Political division is nothing new, but in the past few years has seen disagreement descend into downright abuse – particularly online. This prompted the Local Government Association (LGA) to put Civility in Public Life at the heart of its annual conference this week.
But no one has been more outspoken on their experiences of abuse than former leader of Newcastle City Council, Nick Forbes.
Mr Forbes, who was also leader of the LGA Labour group and vice chairman of the association, was ousted from the council earlier this year. He spoke virtually to The MJ last week.
‘What we’re seeing is the weakness of our constitution as a country,’ he said. While there was always an expectation people would behave with ‘dignity and honour’, the past few years proved there was no backstop when that changed.
Political campaigns rooted in ‘optimism and hope’, striving to bring people together, have always been countered by the Right, with a ‘negative, fear-based and divisive agenda’, he said.
‘Up until recently, that dynamic hasn’t been hugely evident in British politics, but it is becoming increasingly so.
‘The idea that Governments will actively try to create dividing lines between communities in order to divide and rule I find very offensive, but there’s no safeguard against it in our system,’ he told The MJ.
‘I’m genuinely not aware of anybody in local government who would even think about behaving like that. So why it’s considered acceptable by Government ministers, I just don’t understand.’
Post-Brexit, he explained, the lines of acceptability have changed, particularly online where people channel their anger and frustration against those they think are to blame – the politicians.
The clickbait nature of some media stories, creating divisive headlines to generate anger, has exacerbated the problem.
It is, he said, up to councillors in the chamber to set the tone. Politics is always robust, but it does not need to get personal.
It got very personal for Mr Forbes, not just with the online abuse, but also when he was targeted by his own local party. He describes losing his seat as a ‘political ambush by the hard left of the party’.
He was not told his seat was being contested until after a selection meeting had taken place – and he had lost. ‘I thought long and hard about whether to move to a different seat,’ he told The MJ. ‘Having represented the same community for 22 years, going elsewhere in the city would have felt like a betrayal.
‘Rather than fight on and look like I was clinging on to power with my fingertips, I felt it was better to leave with dignity and celebrate what I’ve achieved.’
But while his deselection was uncivilised, the homophobic abuse Mr Forbes faced was ‘deeply offensive’ and particularly hard to deal with. Eventually it drove him off social media.
‘I am fairly thick-skinned. I have learned to be, in politics,’ he said. But while there was little abuse earlier in his career, in the last four or five years ‘suddenly it seemed to be acceptable’ to attack politicians over their sexuality – and he said female politicians often faced far worse.
Retreating ‘can’t be a long-term solution’, he told The MJ. ‘I had endless rounds with both the police and social media companies around whether or not they had responsibilities to do more.’
He argued: ‘Unless we deal with the small acts of aggression and hostility and homophobia and prejudice, there’s a danger they will escalate and potentially become physical threats of violence or intimidation. Ignoring abuse online I think, is in effect, giving licence to people who think that it’s appropriate to do this for real.’
It has driven good people out of politics – and stopped some from coming into the arena at all.
‘The effect it is going to have on our political system is narrowing the gene pool of people who are involved in active politics and that can never be a good thing for the overall political culture we want to see in our country.’
Boosting diversity was one of Mr Forbes’ ambitions when he was elected to the LGA group leader post. There was, he said, a sense that councils often sent people to be LGA board members as a ‘compensation’ for not getting into their council’s cabinet.
Instead, he pushed for leaders and senior politicians to take on LGA roles ‘so the people walking the corridors of power were the people who understood the very challenging decisions of local government first hand,’ he explained.
He also strived for diversity. He reached 50% women representing Labour two years ago and was working on ethnic diversity, more LGBT representation and people with disabilities.
‘It’s so important because the Labour group at the LGA needs to look and feel like the wider communities, otherwise it’s easy to get out of touch, lose sight of emerging new challenges, and look middle-aged and male and stale,’ he said.
The former Labour Group leader also prides himself on the cross-party teamwork he delivered at the LGA – first working with the then chairman Lord Porter, then with Cllr James Jamieson.
The groups, he said, learned to work together to know when to ‘play the politics’, working with the Government or becoming an ‘attack dog’ where necessary.
He was particularly proud of his work leading the Net Zero and the Migration, Asylum and Refugee taskforces.
‘I came in at a time when there was a dreadful problem of unaccompanied children accumulating in Kent and in Croydon and a real challenge about the system just not supporting them,’ he told The MJ.
He worked not just to support extra cash, but also calling on councils to do more.
Sadly, there is a ‘tidal wave’ of Ukrainian refugees ahead. There were, he said, suggestions from Government that Ukrainian refugees would be easier to house, simply because they were white European. ‘I found that profoundly distressing and offensive,’ Mr Forbes said.
‘I have to say I am utterly appalled and ashamed by the idea that asylum seekers would be deported to Rwanda.
‘I think this is the most unspeakable gutter politics I have seen for a long time, and there’s a lot of gutter politics in this government,’ he said.
‘I don’t understand why there is such a different approach from national Government than within local government, which, on the whole, is going out of its way to be compassionate and caring.’
Since leaving Newcastle and the LGA, Mr Forbes told The MJ he has rediscovered the simple pleasures of life, like evenings and sitting down to eat lunch. But he will still be motivated to fight for the things he has spent two decades fighting for – inequalities, helping people regardless of their background to achieve their potential, and getting them into well-paid, fulfilling jobs.
‘Those are the passions I have carried with me all the way throughout my time in politics and that I still do carry.’
He is working with former Conservative MP Justine Greening on social mobility – they launched a pledge at an LGA conference session. It is the part of diversity that is far less talked about.
‘We’ve got a really good understanding now about the protected characteristics framework, but that’s class-blind.’
There is so much more that could be done to get children from deprived backgrounds on to the career ladder, to help them close the gap earlier in life. Women, in particular, are underemployed – a factor he described as a ‘huge loss’ for both families and for the economy.
‘Councillors can be the new convenors of social mobility progress in their area.’ Any Government in the future that ignores the strength, diversity and power of local government is a Government that wouldn’t be firing on all cylinders.’