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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

CREDIT: GETTY
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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum