct organised pile on attacks.

We have reported countless threatening messages and posts, though frustratingly, this is rarely taken seriously, and complaints submitted to date have largely been ignored.

FROM ONLINE TO ON STREET

In the last month alone whilst out campaigning, we have been threatened, abused, and accused of the conspiracy peddled by Miah, namely that Labour politicians are part of a conspiracy to cover up child abuse to protect Asian abusers in return for votes, that the votes of white people are rendered worthless through organised cartels operating voter fraud, and that there is widespread corruption.

It isn’t the case that there is never action, for those incited by the content who make overt threats to life, the response from authorities has been robust. Only a couple of weeks ago a man was sentenced at Manchester Magistrates Court for making threats to kill me in a series of direct messages, which caused great distress to me and my family, all of which was incited by the divisive and hate filled content published online.

But failing to address the very content which incites hatred, and which is itself unlawful, erodes the standards of democratic discourse which is now near breaking point. That there is now ample evidence that it hasn’t just led to abuse and intimidation, but more that is has had a material effect on our democratic process. This should have been a wake-up call.

Without social media platforms, the police and the Crown Prosecution Servicetaking a more consistent and proportionate response, it is a fact that public life and democracy is diminished.

UK DEMOCRACY IS UNIQUE; WE SHOULD VALUE AND PROTECT IT

As local MPs we value the face-to-face support we offer constituents, and I take personal pride in the individual casework support we give, mainly thanks to the hard work of my team in Oldham and London who work tirelessly to support local people.

In the past year we have supported around 8,000 cases; from people making contact about a campaign they care about, or the most dire personal circumstances where we are the last line of defence. Whatever follows is less about individual MPs but more about ensuring those we came into politics to support don’t feel more disconnected, alone and with nowhere to go.

Even at the height of the awful pandemic we never stopped, in fact we ramped up our efforts to support local people. When we weren’t working through casework, offering video and telephone surgeries and meeting officials to support the efforts, we were full shoulder to the wheel in delivering food parcels, homeware items and door to door community testing. Without this community grounding, politics is poorer, politicians more remote and parliament even more removed from everyday life experiences.

And it must be remembered that though we are sent to be your voice in Parliament, many of us are of the community we serve. When online abuse confronts you in the street, it also meets you at the local supermarket, in local parks, in the market hall and in local pubs and more. Intimidation then doesn’t just affect how you do your job, but how you live your life.

Of course, the vast majority of people we come into contact with just want to get on with life and don’t think about politics much at all, and for those who do, most experiences are nothing but positive. I am proud to live in Oldham and to represent the decent people who make up our rich community. It is that which we all focus on to keep the show on the road, but it doesn’t excuse the toxic environment being allowed to grow in plain sight.

THE START OF AN INSIGHT

I will go into the full circumstances of the Oldham political environment in upcoming posts; from where it began, to how it developed. I seek to outline what we all need to do to raise the level of debate from the gutter of division, and return to a more respectful discourse.

Published by JimfromOldham

Labour and Co-operative MP for Oldham West & Royton

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