Grooming gangs, cartels and the poisoning of Oldham's politics

Sean Fielding was a young council leader and a Labour rising star. Then he found himself accused of sanctioning the sexual abuse of children

“With racism weaponised and the working classes betrayed, a network of corrupt politicians now control vast territories across the country. Supported by their associates in the mainstream media and aided by criminal Asian Cartels, these politicians rule in a manner identical to despots from children's storybooks. With democracy on the verge of collapse, and their tyrannical rule all but absolute, even the grooming and gang rape of the nation's children is sanctioned. Yet despite their power, a handful still refuse to fear them. They name themselves Recusants.” 

Posts like this — big on drama, skinny on details — tend to be associated with white far-right activists like Tommy Robinson. They play on the idea that Asian grooming gangs are operating with impunity in our communities and present the writers of such posts as the protectors of innocent children. One key detail here is different: the above wasn’t penned by a white activist, but by Raja Miah, a British man who grew up in a Bangladeshi family in Oldham.

It was roughly this time last year that I first became aware of Miah. A few weeks after starting The Mill, I had stumbled upon the information that Greater Manchester Police were running a new investigation into grooming gangs in Rochdale. It was a significant development, and within hours it was spreading fast online — partly thanks to a viral tweet from a Twitter account called Oldham Eye, which shared the story. That account, which has a few thousand followers and describes itself as fighting against “grooming and corruption” in Oldham, then sent me a private message. “Just read your Rochdale article, nice work,” its anonymous user wrote. “Are you aware of my friend Raja Miah and his work in Oldham? If not, take a look, I think you have a lot in common.” 

A couple of weeks later, Oldham Eye told me more about Miah. “Raja Miah is a personal friend, he's not just a guy with an axe to grind,” the user wrote. “He's an MBE ex government anti extremism advisor.” The user said Miah had been involved with two failed schools, but that he had been set up by members of the “so-called Manchester elite”. They went on to say that the Manchester Evening News and local politicians like Andy Burnham were corrupt. “Sounds like the bloody rantings of a tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist doesn't it lol,” Oldham Eye wrote. “Except it isn't.” 

At the time, I read Miah’s blogs, which are published under his online persona Recusant Nine (a recusant is a person who refuses to submit to authority) and in which he claims to be lifting the lid on “the relationship between Labour Party politicians, Council Officers and the Asian Criminal Cartels that really run the town.” He also posts online “transmissions” — long live videos in which he addresses an audience of local followers on social media and walks them through his latest claims. His posts and videos are scattered with the names of local politicians, mosque leaders and community figures. But in the past year, he’s trained his guns on one individual in particular: Sean Fielding. 

Welcome to Failsworth

Sean Fielding was born on January 10, 1990. He grew up in Failsworth, the town three miles north-east of Manchester where he lives today. His mum, who came from nearby Newton Heath, worked for the council, and his dad, who was born in Failsworth in the 1950s, was a bus driver. 

Failsworth has around 20,000 residents and sits reluctantly within the borough of Oldham. It’s where you move "if you're from Newton Heath and you've done alright,” Fielding told me. Yes, it has its spit and sawdust pubs and a feeling of being on the neglected edge of various places, including Tameside, which it borders. “People here say they are from Failsworth, never from Oldham,” Fielding says. But the town also boasts pleasant residential streets lined with interwar semis and a beautiful country park maintained by the National Trust.

Fielding did well at school, excelling at maths in particular. He was one of the students featured in the local newspaper after GCSEs, celebrating getting a straight run of As and A*s. He transferred from the local comprehensive school to Oldham Sixth Form College, which was much more ethnically diverse, representing the make-up of the borough, as opposed to Failsworth, which is overwhelmingly white.

This summer marks 20 years since the Oldham race riots of 2001, and when Fielding was at school in Failsworth, his class was taken to a mosque in Oldham as part of an effort to improve community understanding. The riots threw a national spotlight onto racial tensions in Oldham, where around 17% of residents described their ethnicity as Pakistani or Bangladeshi in the 2011 census, compared to around 3% nationally.

When he got a place at the University of Manchester to study engineering, Fielding was the first member of his family to enter higher education. Now 31, he credits his experience at university with allowing him to become leader of Oldham Council less than a decade later. Not because of the technical skills he learned (he soon realised engineering wasn’t his calling), but because being around the middle-class people you meet at uni gave him a certain confidence in the world of politics. By his account, he never felt totally at home with the other students and he stayed living in Failsworth during his degree to save money, working shifts at Tescos in the evenings and weekends, and every day during the holidays. 

His entry into local politics came via Tesco and the trade union there. Fielding became the councillor for Failsworth West, attracting support from both traditional Labour voters and people who had known him since he was little. At one point during our conversations, he mentioned a particular part of Failsworth and said: “There are lots of Tories who vote for me from down there because they knew my gran ran the paper shop and 'Sean's a nice lad who played the piano at the Christmas concert' and stuff like that.” He got to know the Tameside MP — and now deputy Labour leader — Angela Rayner, and did bits of work for her. In 2018, he became one of the country’s youngest council leaders, aged just 28, in what was described as a “coup.” He was quickly recognised by other politicians in Greater Manchester, including Andy Burnham, as a fast-rising star. 

In person Fielding is very tall and seems comfortable in his own skin. He can be entertaining and speaks plainly about people in politics. Initially he enjoyed the job as leader, and says the abuse he got for being too young and inexperienced didn’t get to him. But some of his posts on Twitter suggest that maybe he was too young to run a major council in a large and historically complex town. He sometimes came across as thin-skinned, firing off childish memes and making fun of his detractors — like when he shortened the name of a right-wing grouping called Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth to POOS. 

Then, approaching two years ago, a new theme started cropping up on social media. At one point, council staff told him they needed to hold a meeting about the “the things people are saying online.” Specifically, an allegation on Facebook that Oldham Council was turning a blind eye to widespread grooming by gangs of Asian men. That the council was deeply corrupt, and had improper relationships with Muslim “cartels”. “I was quite dismissive of it,” he says. “I looked at it and thought: this is just mad. No one is going to believe this.”

‘Who’s this guy?’

Kath and Mark Wilkinson were on a cruise when they first heard about the shadowy cartels that control Oldham politics. It was the late summer of 2019 and the couple from Failsworth had left the ship in order to get online — the internet onboard the cruise was extortionate and they wanted to catch up with their kids. That’s when they saw a message from their daughter, who sent them a link to an online post by a local man called Raja Miah about Asian grooming gangs and the local Labour party.

“And we all went: Who’s this guy?” says Kath. “Writing about the cartels, the mosque. Who is he? Who is he?” When they got home from their holiday, Kath shared Miah’s post in Failsworth First, the popular local Facebook group the couple had created the year before. Miah was accusing leading Labour politicians of being “paedophile protectors” and said he had evidence that Asian grooming gangs have been operating in Oldham for years. “This is alarming to say the least,” Kath posted, using the couple’s joint “MarkandKath Wilkinson” account, adding: “Of course we await proof of these allegations before we assassinate someone’s character.” 

By this point, the Wilkinsons didn’t just run the Facebook group (which was later renamed Failsworth Matters), they were also the co-founders of the Failsworth Independent Party, which they had set up that summer to oust the local Labour councillors, including Fielding. On its website, the party says it wants to reinvigorate “forgotten” Failsworth, and represent residents who “feel the town is overlooked by the Oldham Borough”. Fielding thinks that’s a dog-whistle, and that the subtext is: majority-white Failsworth is being cut out by the much more diverse Oldham. The Wilkinsons categorically reject that, saying that their big concerns were low-level criminality and antisocial behaviour, which they say prompted them to create the Facebook group in the first place. 

From their living room, you can see the house where Fielding’s parents live, and the Wilkinsons have known Fielding since he was a boy because he used to deliver their Manchester Evening News. When he was a bit older, they used to do the same pub quiz at the Nelson just down the road. "Sean won a couple of times," says Kath when I ask about the quiz nights. Did those victories sow the first seeds for the epic resentment that now exists between them and Fielding — the boy who went to uni coming back to beat his townsfolk in the quiz? "No!" she says, horrified. "No, no, no, no, no!"

Mark retired from a long career at Greater Manchester Police in 2006, the last five years of which he spent in the anti-corruption unit, looking for bent cops. Since then he has worked part-time at attendance centres, places where young offenders have to report while serving minor sentences. He’s a well-known figure in Failsworth, particularly after the successful food hub initiative he ran last year during the pandemic, and says his politics are well within the mainstream. “I don't agree with the likes of Tommy Robinson or anything like that,” he told me. “That's just not my scene.” About Raja Miah’s allegations about the council turning a blind eye to grooming gangs, he says he can’t really comment. “To be honest, I don't know a lot about that,” he told me. “So I think it would be unfair to comment.” 

Kath, on the other hand, is willing to wade in. The couple have turned down a few press interviews since May’s election, where their local party swept to a surprise victory in Failsworth, but before England’s game against the Czech Republic last month, they invited me to their living room to tell their side of the story. Kath had asked a few friends about The Mill, and had been told it was a new site that claimed to be objective. Is it, she asked them? So far it is, she heard back. Kath had a glass of rosé in hand, and Mark was wearing a light blue Ralph Lauren shirt, stripy shorts and slippers. He was sitting next to her on the sofa, but it was clear they weren’t always of one mind. 

“I will tell you now, coming from a higher authority, that it's going on in Oldham as we speak,” she says, when I ask about the grooming gangs claim. The tenor of her voice has shifted and she is speaking slowly and emphasising every word.Am I right Mark?” she says, turning to her husband. He quietly answers: “Yeah.” Kath goes on. “What makes my blood boil, [is that] you cannot keep pretending it’s not going on.” I ask her what “it” is. “Grooming. 100% grooming.” On what sort of scale, I ask? “Well, I don't know what scale but I know of two young girls, separate incidents. They were being groomed and raped again, and raped again, and raped again.” She says the girls are white. And what’s the ethnicity of the perpetrators? “They're Asian men.”

‘You should be worried’

Personally, I didn’t know what to make of Miah when I first came across him. Some of his writing, like the passage I quote at the top of this piece, sounded like the blurb on the back of a cheap thriller. And when I dug into his blogs, the ideas he was promoting seemed pretty close to the academic definition of far-right conspiracy theories, conjuring a fantastical narrative of racial and cultural threat posed by dangerous alien groups. Miah writes in one blog, “if you are white working-class and living in Oldham, you should be worried” and says local politicians “no longer need to court the white vote or even listen to their concerns.” 

He goes on to say: “If white working-class people think that they are being listened to less than Asian people, it’s because they are.” His basic hypothesis is that Labour politicians can ignore white voters because they receive “block votes” from the Asian community in return for turning a blind eye and doing the community favours like granting them council land. He writes: “Those who emerge from the Asian communities to become councillors are rarely there because of their politics or any sense of civic duty. They are there as representatives of their Cartel.” 

On the other hand, normally when you come across these kinds of ideas online, the writers tend to be libelling communities they have no real knowledge of, whereas Miah grew up in the town’s Bangladeshi community. In 2004 he was awarded an MBE for his work on social inclusion. Plus, Miah’s online postings mix sweeping conspiratorial claims about gangs and cartels with highly specific details about Oldham council and its leading officers and politicians, some of which are true and some of which Miah has himself revealed via Freedom of Information requests. 

Just before he started his prolific online posting about Oldham Council, Miah was the head of two collapsed school trusts, Manchester Creative Studio and Collective Spirit Free School, which were shut in 2018 and 2017 after falling into so-called “special measures” and opening up large financial deficits. In their short lives, the schools paid more than £2 million to multiple companies linked to Miah. 

A government investigation found “a number of significant failings in both the governance and financial control arrangements” at the schools, and Schools Week reported that Miah has been “secretly blacklisted” from any involvement in schools as a result. The newspaper reported in 2019: “Lord Agnew, the academies minister, also privately ordered regional schools commissioners to blow the whistle if they found Miah, and two others linked to the trusts, ‘within schools in their region.’” One of Miah’s schools was in Oldham, and the former leader of Oldham Council Jim McMahon led the condemnation. Within months of the government probe being published, Miah was blogging online about council corruption and grooming gangs. 

‘I have a potential story’

I had largely forgotten about Miah when in October last year, months after the messages from Oldham Eye, one of The Mill’s readers got in touch. “I have a potential story, stumbled onto it via lockdown, and not sure what to do with it,” she wrote to me. She said it was better to speak on the phone. According to the notes I made during that call, she told me there was undetected sexual abuse of children going on in Oldham and that the council was happy not to expose it in return for votes from the Muslim community. She also mentioned the possibility of postal vote fraud, perhaps men filling out votes for older women, possibly organised by the “biradari” or clan-based networks in the Asian community. “They can be brutal,” she told me. 

She said she had been building up a dossier of information about the claims, much of which she found in local Facebook groups. She had a good friend from Failsworth who had seen some of Miah’s posts, and sent them to her. “You have to read this,” the friend said. She now says some of the groups were more racist than others, and in those ones “everything was linked back to Asians or community relations and things like that.” But the pandemic meant she was spending a lot of time on her own scrolling the internet, and the material was drawing her in. 

In amongst “the wilder stuff” Miah was posting about, there were plenty of stories that were true, like the fact that Shabir Ahmed, one of the main offenders in the Rochdale grooming scandal, had previously worked for Oldham council, and the revelation that the council had failed to charge a Muslim community group for a piece of land it had sold them (the council says this was a mistake and the group was later billed). There was also a widely-shared Manchester Evening News story from 2014 in which the paper said it could reveal that “Paedophiles are using shisha bars as child grooming dens”, including in Oldham, and an awkward-looking email from a BBC journalist to the leader of the council which suggested the former council leader McMahon had asked the broadcaster not to report details of police concerns around shisha bars — screenshots of which were shared relentlessly by Miah. 

All these things gave Miah’s claims credibility, the reader says, and suggested something nefarious was going on in Oldham. Now she says she thinks those scandals and failings were “chaos, not conspiracy” and that her dossier of links, notes and questions, which runs to 18 pages, doesn’t include any evidence of Miah’s most incendiary and fundamental claims: unprosecuted grooming gangs or Asian cartels delivering block votes to Labour. 

She wasn’t the only one who drew a blank on those claims. Mark Wilkinson was also perturbed by the lack of evidence, and, as a former police officer, he knew what he was looking for. He and Kath used to watch Miah’s “transmissions” on a laptop in their living room, and Mark was “always the voice of reason” cautioning others not to believe claims that didn’t have proof attached. The Wilkinsons say they wondered why he wasn’t working with law enforcement. 

At one point, Mark says he told Miah: “Take your file of evidence into the police.” Wilkinson told me: “I specifically wanted him to go into the police. I even said I'll come with you.” Miah refused. “When he wouldn't do it, I felt let down to be honest,” says Mark. Kath says she and her fellow members of the Failsworth Independent Party were also disappointed. “After offering all this support, we all sat in here as our party and went: ‘Why?’ If you've got proof, if you've got evidence, my god, you've got to go to the police and say.” 

I asked Mark again if, as a former police officer, he had seen enough evidence to support the claims about grooming gangs and block votes? “No,” he answered. (When The Mill contacted Miah, he asked: “Are you suggesting that the cover up of the grooming and gang rape of working class White girls is a ‘baseless conspiracy theory?’” He said Fielding had failed “to take decisive action against the cover up of the grooming and gang rape of the town's children” and had “abused his formal position as Council Leader” by contacting his critics’ employers. “Clearly the good people of Failsworth took offence to Sean Fielding's actions and deciding that they did not want to be represented by his kind.”) 

Creating a mood 

The lack of evidence for Miah’s central claims didn’t seem to dilute their reach. Fielding’s prediction that “No one is going to believe this” proved inaccurate. Hundreds and then thousands of local people started following Miah on his social media channels, including many in Failsworth, where Mark Wilkinson was now running for the council leader’s seat. Miah was asking his audience for money via the website “Buy me a coffee” and the site shows that plenty were paying him. “There are people who have watched it every week, and read it every day, and now have invested so much of themselves in it that they cannot afford for it not to be true,” Fielding says. “It started to drag more people in and started to create a kind of mood over the council.” 

Crucially, it dragged Fielding himself in. After the Wilkinsons shared that post from Miah in their Facebook group after getting back from the cruise in 2019, Fielding wrote a letter to Mark Wilkinson’s employer, alleging that Wilkinson had sympathies for the far-right and had allowed racist posts in the group. Wilkinson says he was “devastated” by the complaint and the lengthy internal investigation which followed within Sodexo, the company that ran the attendance centres where he worked, during which Fielding is said to have had more than ten contacts with the company. In the end, the investigation could find no evidence of links to the far-right. 

The investigation did highlight an awkward incident in which a member of the Failsworth Independent Party was photographed at a Tommy Robinson rally. (In a scene worthy of a sitcom, Kath Wilkinson says she went to see the man and said “There's a photograph of you putting your child in the back of Tommy Robinson's van”. The man explained that he had merely taken up Robinson’s henchman on their offer to get his child out of the way when things started to kick off at the rally, and had only attended the event because he “was intrigued” by the activist, not because he supported him. “He was absolutely mortified” by the photo, Kath says). Mark Wilkinson told me he had no links with the man who went to the rally. “I'm certainly not far-right,” he says. “And I am certainly not a racist: I have more black and Asian friends than anybody around here.” 

Fielding says he only wrote to Wilkinson’s employer as a last resort, to try to stop him sharing Miah’s defamatory claims. But writing to the bosses of people who were criticising him online became a habit, and it looked to many observers like an abuse of power, especially as Fielding identified himself as the leader of the council in the letters. Fielding admits writing to three employers, and says he regrets two of them but not the complaint about Mark Wilkinson, whose joint Facebook account was sharing baseless claims about him. Still, Fielding had been sucked in. When news about the letters emerged, it gave Fielding’s opponents an easy stick to beat him with.

‘You’ve got to take him out’

Miah’s tagline is “Do Not Fear Them. Do Not Fear Any of Them.” He often ends his Facebook posts with it, and an eerie audio version of him saying it punctuates his videos. But many of his posts seem purposely designed to strike fear into anyone reading or listening. In one of his transmissions broadcast on Facebook in November, he told his followers: “These people are gangsters. They walk around, sell heroin. Let’s be clear, the Labour Party [is] reliant on the cartels, [and] these cartels are criminals.” He went on: “They traffic people, they sell drugs, they launder money, they walk around with guns and grenades. They kill people, they stab people, they rape people, they kidnap people. That’s what they are and who they are. It’s not a joke.” “You need to understand how powerful these cartels are,” he said in a later broadcast. “They will destroy their families, destroy their lives. Even if you died, they would limit how many people came to your funeral.” 

At the end of last year, Miah seemed to be homing in on Fielding specifically. He posted a petition to get Fielding arrested, and in a broadcast in December, said: “Not only do we want you arrested. We want you put in prison. And that’s not only me. That’s thousands of us in the town. We want an example made of a corrupt paedophile-protecting politician.” By the spring, with the elections imminent, Miah was encouraging his followers to mobilise against the council leader. “You’ve got to go and vote this imbecile out. He’s dangerous,” he said. “He portrays you as racist and far right, which you’re not. He portrays you as chavs.” In the same broadcast he told his followers. “You’ve got to take him out. You’ve got to take Sean Fielding out.” 

Miah’s broadcasts tended to get dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of mostly supportive comments. Many shared his posts on their walls, and the Wilkinsons shared two of Miah’s transmissions into their Facebook group in August last year. Under one of those shares, responding to a comment by the man who put his child in Tommy Robinson’s van, Miah commented: “I now genuinely fear at the thought of an organised paedophile ring operating out of the Civic Centre.” But Miah wasn’t just relying on the organic sharing of his fans — he was also paying Facebook for ads in the run up to the election. 

One video attacking Fielding was promoted days before the poll to more than 5,000 Facebook users, securing 583 interactions. Hamish Falconer, a specialist in online disinformation who writes for The Valent Newsletter and was the first to notice the paid ads targeting Fielding, told me that Miah reminded him of some of the bizarre conspiracy theories that have gained currency in the United States. Miah, he said, “has ended up becoming an articulate advocate of a set of accusations of paedophile rings, postal fraud, and ethnic preference, all of which is redolent of some of the QAnon theories in the US.” 

 'I don't want that to be a shrine’ 

At about 9.30pm on election day in May, Fielding took down his Facebook page. “I don't want that to be a shrine for people to troll,” he thought to himself. He had spent the day at polling stations and had seen voters streaming in who he suspected were not voting for him. He thought it would be tight between him and Wilkinson. 

At the count, he was with his girlfriend, his mum and his agent Pete Davis. Candidates are allowed to “sample” the voting boxes so they can get a sense of how they have performed. Some of the boxes seemed fine for Fielding, but one in particular was disastrous. He looked at the others with him and beckoned them to come up to his office. The council leader plugged the numbers from the sampling into his laptop. “I think I've gone,” Fielding told them. He says the others in the room were more upset than him, with several people crying. But when he tells the story, Fielding gets emotional himself. He wrote a statement for the media, and went home, saying he couldn’t bring himself to shake Wilkinson’s hand, “after what he's been saying and what he's put me through.” 

It is hotly disputed how influential Miah and his blogs and broadcasts were on the final outcome of the Failsworth West election — a huge shock in which a young and hotly-tipped council leader was unseated by a new party and a candidate who had never run before. Fielding believes they swung the race. “Lots of people are disillusioned by the Labour Party, understandably so,” he told me. “Even if it weren't for the conspiracy theory nonsense it would have been a tough fight anyway. But I do think the conspiracy theory stuff tipped it.” 

He thinks the whole saga will put good people off from entering local politics and says a potential Labour candidate asked him rhetorically soon after: “Why would I have people making stuff up about me and posting it on the internet?” Arooj Shah, the new leader of Oldham council and a close ally of Fielding, also thinks Miah swung the race. “The very architect of those lies knows they are not true,” she says. “Because this isn’t about the truth, this is just about levelling attacks at people. If it was about the truth then Sean would be leader of the council today.” 

The Wilkinsons say child sexual abuse “never once came up on the doorstep,” during the campaign. Near the end of our interview, Mark told me “I personally think, Joshi, and this is God's truth, that 95% of the electorate round here didn't even know about it.” When I emailed Miah about this story, he said: “The simple fact is that Sean Fielding was defeated by the good people of Failsworth because of his actions and behaviour, not because of what you and the rest of your fake liberal metropolitan elite consider to be conspiracy theories.” He said that associating him with the far-right was “preposterous and no different to me claiming that you align yourself with rent boys or have a cocaine addiction.” A few days later, Miah posted on social media that I was a Labour Party “rent boy.” 

Some of Miah’s followers expected Fielding to have been arrested by now, and think that the grooming gangs who have operated with impunity in Oldham will soon be rounded up. Some have pinned their hopes on the independent review which is underway in the borough. It is being led by Malcolm Newsam, a former commissioner for social care in Rotherham, and Gary Ridgway, a former Detective Superintendent of Cambridgeshire Police. Others believe the remit of the review is too narrow to uncover the scandal they know to exist.

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