Everyone knows that politics can be a nasty business and we have seen over the years that Portsmouth is no exception. But most people assume the dirty tricks to happen between parties, so when we find out that an elected member has suggested smearing charities and individuals, it certainly plumbs new depths.
In his carefully worded apology to local resident Sameen Farouk – one of the intended targets to whom details of the proposed smear campaign were erroneously (and incompetently) sent – Cllr Scott Harris declared that none of his colleagues “agreed” with his suggestion. We need to know if any of them actually objected and conveyed such objections to him before the matter became public. The Leader of the Council, Donna Jones, says she expressed her disapproval but then went on to launch an attack on Mr Farouk. Why? Because he has had the temerity to ask an often opaque and secretive Portsmouth City Council for information under the Freedom of Information Act. This is his democratic right.
It is worth bearing in mind that Mr Farouk is the victim in this. He was acting perfectly legitimately and in the interests of the people of this city. I have never had any concerns about the integrity of my own Conservative ward councillors in Eastney and Craneswater. But if someone thinks it is a good idea to resort to smears, and the Leader of the Council turns her anger not on him but on the target of this nastiness, we have to question the culture that exists in the north of the city. At the very least, the Leader and Chairperson of Portsmouth North Conservative Association should issue a statement totally condemning any sort of dirty tricks in general and what Cllr Harris proposed in particular. How else are we to know that this really was the actions of one “naive” councillor and not part of a wider strategy that only came to light by a blunder?
For Cllr Jones, submitting FOI requests is “horrific”. It isn’t. What is horrific is finding out that powerful political forces in this city have you in their sights, even to the extent of taking action that could lead to you losing your job. The message that sends out to local residents is question us and we will come after you. It gives the impression that the Leader sees anyone who objects to her policies – whether trying to exclude refugees from the city or cut vital services for victims of domestic abuse – as the enemy. And it is an extraordinary response from someone who only recently claimed she herself had been subjected to intimidation.
This whole business is very depressing and the people of this city deserve better. No wonder so few are reluctant to get involved in politics when they see degrading episodes like this.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.