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OLDHAM: ‘We are better than this’ – Council leader hits back at racist and violent online abuse

The Oldham council boss has responded to a spike in online harassment, claiming that behaviours during council meetings have ‘encouraged, enabled and emboldened online racists and abusers’.

In an email directed to all councillors, Councillor Arooj Shah called for a “more inclusive and welcoming” politics in Oldham. 

The Oldham Labour leader linked a recent surge in online hate to a tumultuous Full Council meeting last week, where members were frequently heckled by councillors and a public audience. 

But the plea also comes at a moment of heightened awareness of racial discrimination in UK politics. Last week, Diane Abbott was subject to racist comments by a prominent Tory donor and this week saw suggestions that Keir Starmer was "not listening" to Labour race advisor Baroness Lawrence. 

Cllr Shah wrote: “I am left feeling afraid, for my safety and the safety of my family. I am once again pleading with you to stop this sort of politics. To speak up against the personalised abuse and attacks that come from within your own groups.

“The acceptance of racial abuse that we are showing in that chamber and in wider politics also impacts outside of the council. The normalisation of jokes about samosas and mango chutney aimed at Asian councillors takes us back to a time 30 or 40 years ago when black and minority ethnic people regularly faced these sorts of racist comments.

“I owe it to my community to stand up for what is right and call racism out, regardless of who the perpetrators of it are.” 

The council boss, who is Oldham’s first female Muslim leader, made reference to a pledge among council leaders from 2021 to focus local politics on “policy and not personality”. Because, she said, sharing a number of the messages she had received online, “that level of personalised abuse and targeting has real consequences”. 

The screenshots shared in the email, taken from Facebook and X, included among other things a call to bodily deface and murder Shah.

“Oldham is better than this. Divisive and personalised attacks have become the norm in national politics since Brexit. Together we have the power to stop this becoming the norm in Oldham and we owe that to local people. 

“I hope that, despite our political differences, we can come together to make local politics inclusive and welcoming to people from all backgrounds.”

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Services, she added: “This is not a call to reduce scrutiny of decision making or restrict criticism of council policy. We can criticise and debate policy without name calling and without unfounded personal allegations being made.

“Councillors from black and minority ethnic backgrounds should not be subject to racial abuse when doing their jobs.”

It is not the first time Oldham council’s first female Muslim leader has faced abuse and violence online. And offline, for that matter – in 2021, during Shah’s first stint as council leader, her car was targeted by a fire bomb. 

And many councillors of all political persuasions are frequently subject to abuse and bullying online. 

Responding to the LDRS about the email, independent councillor Marc Hince said: “I have been absolutely appalled by those who whip up outrage and anger which quickly descends into unacceptable abuse with racist and misogynist connotations. In my view the rhetoric aimed at individuals in the chamber, in particular the current leader, is nothing short of disgraceful.

“Both myself and my family have recently been the target of hate-filled abuse by out-of-town commentators with their own agendas, who generally using emotive issues to enrage public outcry for their own ends.”

As momentum gathers towards the local elections in May and a general election likely to occur at the end of the year, some councillors have expressed fears that tensions both online and offline are reaching boiling point. 

Some councillors have reportedly hit back at the council leader’s correspondence. They suggested Shah would have to learn to “handle criticism” such as that raised in the council chambers on March 13, which included a ‘no-confidence’ motion on her leadership. 

 

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