Faced with misogyny, abuse and anger – councillors in Oldham say May’s local election was the worst they’ve ever fought.
This years’ local elections on May 2 were hotly contested in the borough, with a new grassroots party Saddleworth First! emerging along with independent candidates to split the vote in key wards.
However turnout overall remained low, with more than two thirds of those registered in Oldham refusing to cast a ballot.
Councillors told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the turnout was indicative of the reaction, which was one of ‘outright hostility’ from many people on the doorstep.
Residents were angry about the state of politics, citing Brexit nationally and the green belt issues in the latest Greater Manchester Spatial Framework locally.
Cabinet member for children’s services, Coun Amanda Chadderton, said she understood why councillors were choosing to leave politics in the face of abuse amid a growing workload.
“It’s the worst election I have ever had,” she said.
“People are so vociferous in their hated. Part of it’s around the green belt, part of it – a lot of it’s around Brexit.
“It’s been awful.”
Labour remained the largest party with 45 seats, gaining one overall despite losing two key seats in Saddleworth West and Lees and Failsworth East.
However in Coldhurst ward, a traditionally Labour stronghold, there was a closely fought contest between Labour’s female candidate Ruji Surjan, and the incumbent Montaz Ali Azad who had been suspended from the party and stood as an independent.
Cabinet member Arooj Shah, who faced her own battle to get back onto the council after losing her seat to a male independent in St Mary’s ward, says the campaign echoed her own experience in 2016.
The toxicity of the campaign centred, she said, around misogyny.
A cartoon had been shared on social media, depicting Ms Surjan as a puppet controlled by two men under the title of the ‘Labour Muppet Show’, and questioning her ‘credentials’.
“People think because she’s a woman she can’t make her own decisions,” Coun Shah said.
But on the night, Ms Surjan was elected with 2,031 votes – beating her rival by 331.
New councillor Surjan said she wouldn’t have been able to ‘get through’ the months of campaigning without her teams’ support.
“It’s been tough and I didn’t expect it,” she added.
“There’s been a lot of personal attacks, on Facebook, on social media and on the streets as well – there are various incidents that have taken place.”
Deputy council leader Abdul Jabbar, who backed Coun Surjan for the seat added there had been attempts to ‘highjack the campaign’.
“Outright lies, targeting our families,” he said. “It was completely wrong, and people saw through that.”
Town hall leader Sean Fielding said antipathy to candidates and politics in general had been widespread during the run-up to the vote.
“There was more hostility than I’ve been used to for years on the doorstep right across the borough,” he said.
“There is a general disillusionment with politics and politicians and that’s why we’ve seen the growth in minor parties and independent candidates.
“It was just a general anti-politics feeling I think in this election and I’ve never experienced that and I’ve been involved in local politics for the best part of ten years.”
Speaking to people directly while canvassing was able to bridge the gap between local and national politics, he added, but they weren’t able to talk to every resident.
“Unfortunately if they don’t get the opportunity to speak to their local representatives and their local parties, they receive politics on the TV,” Coun Fielding said.
“And that is predominately Brexit and predominately national politics which lots of people – and I would even include myself in this are fed up with at the moment – then that is reflected in the results here at local elections.”