‘People are cheesed off’: Brexit anger tests Teesside’s Labour loyalties

Over the last year, a string of local councillors in Teesside have been suspended from their respective parties for posting offensive material on social media. In March, two Labour candidates withdraw themselves from standing in local elections after it emerged they shared and liked a post on Facebook of a mural that has been criticised for replicating anti-Semitic representations of Jewish men.

Last month, a Conservative councillor and chairman of South Tees Conservative Association was suspended by the party after he was alleged to have shared and posted Islamophobic content on Facebook. Weeks later, a Labour councillor, Craig Hannaway, accused two Conservative councillors, Craig and brother Lee Holmes, of commenting on Nazi imagery and drawing comparisons between Labour and the National Socialists on Facebook.

The story made local news, and when Hannaway shared the article on his own Facebook page, someone commented that he “should be shot at dawn”. “I haven’t knocked on doors in Skelton since then,” he says.

The controversy originated from a Facebook group for locals in Skelton, a stone’s throw from Saltburn. The group, which has almost 10,000 members, describes itself as a place for “sharing images and stories of Skelton”. But there are no disclaimers that its admin, Craig Holmes, is a Conservative councillor, and both himself and his brother frequently share posts promoting the party. 

Just this week, Lee Holmes shared a post by a nurse alleging that the photograph of a four-year-old boy lying on the floor of a Leeds hospital, which Boris Johnson was questioned about, was staged. The nurse later denied making the post, which went viral, saying her account had been hacked.

Lee told openDemocracy that the post “seemed genuine enough” and that all political parties should “check and vet information before it’s released to the public”. Holmes said he still wasn’t sure if the photo itself was faked or not, despite the hospital apologising for the boy’s treatment.

Aisha Cunningham, 24, had forgotten she had joined one local Facebook group, Marske Uncensored, until she noticed a post, branding Anna Turnley, the MP for Redcar, a “traitor” appeared on her feed. When she checked out the group’s other posts, she discovered there were dozens more like it attacking Turnley with similarly inflammatory language for her pro-Remain position in the referendum. Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, is another common target of the group.

Marske Uncensored Facebook group screenshot
One of many posts targeting Diane Abbott on the Facebook group Marske Uncensored. | openDemocracy

“People won’t admit it, but there’s racial prejudice behind those [Abbott] memes,” says Cunningham, a care-worker. Marske Uncensored advertises itself as a place where users can post “without fear of the PC brigade” raising questions about whether Facebook’s rules apply to closed groups.

Shock Tory victories

Until recently, it would be unthinkable that Conservatives would be eyeing up Teesside in an election. The valley is split into six constituencies, five of which are held by Labour. But three years ago, the region voted overwhelmingly to leave in the EU referendum.

Since then the Tories have been making inroads. In May 2017, Ben Houchen, a local Tory councillor, beat out the Labour favourite in the race to become the first ‘metro’ mayor of Tees Valley. Month later, the Tories won the constituency of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland for the first time since the seat’s creation in 1997, one of the few consolations of Theresa May’s otherwise disastrous snap election. Simon Clarke, a former solicitor educated in a local private school, won a 1,020 majority.

Labour also suffered badly at this year’s local elections across Teesside, losing control of four councils, including Middlesbrough which it had held since 1974. 

On Thursday, the Conservatives are hoping to replicate their victory in Middlesbrough in other Leave-voting Labour marginals in the North East like neighbouring Stockton South and Bishop Auckland. 

Whether the Tories can capitalise on frustration over Brexit to swing Labour voters is unclear. When Johnson visited an engineering firm in Stockton-on-Tees last month he got a mixed reception from workers. He was grilled by employees on why he delayed a report on Russian interference in British politics and whether the NHS would be part of a UK-US trade deal. But most will not have seen the exchange. On social media, the party aggressively pushed a photo of Johnson posing with an engineer holding a homemade “We Love Boris” sign that was liked tens of thousands of times.

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