“You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”
– Theresa May, speech to the Conservative Conference, 2002
For more than a decade I’ve been publishing warnings about the dark places social media will take us when politicians do not take threatening behaviour seriously, deliberately turn a blind eye to it from their own supporters when it suits them, and/or even engage in it themselves. On that last point, I’m aware of several incidents where a serving MP has sought to answer, damage or even intimidate critics through use of anonymous comments/accounts. In doing so, they seek to avoid accountability and undermine a key component of our democracy.
This is something we should be taking very seriously. It has also grown much worse in recent years because (a) the village has been getting bigger and there are more idiots to go around, (b) social media gives these idiots opportunities that did not exist 10 years ago without at least the tacit approval of a publisher with an audience but without a conscience, and (c) people watch and take note when others get away with it, resulting in everything from immediate mob formation to later mimicry.
Worse, the problem peaks during emotional highs such as elections, referendums and leadership campaigns, which is when we need our democracy the most.
Currently, Jeremy Corbyn is being called upon to answer for the poor behaviour of just about everybody who ever leaned to the left. Similarly, Theresa May’s supporters recently felt the need to call upon fellow Conservatives to sign a “clean campaign pledge” during the Tory leadership contest, but May’s own Chief Whip continues to protect one of her former executive fundraisers (a man who continues to target me and others), purely because she fears the political cost of admitting to a mistake involving a very dirty campaign where an innocent man was branded as a paedophile.
This is only one example of that party’s neglect over decades of abuse and harassment from its members. I say this not to engage in political whataboutery but to highlight the fact that this is not a party or political problem, but a widespread, long-standing and worsening problem that will only get better when people in authority finally grasp the nettle and take responsibility rather than see bullying as something to be played down when it happens in your own ranks, and capitalised on when it appears to originate from the opposition.
This bias/opportunism and the bullying itself are very human responses. We’re not divine beings; we’re selfish animals with social concerns. We are wired to behave this way when we think we can get away with it. Therefore, the only credible and effective response is a measure that not only acknowledges the bullying from all sides, but addresses the human element including the problem of inherent bias.
If I may beg your patience for a few moments, I’d like to focus on this single example from direct experience just long enough to give you a sense of perspective and purpose…. then I would like to get on with the important business of proposing what I think is a workable solution. (It’s in bold below if you have a short attention span and no care for detail.)
You may find the following hard going if you are a Conservative, but I will try to remain objective if you can promise to do the same, and (as usual) I will stick to what I can demonstrate with evidence if Anne Milton or David Cameron anyone else wishes to challenge it:
In 2006, two fundraising executives in Guildford were working under campaign head Jonathan Lord (now MP for Woking) for the recently-elected MP for Guildford: Anne Milton.
These two fundraising executives, Mike Chambers and Dennis Paul, also put themselves forward as Conservative candidates in a local council election. They both deny authorship of an anonymous website that accused their opponent and a critic of Anne Milton of paedophilia, but it can be demonstrated that an email address administered by Mike Chambers was used in an attempt to anonymously publicise the site, and that Dennis Paul linked to it from his own site early in the campaign and referenced the allegations on the eve of the relevant election. For now, let’s afford them the benefit of the doubt to the extent that we allow for the potential involvement of an unidentified third party who created an anonymous website making false allegations of child rape in order to damage a candidate in an election (which is a crime, by the way). At one stage, the anonymous site author revealed some shocking prejudice that most reasonable people would describe as a hate incident if not a hate crime: the candidate outed themselves as gay, and the site author quite clearly asserted this as confirmation that they were a paedophile as alleged.
At the time of my original complaint about this behaviour, Cameron’s office responded by saying that he was ‘confident that the issue was being investigated a local level’, but on that same day he formally endorsed both Mike Chambers and Dennis Paul as Conservative candidates and had his picture taken with them as part of that process.
Chambers and Paul were not suspended pending an investigation because there was no investigation. Later, Cameron had no response to Jonathan Lord’s own admission that he had decided against an investigation purely because an election was in progress and he didn’t want the candidates or the party to be damaged by what he described as a threat that the facts would somehow be ‘distorted’ and used against them unfairly (more/detail).
Police were involved at the time, but declined to investigate some key authorship issues based on the false assertion by an unnamed Tory party member that a key witness did not exist and had been invented as part of a plot to fabricate evidence against Mike Chambers. Dennis Paul also made quite specific allegations about my hacking his computer and illicitly making changes to his website(s). This apparent conspiracy to pervert the course of justice alone is a matter that warrants investigation.
At the tail end of my article I have included a further letter that I sent to David Cameron in 2015. The blasé response to this letter – that I should refer my concerns to police – completely ignored the statute of limitations on relevant offences and implied that the Conservatives would tolerate any behaviour from their members and candidates that was technically legal… but my main issue was the leaking of this private and sensitive correspondence.
I have found this to be a common problem with a series of Chairpersons during David Cameron’s time as Conservative Leader. It is part of a Gentleman’s Club mindset where formal investigation is rejected in favour of a quiet word off the record. Too often the full body of the complaint is shared illicitly as part of this process, putting the alleged victim at the mercy of their alleged bully. I am aware of multiple victims of this pattern of behaviour within the Conservative Party, and you will no doubt be aware of Elliott Johnson, who took his own life in the wake of similar behaviour, but even now the Conservatives refuse to acknowledge or investigate this widespread and long-standing issue.
Immediately after my initial complaint in 2006 I was the target of relentless attacks on anonymous websites and through the use of anonymous comments on the then up-and-coming websites of a range of Conservatives, some of whom sought to take advantage of the situation. It wasn’t until 2009 that I discovered that a further fundraising executive working for Anne Milton was also involved to the extent of smearing me as a paedophile. And an extremist. And a cyber terrorist. And a stalker.
In 2012 I complained to the President/Chairman of the relevant fundraising committee. Within 24 hours of that email being read, I was again anonymously smeared as a paedophile.
That now-former* fundraising executive’s name is Dominic Wightman, and his behaviour has grown well out of control over years of bullying because nobody in the party took the matter seriously. In fact, the behaviour has continued unabated for close to if not more than a decade by now. There has been no admission of fault or error by Anne Milton, Jonathan Lord or David Cameron, and it is in this climate of neglect that behaviour like this escalates. In fact, Wightman is so confident that he can say what he likes and do what he pleases that he goes around telling people all sorts of rubbish. The following is an extract from a recent email from Glen Jenvey, a man that Dominic Wightman (aka ‘Dominic Whiteman’) has repeatedly convinced to publish false allegations on his behalf:
“To be quite truthful whiteman is linked directly to Cameron that’s why the police never act against him.” – Glen Jenvey
Obviously this is bullshit, but in the absence of any real threat of contradiction or accountability, it is very effective bullshit. Wightman fed Jenvey and other people similar fictions about links to Lord Ashcroft, and it took that peer nearly four years to merely contradict Wightman’s claims about knowing him.
The absence of any real threat of contradiction or accountability also led to escalation of other aberrant behaviour, up to and including Wightman’s years-old obsession with ‘downing’ me on behalf of Milton and other members of the party. I have spoken to witnesses who describe Wightman not merely voicing the allegation of paedophilia as a passing comment, but relating long and detailed fantasies about my imagined crimes. Take a moment to consider this. It is not something said in the heat of the moment; it is cold and calculated behaviour that involves the creation of complex, perverse fictions. It is far from healthy, and we are at this insane stage mainly if not only because a range of Conservatives repeatedly put party-political concerns ahead of principle.
It is on this note that I arrive at my proposed solution, and I challenge Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and any other party leaders to respond to it:
1. A wholly independent investigation into the handling of bullying complaints by all parties going back at least 10 years. A public consultation with victims of alleged bullying/harassment should be central to this process, as there will be cases where no internal record of their complaint exists/survives.
2. A report detailing what measures might be taken to improve current protocols for all parties and how they are followed.
3. A specific option that should be considered is the creation of an independent body to cover all parties and handle all initial complaints of harassment, bullying, abuse and similar behaviour. Obviously their powers, protocols and funding are issues to be informed by the initial independent investigation and debated in Parliament, but in my view, the body should at the very least have an investigative arm and the capacity to make fast and credible recommendations about what actions relevant parties or authorities should take in response to any given complaint.
What I am working towards is something that allows aberrant behaviour to be initially assessed/addressed by people who do not feel an overwhelming need to protect any particular person or party from political damage. I cannot take credit for the core idea, as it was something proposed by Ray Johnson following his son’s death.
I close in reference to my 2015 letter to David Cameron that was leaked to some of the parties involved while my concerns were ignored (below).
In the subsequent election, I was not only targeted by a series of anonymous Twitter and WordPress accounts making false allegations of criminal behaviour, but the neglect at a party level was so bad that one MP (Nadine Dorries) saw fit to endorse and publicise these anonymous accounts, and another MP (Grant Shapps) saw fit to repeat some of these allegations in his official capacity as co-Chairman of the party. In other words, the man who handled my complaint to the party’s leader went on to engage in the same bullying campaign I was complaining about and involve the party directly in the process.
(Psst! If you wish to take a good guess at his motive, take a look at this site I published shortly before his outburst.)
Throughout this affair, people have been targeted with fabricated evidence causing them needless concerns for their safety. One of these people is Nadine Dorries, and I take this behaviour against her as seriously as anything else, but it is too late for police to act on it, and I fear that only belated intervention by her party is likely to alleviate the ongoing problem for her, myself and others.
This is a rare, near-to-perfect** and long-overdue opportunity for Theresa May to detoxify her party and politics generally. If she doesn’t take it, and if she sees fit to pretend there is no issue to address, then she cannot say or do anything about the current level of bullying in politics with any credibility. Further, she will have to admit that the Conservatives’ reputation as the ‘nasty party’ is well earned due to widespread behaviour at every level that she has personally refused to address.
(**Cameron has exited humming a carefree little tune, but Jonathan Lord must answer for his failure to investigate two candidates/fundraisers and Anne Milton must answer for her failure to address serious concerns about another of her fundraising executives.)
16 February 2015
Dear Prime Minister,
Please excuse the impertinence of my writing directly to someone as important as your good self. In my defence, the last time I wrote to a standing Prime Minister, it was to warn Gordon Brown about some chap named Derek Draper, and I do not think my concerns were misplaced.
Back in 2006, I wrote to you as leader of the Conservative Party with concerns about two executives on a fundraising committee and campaign team for the Conservative Member for Guildford Anne Milton. I presented initial evidence and offered further supporting evidence to support my allegation that they had involved themselves in an months-long campaign to smear a critic of that MP as a paedophile and child rapist. While both parties sought to use false identities to avoid accountability for their behaviour, one party knowingly published and retained links to the offending site on their personal/political blog, and another sought to publicise the same site on a local student forum after originally signing up for that site using an email address containing a domain registered in their name, and at their home address. These individuals then involved themselves in a series of false allegations against me when I dared to confront them about their conduct.
At the time, I presented you with the evidence linking them to this behaviour and offered further supporting evidence. You declined to act yourself and instead referred the matter back to Jonathan Lord, who was then Anne Milton’s campaign manager (he later became Conservative MP for Woking). You were so satisfied by his response that two days later you posed for photos with these two individuals and personally endorsed their candidacy for local council.
However, Jonathan Lord’s only answer to the allegations in 2006 was (a) that the victim of the smears had not complained to him about it, and (b) that I had not put my own complaint in writing (i.e. I had ‘only’ emailed him about it). Lord reiterated this response in 2009.
In 2011, I recorded Jonathan Lord admitting that no formal investigation took place because the parties involved had already been selected as candidates for a campaign in progress. His exact words:
“I said (to the parties involved): ‘It’s lucky you guys have already been selected, otherwise, you know, we’re in the middle of a campaign now’…”
“This is all off the record, OK? In the middle of an election, you know, you don’t obviously want to give succour to your opponents…”
“If we hadn’t already been in the middle of an election campaign… then it might have been a slightly different story.”
Crucially, whatever Lord said to these individuals back in 2006 was said informally and privately, and there was no public-facing acknowledgement that anything untoward had happened. The entirely predictable result was that a further fundraising executive for Anne Milton repeated the exact same stunt (in 2009), this time with me as the target. I have since secured emails where the individual concerned sought to justify their actions to a then-associate by saying quite specifically that Milton and her supporters wanted me ‘downed’.
I originally suspected the person involved in this second event was a donor and confronted Milton about their behaviour with questions about their donor status; she denied that they were a donor and refused to take any further action… while knowing that they were an executive member on one of her fundraising committees.
Once again, I contacted you and key members of your party for action, but once again everyone in a position of authority was diving for cover with cheap excuses. Anne Milton claimed she couldn’t act or even comment because the person involved was a constituent. Jeremy Hunt claimed he couldn’t act or even comment because the person involved *wasn’t* a constituent. Jonathan Lord was still of the view that none of it was anyone’s concern because as far as he was aware, technically, no crime had been committed.
It is at this stage that I will remind you that what Derek Draper and Damien McBride planned wasn’t ‘technically’ illegal… it was ‘merely’ morally reprehensible. Nevertheless, your entire party was up in arms about their plot and demanding accountability. At the same time, I was actively and relentlessly being smeared as a dangerous criminal while you and your members sought to avoid responsibility.
The relevant behaviour continues to this day, almost 10 years after the original event. Further, we have a rather important general election on the way, emotions are bound to run high, and my concerns extend beyond my own experiences.
I have watched this cancer grow within your party, I am concerned about the conduct of your candidates, their campaigners and their fundraisers, and today I ask only three things of you, all desired to send a clear message to your members about such behaviour:
1) A formal acknowledgement from Anne Milton, Jonathan Lord and Jeremy Hunt that they did not deal with this behaviour as stringently or as thoroughly as they should have during either event. (I’d be grateful for any apologies that might accompany this, but appreciate that your influence is limited in this respect.)
2) A formal acknowledgement from you and your party Chairman that there have been some regrettable failures in leadership and oversight throughout this matter.
3) Your personal assurance that any further evidence of such behaviour will be investigated and dealt with quickly, firmly, and in good faith.
I’m sure that even with our vastly differing opinions about social justice, we can agree that using false allegations of criminal behaviour as a political weapon is entirely unacceptable.
I am equally certain that we can agree that false allegations of child rape are especially unhelpful given the recent allegations of paedophile rings inside Westminster.
I look forward to a prompt and considered response to my concerns. Should you require further evidence to support any of the above, I am at your disposal.
UPDATE (27 July) _ Some added detail and context from Richard Bartholomew: Online Harassment by Conservative Party Activists: A Decade of Mishandled Complaints