The bullying problem within Wellingborough Conservatives
A number of councillors and party members say they've been bullied and describe a ‘toxic' culture within their local Conservative association
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By Sarah Ward
Jack Summers, 21, had been an active and campaigning member of the Wellingborough Conservative Group since 2017 and was thrilled when he was selected last spring as one of the candidates to stand in this May’s North Northamptonshire unitary elections.
But last month he was unceremoniously dumped from the candidate list via an email which said an approvals review panel had met and decided to de-select him. No reason was given.
But Jack says he knows why. Because of his remainer stance and public criticism of PM Boris Johnson.
He says because of his moderate, centrist views he has been subject to bullying and intimidation. He claims to have received phone calls from Wellingborough Conservative members telling him to ‘keep his mouth shut’ or he’ll be kicked out of the party, been told to stop expressing his politics on social media and been the subject of a whispering campaign in which he has been labelled a ‘strange lad’ by Wellingborough Council’s leader Cllr Martin Griffiths.
But the final straw for Jack was when he received a copy of December’s Wellingborough Conservative Association’s newsletter. Approved by association chairman Cllr Andy Mercer (the former leader of East Northants council and a current serving parish, district and county councillor), the email pamphlet instructed councillors to use Donald Trump style ‘rapid rebuttal’ tactics as ‘fake news often make headlines’ and ‘a lie can go round the world before the truth can get its boots on’.
It suggested party members ‘say the first thing that comes into your head’ and sometimes ‘it is better to give the WRONG answer at the RIGHT time, than the RIGHT answer at the WRONG time’.
“I was disgusted when I read it”, says Jack. “I was really, really annoyed as I thought people will actually do what they are being told. But my main concern was the attack on democracy. It should not happen, ever. This is blatantly wrong”.
The ultimate repercussions of fake news were demonstrated last week with the Washington riot led by supporters of Trump who had been whipped up by the very type of behaviour lauded in the Wellingborough newsletter.
Jack, who has now resigned his Conservative party membership, contacted Times journalist Rachel Sylvester in late December who wrote a piece saying the views in the Wellingborough newsletter were part of a trend of the national party shifting to the right and becoming more populist.
The story made other national papers the next day, the deputy leader of the Labour Party Angela Rayner called for the Tory party to investigate the newsletter and Labour leader Keir Starmer even held it aloft at the weekly PMQs, mocking Boris Johnson and asking him whether this fake news approach was now Conservative party policy.
But behind the parliamentary theatre lies the serious matter of how the Wellingborough Conservative Group has been operating and what many have called the ‘toxic culture’ within it.
For university politics student Jack, the bullying first began back in November 2019 during the general election campaign. After canvassing on the doorstep he says he was sent Facebook messages from Wellingborough Council leader Martin Griffiths telling him what ‘good canvassers should do’ and another asking whether it was time he should change his profile picture, which displayed a picture of Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who had stood against Boris Johnson in the 2019 leadership election.
“It has been horrendous. Anytime I would post anything political he would jump on it.” Jack remembers. He also says he saw messages Cllr Griffiths had sent to someone else in which he called him a ‘strange lad’ several times.
Then in February 2020 after he had been selected as a unitary candidate his comments about Brexit in a closed Conservative group message chat were relayed to others. Jack says they were the topic of conversation at the Wellingborough Conservative Association meeting, which was held in late February before a campaigning session.
“According to members present at the meeting, there was at least 10-15 minutes dedicated to complaining about my actions alongside a warning to other candidates 'not to stray from a desired position,” says Jack. “I do not believe this was acceptable as our Party is a broad church and we should accept debate on different opinions.”
In early March Jack met with fellow Finedon candidate Cllr Andrew Wetherill and his social media postings were discussed. After the meeting Jack then apologised to election agent David Jenney by text and said he would ‘show rigorous discipline in the future’ with regard to his posts. He does not stand by this apology today.
Cllr Wetherill told NN Journal the meeting was not intended to warn Jack off social media but was instead about ‘parochial’ campaigning matters. He says he has not witnessed any bullying behaviour from Cllr Griffiths and ‘does not get involved in hearsay’.
In May Jack made a complaint under the party’s code of conduct to the Conservative Campaign Head Quarters (CCHQ) and said he was being bullied by Cllr Griffiths. In October he received an email from the investigating officer saying the first part of the investigation was complete and had been sent to Cllr Griffiths for response. It said Jack would be updated two weeks afterwards. He has heard nothing since.
Also in October he complained to the Wellingborough Conservative Association, after being informed of lots more conversations about himself. He received two phone calls from association members in which he says he was again advised to stop posting on social media and he then received an email in November to say there would be an approvals review panel. In mid December he was de-selected.
Jack says he is not the only party member having pressure applied because they do not support Cllr Griffiths.
“There are other ones but they are really quiet about it,” says Jack.
But Jack is not the first Wellingborough conservative member to publicly call out the bullying he has experienced. Last July the councillor for Earls Barton Cllr Rob Gough, who is also a serving county councillor, claimed during Wellingborough Council’s virtual full council meeting that bullying by Cllr Griffiths had led him to attempt suicide.
It was a shocking speech but Cllr Gough was stopped from finishing, although he pasted his speech into the chat function for all other councillors to read. He was admonished by chairman Mayor Jon-Paul Carr and kicked out of the meeting. Not one councillor present at the meeting asked if he was OK, or enquired about his welfare later that evening.
Cllr Gough, who now has a standards investigation against him for his public bullying accusation against the leader, says there is a ‘toxic culture’ within the local Conservative group, with a small handful of councillors who support the leader holding all the power and positions of importance.
“It is toxic,” he says and “It’s a bit like the county council used to be.’ “Information is not being shared and is being kept within a small group”.
The failure of the Conservative-run county council is the reason for the new unitary governance system being brought into the county. Government decided in 2018 the bankrupt authority was so beyond repair that it would have to be shut down. Government inspector Max Caller wrote in a report that beyond the cabinet backbench councillors were not listened to and scrutiny was not welcomed.
NN Journal has spoken with a number of Wellingborough councillors who say leader Martin Griffiths, who has been in charge since 2015, constantly calls round party members and councillors to get them on side and talks about others he is not in favour of.
Cllr Gough says it’s a ‘divide and rule strategy’. Critics of Griffiths say only his supporters become chairs of committee meetings.
“If you don’t agree with Martin Griffiths and his supporters they will turn against you,” says one serving Conservative councillor who did not wish to be named. “They will prevent you from being the chair of any committee and you will be put out in the wilderness.”
Cllr Gough along with Conservative Cllr Martyn York had this summer tried to oust the leader with a vote of no confidence in his position, which was signed by a total of eight councillors - a third of the serving Conservative Wellingborough councillors. But the issue was kicked to the kerb - and did not reach a voting stage.
A standards complaint by Cllr Gough about Cllr Griffiths over comments the leader had allegedly made during a Conservative group meeting was not upheld by Wellingborough Council. A counter complaint by Cllr Griffiths against Cllr Gough is still under investigation.
Cllr Gough says the bullying issue is not being dealt with by either the local association or at a national level.
“CCHQ are allowing this behaviour,” says Cllr Gough. “They are not clamping down on it”.
When asked by NN Journal what stage Jack Summer’s investigation was at and whether his de-selection was acceptable, a Conservative Party spokesperson said: “We do not comment on ongoing investigations.”
NN Journal has put the allegations to Cllr Griffiths who says he is suffering from coronavirus.
“The allegations are being dealt with by the Association and Conservative party and as such I am not able to respond until their investigations are complete.”
We also asked a series of questions to the chair of the Wellingborough Conservative Association Cllr Andy Mercer including asking whether there is a bullying problem within the association.
However the response did not address the questions and instead referred to the investigation being carried out by CCHQ into Jack’s bullying accusations against Cllr Griffiths.
It said: “When investigating allegations of inappropriate behaviour by a member, the Party’s processes ensure that the principles of natural justice are applied to all those involved and therefore, as you would expect, the Association will not be providing comment or commentary on any ongoing disciplinary process.”
Jack says his experience has left him feeling let down.
“It’s frustrating because I wanted a career with the party”, he says. “I thought it was the best political party for people, but I’m disillusioned with it now.”
He now intends to stand as an independent in the unitary elections. Cllr Robert Gough who is currently suspended by the party (for a completely unrelated matter) has decided to resign from the Conservative party due to its handling of the bullying allegations plus the way the government has dealt with the pandemic. He is unsure whether he will stand in the upcoming May elections.