The police questioned a man for criticising Ukip on Twitter. Photo: Getty
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Criticise Ukip on Twitter? You could get a visit from the police

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert is questioning why Cambridgeshire Police officers visited blogger Michael Abberton's home after he sent out a fact-checked list of ten Ukip policies on Twitter.

A tweet, the police, and ten Ukip policies. It doesn't sound like a particularly conventional formula for a crime drama, but a rather sinister-sounding story is currently unfolding from a blogger's bedroom in Cambridgeshire that leaves both police and Ukip party officials with a number of pressing questions to answer.

Michael Abberton, whose blog is called Axe of Reason, tweeted out a fact-checked version of a poster listing ten controversial policies attributed to Ukip. Abberton, who describes himself on his blog as "Definitely biased to the left", explained how he wanted to check the list of policies really belonged to the eurosceptic party, and so fact-checked each one, before tweeting it out last Monday.

Here's the tweet:

Abberton then wrote a blog post on Sunday detailing how the police came round to his house on Saturday afternoon to question him about the tweet, and asked him to "take it down", as well as not to make public the fact that they had come round to visit him.

The Cambridgeshire Police have confirmed to BuzzFeed today that they did indeed visit his home, commenting that it was to check whether offences had been committed under the Representation of the People Act, a law that deals with the electoral system:

We were called with a complaint about a message on social media at about 12.40pm on Friday. Inquiries were made as to whether any offences had been committed under the Representation of the People Act but none were revealed and no further action was taken...

And a spokesman for Cambridgeshire Police told the Guardian:

A Ukip councillor came across a tweet which he took exception to. The name of the person on the tweet was identified and that individual was spoken to. We looked at this for offences and there was nothing we could actually identify that required police intervention. Clearly, the councillor was unhappy about the tweets. If every political person was unhappy about what somebody else said about their views, we would have no politics.

Abberton's MP, Lib Dem Julian Huppert, tells me he has written to the Cambridge area commander, and is "awaiting a response from her about exactly what happened".

He is concerned that the police visit was inappropriate:

I struggle to see exactly what it could have been that would have been an offence in this case, and I'm looking forward to hearing the justification. Because otherwise from what I've seen, it does seem like an inappropriate for the police to be involved, and certainly Michael Abberton's description of the conversation suggests that they went a lot further than just trying to establish if he's committed an offence, but went to the level of asking him to take down the comments, not to tell anyone that they'd been round, various other things like that., which assuming that to be true, it is clearly inappropriate...

The clear question is whether there is a genuine allegation that he committed a criminal offence. And if there is such an allegation, then clearly it's alright for the police to investigate it, but I haven't seen anything to suggest that there was a clear allegation of potential criminal activity. And it's clearly inappropriate for the police to take action on political disagreement if there's no real sense that there was a criminal activity involved, and having seen the tweets that he [Abberton] sent out, I can't see in what way it would have violated the Representation of the People Act, I can't see any way in which it could be seen as being threatening or abusive.

Huppert has been in touch with the blogger electronically this morning, and remarks that his constituent is "clearly concerned" about the situation. "The idea that this could be seen as intimidation, whether pushed by police officers or whether pushed by Ukip is clearly an alarming one," he adds. "The role of the police is clearly to defend a free and open democracy, and given that I haven't seen any detailed allegations that he'd committed any sort of offence, it does seem odd and inappropriate for the police to be questioning him like that, and I can see why people would find that very intimidatory."

The Cambridge MP sees "a lot more scrutiny now of what people within Ukip are saying", adding, "I can see that many of them are uncomfortable with being challenged on their manifesto and on comments that their spokespeople have made."

Secretary of Ukip's Cambridge branch, Peter Burkinshaw, says he hadn't heard the story, not being "into social networking", but comments: "I wouldn't have thought it was criminal to tweet your opinion about something if it's not slanderous. I don't understand why the police would go round... In principle, if the man's just voicing an opinion, I can't see why it would involve the police at all."

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser