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First there were conspiracy theories, then there were social media mobs. What would it take for Labour to win Oldham?
Trust has been lost. Amanda Chadderton hopes to win it back
By Mollie Simpson
“Let’s be honest about it, I don’t think I’d be betraying any confidence if I said that all we want to do is win 31 seats to try and keep control of the council,” says Pete Davis. “And I think that’s the name of the game.”
We’re out in Failsworth. It’s a warm day and Davis — a 60-year-old funeral director who has lived here almost all of his life — is stuffing a Labour leaflet through the letterbox of a 1930s semi, where the sign on the door reads ‘NO FLY TIPPING’. One down, roughly 700 to go.
Davis is friendly and generous with his time, but I sense an undercurrent of anxiety. Oldham has acquired a particular political culture in recent years – chaotic, conspiratorial and hostile – and it puts people on edge. Nearly everyone I interview asks me not to mention where they live and when I ask one council candidate to describe politics here, they don’t take long to summon one descriptor: “toxic”.
Davis tells me that on canvassing trips last year, local activists turned up in black cars, shouting out of the windows that he’s a paedophile. Just recently, a man who lives up the road from him posted a photo of comically large men’s underwear on Facebook, with the caption “Pete Davis’s boxer shorts”.
“It’s not fair,” he says. “It doesn’t feel fair. If anyone says ‘I think Pete Davis has done a good job’, they’ll get their people to pile on me and say he’s not done this, he’s not done that, he’s rubbish.” Sitting on an armchair in the front room of his home in Failsworth, he tells me about the bullying Facebook posts, conspiracy theories and allegations that the Labour-run council has covered up for grooming gangs. Volunteers haven’t been enthusiastic about mucking in to help out with Labour’s campaign and who can blame them? It’s a vicious game.
Voters in Oldham have kicked out two council leaders in the past two elections, and Labour figures are nervous about how things will play out on May 4th. This year, all 60 seats on the council are to play for in an “all-out” election. Labour currently has a majority of 35 seats, and needs 31 this year to stay in control. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have nine each, and there are four independents and three Failsworth Independent Party councillors.
But zoom out a bit and this is about whether the dark clouds that have hung over Oldham in recent years have passed or whether this is still a borough operating under its own strange weather system. How might Labour expect to do here, I ask a senior figure in Greater Manchester politics? “If national issues dominate, then Labour might be more confident,” they say. “If these weird local issues dominate, it's harder.”
‘It seeps into real life’
Davis is a recognisable figure in Oldham who can be found volunteering at the local food bank or delivering free football kits to the youth teams at Oldham Athletic. Having previously served as a councillor in Failsworth West between 2018 and 2022, he says he would fight for very specific local ambitions, like bringing in speeding regulations on a residential road that is currently used as a cut through.
But the task ahead of him is greater than cars haring around. The challenge is to not only recapture the Labour voters lost to the Failsworth Independent Party but to convince previously undecided voters that Labour can be trusted. The Failsworth Independent Party have been very successful in breaking into parts of the ward with lower voter turnout and convincing people on the fence to turn against Labour, highlighting legitimate issues of incompetence at the town hall and successfully prosecuting the argument that towns like Failsworth are being ignored at the expense of the town of Oldham itself. Such arguments are now pretty common in smaller — often whiter — towns across Greater Manchester.
Mill readers will know the background here. In two long reads — “Grooming gangs, cartels and the poisoning of Oldham’s politics” and “The paranoid style in Oldham politics” — and plenty of shorter pieces, we have documented the ideas and forces of persuasion that have taken hold of this borough in recent years. The Failsworth Independent Party was formed in 2019 and has benefited from the distrust sown by the online activist Raja Miah, whose weekly transmissions have portrayed Labour as a corrupt elite selling out the town and covering up for paedophiles.
But in recent weeks, the Failsworth Independent Party has splintered. After a selection fight, FIP’s founder Mark and Kath Wilkinson have now left the party and councillors Lucia Rea, Brian Hobin and Neil Hindle are in control. What that means is when it comes to election day, voters will be faced with options from the Failsworth Independent Party, and Independent Candidates for Failsworth West. Naturally, Labour sees the divides and the Monty Python-esque confusion working in their favour: the vote could end up split, and allow Labour back in.
Ever since she was elected as leader a year ago, Miah has trained his guns on Oldham’s latest council leader Amanda Chadderton and his supporters hope to unseat a third leader in a row. The Royton Independents are standing in Royton South in an attempt to unseat Chadderton. Conversely, Labour are being challenged by the Conservatives in Royton North. There’s no evidence to support the suggestion that the parties are working together so as to not split each other’s vote, but both the Royton Independents and the Royton Conservatives have said they support a fresh inquiry into the supposed cover-up of grooming gangs, for which no evidence has so far been produced.
Chadderton invites me to an interview in her office in the grey, concrete Civic Centre, and tells me the reasons Labour have been struggling have a lot to do with deprivation and inequality in Oldham. “There is something about northern working class, post-industrial and mining towns, where people feel left behind. And people’s lives have got worse.”
She says she is proud of her first year as leader, mentioning achievements like overseeing £14.7 million of investment in children’s services, increasing foster carers’ pay by 10% and delivering a new secondary school. These are “building blocks” towards creating a better future for Oldham. She says that on the doorstep she has picked up optimism and pride about Oldham’s green spaces and the football club, with the obvious caveat that no ruling politician ever says they are hearing negativity on the doorstep. “To me, that is a sign that we’re gradually rebuilding trust,” she says.
One month after Chadderton was elected, the independent review into child sexual exploitation in Oldham was released, finding no evidence of widespread child sexual abuse or any cover-up of such abuse. When it was announced in a full council meeting at the end of June last year, around a hundred activists filled the main chamber and chanted “shame on you”. “Disgraceful,” one man screamed from a viewing box.
“The past couple of years have been difficult, let’s not lie about it,” Chadderton says, recalling nasty social media posts about her. “I think we have come a long way and it feels a lot better, it feels calmer, it feels a lot more positive.” She says out canvassing, only two people have mentioned the shadowy cartels that supposedly control the town’s politics, and she thinks she has met more than 1,000 voters.
But she admits the accusations that have swirled online have had major electoral consequences and could well lead to more. In other words, online accusations don’t just stay online. “Of course it’s more powerful than that, there’s absolutely no denying the effect of that targeted online campaign,” she says. “It seeps into real life.”
Last week, Steph Shuttleworth was standing on the doorstep of a large detached house in Royton, where a young blonde girl was asking her insistently, and with a discernible note of panic, about grooming gangs.
“Yeah but, are you going to investigate it? Are you?” she said, which I overheard from the pavement, where I was standing under an umbrella talking to Steph’s fellow Labour candidate, Mick Harwood, about his ambitions to protect the Green Belt.
“She was saying she attends the council meetings and she’s seen all the lies on social media that experts didn’t find a coverup,” Shuttleworth explained, when she rejoined us. Did she counter her claims? “You’re not knocking on people’s doors to have an argument with them or upset them,” she states bluntly. “And I said that to her, I’m not knocking on your door to upset you, it’s just a point of disagreement.”
It’s not just independents who have been eating Labour’s lunch in Oldham in recent years – the Conservatives have made fractional progress too, picking up five extra council seats in the last two years. Max Woodvine, a Conservative councillor in Saddleworth South, was in the White Hart pub recently and saw a group of people having a quiet drink. When they noticed him coming in, they approached him to say he had their vote. “People in Saddleworth appreciate councillors who work hard,” he says. “These are people who don’t traditionally vote Conservative in a general election, but they’re happy to have a councillor who does things.”
Woodvine says he is focused on bread and butter issues, like what he sees as the council’s overspending — he cites the decision to buy Spindles shopping centre — and its decision to let the Civic Centre decline to the point where it requires eye-wateringly expensive renovation. He thinks there’s been too much focus on regenerating Oldham town centre while ignoring the outer boroughs, which has disenfranchised voters in the outlying towns and villages. He doesn’t think the Conservatives will win a majority this election but is confident they could pick up a few more seats, potentially robbing Labour of control.
So where is Oldham going next? Next month’s elections will be a litmus test for the new leader and her party. How do politicians accused of covering up for grooming gangs reconnect with voters, many of whom already felt disenfranchised from Labour over Brexit?
Before I leave, I ask Chadderton one last time how bullish she’s feeling. “I’m confident that I will retain control of the council,” she says. “But this is the start of a process. And there is a lot about rebuilding trust between Oldham Labour and some of our residents.”
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