Former Council leader joins the fray

In a week of unusually high drama, even by Oldham Council standards, the issue that dominated the news scene, locally, was the Leader’s extraordinary written response to a call by an Independent councillor for an ’emergency recall’ of Full Council.

The news of both the misconceived ‘open letter’, posted by Cllr Brian Hobin on his Failsworth East Facebook page, and the reply by Cllr Arooj Shah was broken, exclusively, elsewhere on this website (read more here and here).

The white noise on social media over the controversy even drowned out news of the appointment of a new interim chief executive, Harry Catherall. Another scoop for Neil Wilby Media (read here). A selection almost universally welcomed, given his track record over a 40 year public service career. Mostly in Blackburn, but more recently in St Helen’s where he turned the troubled authority around in the same interim role.

Cllr Hobin, who is the Group Leader of the scandal-mired Failsworth Independent Party, subsequently posted a response to Cllr Shah’s letter, again on his Facebook page, that, by design or otherwise, created almost as much controversy as the original letter. It led to a further article that can be read in full here, that, to all intents and purposes, chronicles how the ‘olive branch’ had been dashed from the Council Leader’s hand.

To those commentators familiar with how the FIPs operate that would come as no surprise at all. ‘Preach one thing and do another’ could well be adopted as the Party motto.

One day after ‘Drinking in the Last Chance Saloon‘ article was published on this website, and possibly emboldened by it, the former leader of Oldham Council, Sean Fielding, weighed into the argument.

Following a vicious, no holds barred campaign against him, orchestrated largely by the same Brian Hobin, he narrowly lost his Failsworth West seat at the local elections in May to the FIPs (read more here). The husband of the Party Chairwoman, Kathleen Wilkinson, dubbed the ‘Empress of Failsworth’, was elected in his place.

Cllr Mark Wilkinson has, in his short political career, already managed to seriously  embarrass himself twice in Chamber. Most recently voting against a party pledge to protect the Green Belt, because he ‘doesn’t like Andy Burnham (the Region’s Mayor, whom Cllr Wilkinson says, had too much input into proposed plans for the area)’. A full report on that FIPs debacle can be read here.

An article ex-Cllr Fielding has written, published on the Labour List website, is reproduced here, in full. Accompanying the post he tweeted: “I wrote this a number of months ago about the rise of hyperlocal “Independents”. Understandable nervousness about publishing until I have enough evidence to support my view of some of these groups as the new face of the far-right. Just gone up”.

It is headlined, unsurprisingly:

 – The far right are using the banner of hyperlocal independents for cover

“I grew up in the North Manchester suburb of Failsworth. Despite being just four miles from the city centre, it has its own identity and is the kind of small town where generations of families stay living and everybody knows everybody else’s business. Politically, it’s been part of the Borough of Oldham since 1974 and, with its history of heavy industry, cotton spinning and hatting, and the trade unionism that goes with it, has traditionally voted Labour.

“Of course, much of the industry has now disappeared, with the public and service sectors picking up the slack. Whilst in other areas this kind of change has fuelled discontent and led to the growth of the far right, with the exception of UKIP winning a council seat in 2014 with a small majority, Failsworth has not succumbed to the politics of hate in the way that other areas have over the years.

“Tales from the doorstep of the 2003 by-election, when current Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon was first elected as a councillor, recant that Failsworth’s rump of Tories united with Labour voters to defeat a perceived threat from the BNP [British National Party] with comments like “I’m voting Labour, we don’t want those kind of people representing us” common from those who had never voted Labour before. The by-election had one of the highest turnouts ever recorded and Labour chalked up a record majority.

“Fears about the stigma of being an area that votes for the far right have not gone away. Parties or candidates who are explicit about what they represent, such as the BNP or National Front, still provoke a reaction among decent people to turn out and vote to keep them out of office. But in places like Failsworth the far-right appear to have found a new banner to stand under, which conceals their true nature and attempts to convince the unsuspecting that they are simply people who care about their community. It is the banner of hyperlocal independents.

“The Independent surge that was the story of the 2019 local elections was not confined to sleepy Tory districts disappointed by Theresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party. In my hometown, an Independent candidate picked up a seat in one of the Failsworth wards. Exploiting discontent with mainstream politics and a contentious planning issue while benefiting from his personal name recognition (as a local taxi driver), the Independent candidate came from nowhere to win the seat from Labour with over half the vote. It didn’t take much digging afterwards to find that the new councillor was a frequent sharer of unpleasant far-right views on social media, including one post describing asylum seekers as “the enemy within”, and that he had a criminal record with a historic conviction for fraud and false accounting (sound familiar?).

“Shortly afterwards, a new party appeared on social media, the “Failsworth Independent Party”. The new Independent councillor was admitted, and the party began spreading its “non-political” message of how it was the only political organisation that cares about the town. They present themselves as local people standing up to a council that has forgotten about their community. Such claims seem innocent and are designed to be attractive to people sick of politics.

“But what seems innocent is something far more sinister. The local community they claim is forgotten is 95% white British, while members and supporters of the Independents post regularly in local Facebook groups about an Asian “cartel” that controls the council and commits widespread postal vote fraud, echoing Nigel Farage. They also echo Tommy Robinson [an alias of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon] in accusing the local council of covering up Asian grooming gangs, with one member appearing in a campaign video for Robinson during the 2019 European election campaign. During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the leader of the party and the candidate that defeated me followed the far-right thugs in London with a post about “All Lives Matter”. The fear, division and hatred peddled by the Independents and their supporters aided them in picking up another two seats from Labour in 2021, including the one I used to fill.

“This is not to say that all Independents are far-right, of course: there are many examples of Independents making a difference on parish, town, district and county councils. Unfortunately, though, in post-industrial areas like mine there is a pattern emerging of “Independents” using the banner to conceal their true nature, like Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth, whose leader ‘likes’ white supremacist and George Soros conspiracy theories on Twitter, or the Rotherham Democratic Party, which has hoovered up Rotherham’s former UKIP councillors, or Bolton for Change, formed by former Bolton Brexit Party activists.

“My message here is not to dismiss new minor parties but to afford their personnel, policies and behaviour the same scrutiny you would any other party. If a person or organisation seeking political office claims to be “non-political”, it’s advisable to check out for yourself whether this is indeed true – or whether it is cover for political views they would rather you didn’t know about”. Ends.

It was a, largely, measured assessment, absent of what might have been viewed as justifiable bitterness towards those who had behaved so abominably towards him. Both personally, and in his role as well-known local politician.

But those differences are seemingly irreconcilable, given the recent output from Mrs and Mrs Wilkinson and Cllr Hobin. Returned in kind, on occasions, by Sean Fielding and his father, Stuart. It is a parting of the ways that runs much deeper than politics.

In an email circulated to all the other 59 Oldham councillors last month, and several senior executives, including the Borough Solicitor, much of it counter-intuitive and a fair portion containing factual errors, Mark Wilkinson set out some strong views about politics and opposing views. Brimming with the self-serving, sententious piety that is another familiar watermark, it fully ventilates the FIPs twin and ever-present victim and saviour complexes.

The text of that email, widely believed to be authored by Kath, not Mark, Wilkinson, was leaked to Neil Wilby Media, via the website contact form; the informant posting what appears to be a deliberately false name (taken from a children’s nursery rhyme and definitely not on Oldham’s electoral roll), a fake email address and a non-existent telephone number. Nevertheless, enquiries have revealed the content to be a true copy. It is reproduced here in redacted form as it is considered to be, very arguably, defamatory:

“Subject: Harassment and intimidation of councillors

“Dear all,

“I attempted at the full council meeting last night to support the leader on the subject of online abuse of councillors.

“I would like to set the record straight, this is what I wanted to say.

“I am Mark Wilkinson, elected Independent Councillor for Failsworth West.

“I was a Police Officer with Greater Manchester Police for 32 years. Following my retirement in 2006, I commenced work with the Ministry of Justice as the Officer-in-Charge of Attendance centres which deals with the rehabilitation of offenders, a role I still carry out today.

“What I am about to say has more relevance following the shocking attack outside Councillor Shah’s home address on Tuesday morning, which was totally unacceptable.

“Following negative publicity I have received in the press and on Social media, both before and since the election, much instigated by [name redacted], I feel that I do not have to defend myself but instead, put the record straight. Indeed on the subject of harassment online, I have never spoken out, but following a thread on Twitter last week, I feel I must do so.

“I have never been a member of any Political Party until I joined the Failsworth Independent Party. I became involved as I wanted to help and improve the area which I lived in. The Community of Failsworth was speaking out on social media, looking for something different than the mainstream parties, who they felt a deep disconnection to, and this inspired me.

“From the very beginning I was attacked, I firmly believe because I had the audacity to put myself forward as a candidate for the election. I was told by Councillors from the Labour Party that I had no chance and would embarrass myself and become a laughing stock. Not to put too fine a point on it, I have been described as a bent cop, a racist, a far right extremist, a bully, a drunk and a member of the local swingers society.

“These comments were not from the public at large, but instigated by [name redacted] and his associates and I did not engage with any of them. In fact, I wrote to [name redacted] and asked him to refrain for this behaviour, whereupon he threatened me with legal action and reported me to the police!

“I can assure you all, that no action was ever taken by the authorities and not one shred of evidence has ever been produced to support these accusations.

“But, what really rankles with me is that this chamber debated abuse and harassment of its members at a public meeting, I was present at that meeting sat in the public gallery. I listened to Councillor Shah speak and agreed with much of what she said. Then, following an article in The [Manchester] Mill last week, I was sent a Tweet made by [name redacted] , a demeaning piece with 13 individual comments. Sadly, I discovered that these tweets had been ‘liked’ by several people who sat in the chamber along with me last night. So I ask, is it the case that it is perfectly acceptable for me and my colleagues to be ridiculed and insulted whilst condemning such treatment of other Councillors? Just a couple of hours ago, in supporting Councillor Shah’s disgraceful attack outside her home, [s/he] tweets “it won’t take too many guesses to identify which 3 old blokes from Failsworth this is referring to” in replying to the Leader’s speech last night. This is utterly appalling and without foundation. Neither me, Councillor Hobin or Councillor Hindle have ever become embroiled in the online abuse of Councillor Shah and the continuing accusations that we have been is defamatory and unacceptable.

“I, together with 3 other Oldham residents, were reported to our employer by [name redacted], in his role as [redacted] . I personally faced a six week investigation, following accusations that I was a racist and far right extremist, therefore deeming me not fit to carry out my role in rehabilitation. The quote from the company director was “I cannot find sufficient evidence to support [name redacted] view, that Mark Wilkinson’s support for specific individuals demonstrates a 3 year smear campaign” That’s because quite simply, it isn’t true. I supported the common view, that people wanted a full independent investigation into CSE rather than a review in Oldham. I remain steadfast that all children should be free to enjoy a happy and fruitful life and we, the public should be looking out for them. That is our responsibility as adults, let alone elected councillors.

“The inference that The Failsworth Independent Party is a racist party, as reported on the doorstep during the recent campaign, is to say the least deplorable and insulting to the 3243 residents who voted for us. What exactly is that saying to them? That they were hoodwinked, duped and incapable of making important decisions based on honesty and transparency. Please give the people of Failsworth the credit they deserve.

“For the past two years, I have seen and read many things I didn’t know about myself, from agitators and trolls, some known to me, others I have never met or spoken to. If you, as a councillor, believe it is beneficial and correct to join in such outlandish and fanciful rhetoric, then I feel your loyalty is misplaced. I know it was a severe blow for many of you to lose [name redacted] as [redacted] but [her/his] childish and petulant behaviour both online and off, did [her/him] and [redacted] no favours. The people [name redacted] made their choice, and I am proud and privileged to take my place in the chamber.

“I and my two colleagues, Brian and Neil, are working hard and looking forward. A firm line needs to be drawn under all that has gone before and we now need to move on for the sake of our Town. As Councillors we need to lead by example and put an end to these hostilities before someone does really suffer. We may not agree politically but it does not mean we cannot respect each other.

“I would also like to add that Councillor Shah showed great strength, dignity and courage last night. In the face of such an attack, to stand firm and carry on with business showed she will not be deterred from the role she has undertaken

“Kind regards

Mark”

The reference to Cllr Wilkinson’s attempt to support Cllr Shah by reading out a speech (it became the subject email less than 24 hours later) in a section of the Agenda that was completely inappropriate (Member’s questions to Cabinet). As such, he was quite rightly closed down by the Mayor. As a maiden speech it was likely, very many would argue, to have been a spectacular flop.

The over-use of the first person singular (nine of the email’s paragraphs begin with ‘I’) is one of the least disturbing parts of the email but, nevertheless, an indicator of where both his (and Kath’s) priorities lie. The Failsworth Independent Party appears, from the outside looking in, to be an overblown ego trip by political novices.

There is still an article to be written about Mark Wilkinson’s police career, with testimony to hand of former colleagues and professional associates. He spent the last five years of it in GMP’s notorious Professional Standards Branch, about which much has been written elsewhere. Not least by well-known police whistleblowers Peter Jackson and Paul Bailey, and their social media cabal of corruption busters. ‘Wilky’s’ protest that he was not a ‘bent cop’ may be, in part at least, to distance himself from that association with the perennially discredited PSB. There is no assertion, or imputation, otherwise, here.

The shocking attack outside Cllr Shah’s home was actually a firebombing of her car in the streets of Glodwick, where she has lived all her life. Within two days, a close ally of Cllr Wilkinson, the disgraced Tameside-based Raja Miah, was expounding his theory that the Leader, in cahoots with Jim McMahon, had plotted to have the vehicle torched for ‘political gain’. A preposterous claim he has repeated numerous times since, uncorrected by any Failsworth Independent Party councillor or official. It rests still as the pinned post on the notorious, divisive, hate-filled Recusant Nine Facebook page. An enterprise to which the Wilkinsons’ daughter, Rachel Brotherton, was, and possibly still is, a subscriber.

Miah is presently on police bail on suspicion of racially aggravated public order and malicious communications offences. Brian Hobin, Mark Wilkinson and Kath Wilkinson have all appeared as star guests on Recusant Nine podcasts within the past twelve months, pushing Recusant Raja’s wild conspiracy theories. Most notably the highly emotive child sex cover up allegations.

The latter two have regularly added supportive comments beneath Miah’s Facebook posts, despite them, too often, being harassing and/or defamatory in nature. Matters from which the Wilkinsons have since sought to put distance, once it became more widely known. A group of racists and far right supporters (and criminals) are common both to the Wilkinson’s own closed Failsworth Matters Facebook group and Recusant Nine.

They are also responsible for a good percentage of some very seriously concerning social media attacks on critics of either Miah or the FIPs. Often operating behind ludicrous anonymous ‘handles’ with multiple low or no follower accounts. These are people very well known to Mark and Kath, one is described as a family friend.

The core theme of almost all of the trolls supporting Raja Miah and the Independent parties is the alleged cover-up by police, the Council and partner agencies. The subject of intensive journalistic investigation last year which comprehensively concluded two things (i) There has been a huge problem with child sex abuse in Oldham over the years (ii) There was no ‘cover-up’ as alleged (read more here).

Being ‘ridiculed and insulted’, as Cllr Wilkinson puts it, over rank stupidity, not knowing the rules or the law, or political naivety, is part and parcel of being in public life.

That is worlds apart from the horrendous, highly personalised racist, misogynistic abuse suffered by Cllr Shah (read more here). For him to remotely equate the two, he may well face further, and deserved, humiliation. As for not being part of the abuse against Cllr Shah, then it is simply sufficient to point to her biggest, most persistent and deeply offensive critic; the same Raja Miah with whom both Cllr Hobin and Cllr Wilkinson so firmly join hands.

As mentioned previously, so did Kath Wilkinson. All the evidence is still there on the various Recusant Nine platforms. It takes no effort to find it, unless, of course, you were a police officer for 32 years and have forgotten how, and where, to look.

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Just how does that make Cllr Shah feel? Or are the FIPs, as a group, so wooden and self-absorbed that they think no-one else noticed? Including around fifty-odd other Oldham councillors, for starters.

As for moving on, and drawing a line under the harassment and abuse, which was Mark (or Kath) Wilkinson’s expressed wish in that email on 15th July, 2021, it is difficult to reconcile that with events since. The stalking and the trolling of those associated with the FIPs and Miah, and the shambolic Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth Party (the POOS) has continued unabated. Culminating in the infamous letter from Brian Hobin on 17th August, 2021, just under five weeks later.

A very workable hypothesis is that because scarcely a single worthwhile response has been received by Mark Wilkinson to his email, the Hobin letter was another means of escalating the points that he sought to raise in it. Stirring up hatred and division, smearing the hated Labour group and painting the FIPs either as perennial victims or the coming saviours.

Another is that there may be at least one Standards complaint against Mark Wilkinson flowing out of his controversial communication, not least because it appears to be a misuse of the Council’s information technology systems. Abusing and smearing a third party, over and again, in a closed group, where that person has no conceivable right of reply, should be impermissible in any organisation with appropriate ethical and professional standards in place. Aggravated in this particular case as the perpetrator claims to be a long term employee of the Ministry of Justice.

It would also be extraordinary if the subject of the main thrust of the Wilkinsons’ attacks, in that email, did not seek redress either via the Monitoring Officer, his lawyers or both.

When asked on social media if he was the subject of Standards complaints Mark Wilkinson responded: ‘I will not confirm anything to you as you are irrelevant‘.

Which, in what is now familiar FIP-speak, means ‘Yes, but I’m much too embarrassed to admit it’. Other enquiries, made since this article was first published, have revealed that Cllr Wilkinson is, in fact, the subject of at least one Standards complaint.

Notwithstanding that process,  or processes, what is clear is that there will be no outbreak of peace in Failsworth in the foreseeable future. The Sean Fielding post on Labour List more or less guarantees that. As does any proceedings, contemplated or extant against the Failsworth Independents or their constituent Council Members. History shows that there is likely to be an unleashing of the social media attack dogs by way of response.

Predictably, within two hours of publication a new, anonymous trolling account had been set up describing Neil Wilby, variously, as a ‘nonce’, paedophile’, ‘cock-sucker’ etc. The only other two people referenced in a 13 tweet frenzy were Sean Fielding and Peter Fielding. The operator of the account, believed to be a convicted criminal closely associated with the Failsworth Independent Party, has plenty of ‘previous’ for similar conduct. The FIPs Twitter handle (@indypartyfw) was tagged in a number of the posts but they declined to condemn the outrageous and entirely false allegations or invite the author to remove them. The voting public of the town can draw their own conclusions, not only from that omission but Cllr Mark Wilkinson’s faux outrage about online harassment and abuse.

Page last updated: Monday 23rd August, 2021 at 0940 hours

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Picture credit:  Twitter

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby Media, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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