The virus epidemic that has changed so many lives appears to be on the wane, the sun is shining, Spring is in the air and the nation’s long held traditions are gradually being restored after the cancellation, or postponement, of so many key events over the past year.
Near the top of that list being the local and regional elections that were scheduled for May, 2020. It was decided by the Government, unsurprisingly, and during the country’s first of three ‘lockdowns’, that those in political power would remain so for an extra year, with the rotation process resuming its regular pattern, thereafter.
In just over one week, voters in England return to the polling stations. They will elect their ward councillors and, in some regions, Mayors. In others, they will either put in place new Police and Crime Commissioners, or return the incumbents.
One of Mayors seeking re-election is media darling, Andy Burnham, who has occupied the post since he swept to power in Greater Manchester in May 2017.
That he is a controversial figure is not in doubt. The region’s police force has been placed in ‘Special Measures’ by the Home Office and is recognised as, by far, the worst performing in the country, with negligible political oversight being a significant factor in that sleepwalk to ignominy.
Much about those troubles is written elsewhere on this website, most notably a very widely read and shared piece, first published in August, 2019 (read here), that, some argue, contributed significantly to the ‘retirement’ of disgraced chief constable, Ian Hopkins.
Set against that are the high profile Burnham campaigns, much admired by Manchester’s media luvvies, featuring trains, trams, buses and cycling. Along with the altogether more laudable enterprises, including a sizeable donation from his own monthly salary, that seek to alleviate the desperate plight of homelessness.
But it is the high-visibility response to the CO-VID19 crisis that, very likely, will see Burnham first past the post. Charming, personable, PR savvy and, with well-practiced facial expressions to suit every situation, he was almost ever-present on television screens, and on national newspaper front pages, at its height, battling the Government over financial concessions to the region’s furloughed employees and their cash-strapped employers. That is, very likely, what a sufficient majority of voters will recall most readily, and in a positive way, before marking their X on the ballot paper.
One of Greater Manchester’s ten Boroughs is the ancient mill town of Oldham, lying at its eastern extremity, nudging the Pennine hills, and it is in this political hotbed that some of the keenest battles for local power will be witnessed. Ninety-five candidates are chasing votes in twenty wards (see full details here), seven less than in 2019.
Arguably, the most bitterly fought contests in Oldham will actually take place in the Manchester postcodes of the ancient township of Failsworth, where one seat in each of the East and West wards is in issue, including the latter, occupied by incumbent Leader of the Council, Sean Fielding. He also heads up the local Labour Party, who comfortably hold political power in Oldham.
His sitting Labour colleague, Liz Jacques, is seeking re-election in Failsworth East. Her opposition is drawn from the Conservatives, Failsworth Independent Party (FIPs) and the Liberal Democrats. Cllr Fielding faces the same party opposition, plus an unaffiliated independent, Warren Bates. Formerly a councillor representing the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP).
An article on this website, published at the end of last month, signalled just how fierce the campaigning was likely to be, in both Failsworth wards, as a statement published by Cllr Fielding, following almost eighteen months of non-stop abuse against himself and, latterly and most regrettably, his partner and his family, stridently called out ‘dog whistle racists and false accusers’ amongst his political opponents (read in full here).
Many of those ‘false accusers’ are attached to the FIPs, either as leading lights, or supporters, or part of an unpleasant social media mob who organise ‘pile-ons’ when faced with what they regard as dissenting voices.
No public statement, or recognisable response, was made to that declaration by those at whom it was directed. Most notably, the FIPs.
The Failsworth Independent Party was founded and is run by local residents, Mark and Kathleen Wilkinson. The former is standing against Sean Fielding, local working class boy made good, whom they have known for many years, and before he became a councillor in 2012.
The FIPs candidate in Failsworth East is Neil Hindle, another local man, as one might expect. They have one elected Councillor, Brian Hobin, who was responsible for the biggest shock in the 2019 local elections, across the entire Borough, when he dramatically unseated Cllr Paul Jacques, husband of Liz.
The FIP’s are aligned with the Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth Party (POOS) whose candidates, counter-intuitively, claim to be ‘independent’ but, in reality, all is not quite as it seems with that alliance (read more here).
Both the FIPs and the POOS are immovably wedded to disgraced Tameside-based political activist, Raja Miah, and his emotive, but demonstrably false narrative of a long-running, wide-scale, multi-agency ‘cover-up’ of child sexual exploitation that, if it were true, would, by necessity, involve a collaborating collective of hundreds of MPs, councillors, council officials, social workers, police officers and safeguarding partners.
Raja offers no published view on the two towns nearest to where he has lived since 2004, Stalybridge and Ashton-under-Lyne, in respect of either grooming or a suspected cover-up or any other council/police misdemeanours in his home Borough.
But, it has happened in other towns, says Miah, so it must be true of Oldham. Utterly impervious to facts and evidence, meticulously gathered over months, and supported by interviews with credible and relevant witnesses that produce a reported outcome that is far removed from a ‘cover-up’ (read more here).
An article, extending to almost 4,500 words, that stands completely unchallenged on a single line or paragraph within it.
Instead, it provoked the standard ad hominen attacks from those associated with Miah, the FIPs and the POOS. Many of them with far-right political leanings or more direct associations with such as Combat18, EDL, Britain First, UKIP and, of course, the person calling himself Tommy Robinson. All afraid, it seems, that the very foundation of their rabidly anti-Labour edifice has now crumbled.
More crucially, no consideration at all is given to any of those groups of people accused of the alleged ‘cover-up’ – and the seriously adverse impact it has on their physical and mental health. It is also lost on those perpetuating these grotesque and hugely damaging allegations that Mark Wilkinson was a police officer for over 30 years with the Greater Manchester force, whose present HQ is a very short distance from Failsworth.
The obvious question is, therefore: If what Raja Miah, the FIPs and the POOs relentlessly propagate has even a grain of truth to it, what did Mark Wilkinson know of it, as an experienced detective in an elite squad (along with police whistleblower, Peter Jackson), and was he part of, or have knowledge, of the alleged GMP strand of the ‘cover-up’? For the avoidance of doubt, absolutely no imputation their integrity, or standing as a long-serving police officers is intended by the hypothesis presented here. ‘Jacko’ also served as a sergeant based in Oldham earlier in his career.
Likewise, Miah: Deeply embedded in Oldham’s multi-cultural communities for several decades spanning the turn of the century, driving flashy cars and owning shares in restaurants and fast food outlets, often seen as focal points for the grooming of vulnerable or impressionable young girls. Why did it take him until 2019 to raise concerns about an issue that had, as the ‘Get the White Vote Angry‘ article points out, been very widely reported in the local and regional media, since at least 2006, and a huge and well-documented concern for the police and the council since that time?
In the face of such hypotheses and the overwhelming evidence against it, the FIPs have, surprisingly, continued to raise the alleged grooming ‘cover-up’, routinely asserting it as fact, and it appears to be central to their campaigning, media output and a topic their small, but disproportionately vocal, group of supporters return to time and again.
One such recent occasion was a short podcast featuring Cllr Brian Hobin, reading from what appeared to be a prepared statement. It comprised a series of attacks on un-named Labour campaigners and making serious, but unspecified and unevidenced allegations against them.
It was posted on social media and the broadcast signed off with a renewed emphasis on the FIPs stated commitment to ‘openness and transparency’. A core value set out on the home page of their website (see above image). Such a pronouncement came as a surprise to this journalist as they have never answered a single enquiry, on a wide range of matters, over a number of months. A remark that also applies to Raja Miah and the POOS.
A matter emphasised, a very short time afterwards, on 15th April, 2021, when questions were, again, put to the FIPs. This time directly to Cllr Hobin. These concerned:
(i) The self-confessed harvesting of email addresses ‘in order to make complaints’ which, taken at its face, appears to breach the Data Protection Act, 2018 and General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).
(ii) Negative doorstep feedback on the CSE ‘cover-up’ allegations
(iii) The board and poster count in both Failsworth wards running against the FIPs.
Those questions were met by the usual wall of silence:
Outspoken and frequently controversial independent councillor, Warren Bates, has also said publicly that the FIPs have been reported to the local police and the Electoral Commission over alleged breaches of protocol. This is understood to be related to campaign leaflets that have had to be withdrawn from circulation.
Warren also claims that the FIPs have marginalised him and are blaming him for, potentially, splitting the independent vote. An allegation that he is in cohoots with Labour, or Cllr Fielding, or both, to ensure that the latter is re-elected, and frustrate the local ambitions of the FIPs, appears to lack the necessary substance. Running, as it does, counter to the fact that Sean Fielding holds a large majority and is an active, visible, hard-working ward councillor with a powerful Party machine to call upon.
Having gained little or no traction with the Hobin broaddcast, on 26th April, 2021 the FIPs issued a Statement on their Facebook page. It is broadly in line with the podcast, although, on this occasion, it singles out Cllr Fielding and un-named ‘activists’ as alleged perpetrators of what is best characterised as ‘a dirty tricks campaign’.
It was, almost immediately and unsurprisingly, re-published on Raja Miah’s discredited Recusant Nine platform. The Statement also bore his familiar broad brush, scurrilous, smearing style and it is not at all difficult to envisage that he had a hand in the attempted ambush of Cllr Fielding.
This is the text of the FIPs Statement.
“Following further reports from residents disgusted at the behaviour of certain councillors/candidates and activists, today the Failsworth Independent Party has served Councillor Sean Fielding with a ‘Cease and Desist’ Order.
“This serves as a last chance or final warning that the Councillor and his activists refrain from telling lies about FIP and their candidates whilst communicating with residents in their campaign. Failure to cease could lead to further legal actions being taken.
“It is a sad state of affairs when a party that has held power for so long and somebody that has been a Councillor for 9 years, as Mr Fielding has, bases their election campaign on besmirching the good name and character of other candidates with falsehoods to try to gain votes.
“Unfortunately, once again we are shown the measure of this councillor and the depths he and his team will go to. It’s time for change“.
Shortly afterwards, contact was made with both the FIP’s, via the same Facebook page upon which they had posted their ‘Statement’, and Cllr Fielding via his published Oldham Council email address, with broadly similar enquiries and a request for either clarification or a statement for publication.
This is the text of the post on the FIPs Facebook page:
“Good evening, Mrs Wilkinson.
“I’m writing an article about your statement. To be published around lunchtime tomorrow.
“Could you please tell me how many reports you received from ‘disgusted residents’ and are any prepared to talk to me, on or off the record?
“Could you please also state what the lies are that Cllr Fielding and ‘his activists’ has told and about whom. Happy to name those activists in the article, if you are and there is substantive evidence to support what is being said.
“Also, how are the characters of the other candidates being besmirched? What is being said about whom and by whom.
“Finally, have you taken legal advice about the letter sent to Cllr Fielding because, in the terms you have written your statement, it has no effect in law.
“Thank you in anticipation of an open and transparent response in accordance with the core values set out on your website.
“By way of balance, I have written to Cllr Fielding requesting either a statement, or answers to specific questions put to him, in much the same way I have put them to you here.
“PS I’ve screenshot this comment in the event that you decide to remove it“.
Their response was not what was expected.
“Please direct any press enquiries to The Failsworth Independent Party by email. Thank you.”
Following that reply post from the FIPs, the author of this piece, an accredited journalist, has been banned from making any further posts on their page.
A short review of the other public comments on that same page reveals that this class of censorship appears to happen frequently. Dissenting, or neutral, voices are silenced.
A local man, David Jones, posted this below the FIPs statement:
“His opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. Tends to be a theme here [on the FIPs Facebook page], if they speak out against you [the FIPs], you get blocked/muted or shouted down by party members. If it’s that much of an issue get an injunction or court order on him [Cllr Fielding]. You only have to prove that on the balance of probabilities“.
This was the reply from the FIPs moderator, believed to be Kath Wilkinson, to Mr Jones:
“Just to assure you, this action wasn’t taken lightly and was done following advice and direction from the appropriate authority“.
A mixing of metaphors here, as the only ‘appropriate authority’ would be the civil courts and/or the police. Neither provide an advice or direction service. The nature and content of the FIPs statement would suggest, to the informed observer, that it did not have the benefit of lawyer input.
Mrs Wilkinson ducks the issue, raised by Mr Jones, of silencing those not agreeing with her Party line.
More crucially, and what is now plain to see, is that the FIPs have no intention to address, in public, the questions and requests for clarifications about, and evidence behind, that Statement.
A conclusion heavily underscored by having sent the same questions, via the contact form on the FIPs website, with exactly the same response: Stoney silence.
Similarly, earlier today, questions on related themes were put to Mark Wilkinson on Twitter. Again, those simple enquiries, all of significant public interest, were totally ignored:
Can you assist here, please:
1. Why have you not answered these questions [those posted on the FIPs Facebook page] in open forum, in same place as you posted the ‘Statement’?
2. Why have you now blocked me from posting on @indypartyfw page?
3. Is FIP pledge of ‘transparency and integrity’ one you still stand by?
4. Cllr Hobin, in a recent podcast, claims FIPs harvest email addresses inorder ‘to make complaints’. Are you aware that this is a breach of DPA and GDPR?
5. Has FIPs self-reported above to @ICOnews?
6. Do you stand by Cllr Hobin’s @OldhamCouncil #CSE ‘cover-up’ narrative?
It is, of course, entirely a matter for the FIPs, the Wilkinsons and Cllr Hobin whether they answer questions from a journalist, or otherwise. It is also their own business whom they allow to post on their Facebook page. But it is the electorate’s and the wider public’s business that the FIPs should falsely, and blatantly, lay claims to transparency and integrity on their website, in podcasts and on social media, in the face of what appears to be a cavalier approach to the law of the land, the truth, issuing menacing and unevidenced threats, and ducking and diving faster than an East End pickpocket when asked a straight question.
A statement in response to the Failsworth Independent Party allegations was provided by Cllr Fielding overnight. It, interestingly, reveals the method of service of the ‘legal letter’ mentioned in the FIPs statement and, also, confirms that the letter was not authored by a lawyer.
This is the full text:
“It’s been great to be able to speak to lots of residents in recent weeks about my plans for a cleaner, safer and greener Failsworth. As a Labour Councillor in Failsworth I can get things done for our community by being part of a larger team of Labour Councillors, MPs and a Labour Mayor.
“Unfortunately, while I’m focused on how we improve our neighbourhood, my opponents continue with political stunts and negativity. A letter purporting to be a cease and desist notice was hand delivered to my home by Councillor Hobin on the morning of 26th April. It was signed by Kathleen Wilkinson, the Leader of the Failsworth Independent Party. It makes some specific allegations against myself and my activists for which no evidence is provided.
“The letter has no legal standing and, typically, would not warrant a response. However, I have asked that one be prepared by solicitors acting on my behalf.
“This letter, and the associated social media activity, appears to be just the latest diversionary tactic from the Failsworth Independent Party to conceal that their party has no policies, has said little about the backgrounds of their candidates, or their suitability for public office, and has been reported to the Police and Electoral Commission for breaches of electoral law during the campaign thus far.
“I will continue my positive campaign for re-election in Failsworth West, promoting the policy platform of the Oldham Borough Labour Party and my specific pledges to the people of Failsworth. My conversations with local people suggest that these are the kind of messages they want to hear from their prospective Councillors, not the negativity, smears and personal attacks of the type employed by the Failsworth Independents“.
It is, on any view, a robust response and puts the ball firmly back in the court of the Wilkinsons, and Cllr Hobin, in terms of backing up the accusations they make against Cllr Fielding, and others, with evidence. A task that should not be beyond the ability of a prospective FIPs councillor who served for 32 years as a police officer, latterly a detective sergeant.
The hopeful note drawn from the Council Leader’s words is that doorstep feedback suggests that a focus on policy and pledges is welcomed by the citizens of Failsworth, not a resort to the darker side of politics.
It is, however, the role of the journalist to gather the facts, procure relevant answers and obtain statements where appropriate. Then present them in a fair and orderly way, so that the independent minded voter, or, indeed, those with a wider interest in Oldham and beyond, can make up their mind about the rights or wrongs of the accusations and counter-accusations on the streets of Failsworth.
It should be an interesting night, and morning, at Oldham Civic Centre on Thursday 6th and Friday 7th May, 2021 as vote counting takes place. There will be more eyes than usual looking at the table at which the ballot papers from Failsworth East and West are counted.
Page last updated at 1020hrs on Thursday 29th April, 2020 at 1010hrs
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