A first rough draft of history: Chris Williamson MP in Brighton and Hove
As a journalist for more than 30 years, nobody knows better than me that all I can provide here is — as Philip Graham, the great Washington Post publisher once said — “a first rough draft of history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand”.
What I can promise, however, is this article is a forensic, dispassionate, and well-evidenced account of the background to the recent controversial visit of Chris Williamson MP, the socialist MP for Derby North.
What it does not do is discuss why Mr Williamson was recently suspended — then unsuspended, then suspended again — by the Labour Party.
Disciplinary processes within the party are confidential and anyone who has gone through the process and maintained their membership throughout— as I have — should be regarded as innocent until proven otherwise. Cases are not judged in the court of mob rule — even when the “mob” comprises high-profile Labour MPs.
Importantly, Mr Williamson faces no accusation or sanction from his parliamentary colleagues — as even his worst and most vocal colleagues concede.
I am certain this will not be the final draft of what happened in a shameful two weeks in the history of politics in Brighton and Hove. The next chapter should be about action by Sussex Police.
Where to begin?
In mid-July, in informal discussions with a few friends, I disclosed that I had been in contact with Chris Williamson about a return visit to Brighton to discuss Modern Monetary Theory and its possible application in the creation of a democratic, socialist economy under a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.
I had previously organised a successful and inspiring meeting including Mr Williamson — and Nancy Platts, now the Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council — in front of a capacity audience at the Friends’ Meeting House on Tuesday, February 20, last year. The subject then was the opportunities a socialist administration could bring to our city.
This time, however, things were going to take a very different and very frightening turn, resulting in three city-centre venues cancelling successive bookings, after each came under intolerable pressure — including foul-mouthed abuse and threats, online, by telephone, and in person. And warnings from Sussex Police that they could not guarantee Mr Williamson’s safety, nor that of the building in which he was due to speak.
Having agreed a date with Mr Williamson’s office, I made the initial booking of the main auditorium at the Brighthelm Centre, in North Road, Brighton. I did so because the auditorium has a seating capacity of 300 and I had fond memories of helping to organise previous meetings there — not least a tremendous “Keep Corbyn” rally on Saturday, July 9 2016.
By Tuesday, July 23, I was ready to publicise the return visit and agreed the wording of an Eventbrite page with Mr Williamson’s office.
I had also secured a favour from Steve Bell, The Guardian cartoonist and Brighton resident. He agreed to allow me to raffle two signed prints of a series of “If…” cartoons, some of which had The Guardian had refused to print. [The ensuing debate gained some attention, after Mr Bell’s email to newspaper colleagues was made public. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, made public his opposition to such censorship.]
Late on Tuesday, July 23, I made the Eventbrite page “live” online. Within less than 24 hours, we had more than 100 registrations. It was immediately clear the event was going to be tremendously popular.
The next morning I was in Hollingbury Park with my three-year-old granddaughter when I received an email, timed at 1.18pm on Wednesday, July 24.
It was from Katie Love, general manager (marketing and hospitality), at the Brighthelm Centre. The 66-word email, sent without any attempt at a conversation, baldly stated:
“Brighthelm cannot accept your booking for Thursday 7th August, this has now been cancelled on our database.
“Please refer to section K in our hire agreement signed by you this morning:
‘Brighthelm reserves the right to stop or close any event without notice or compensation should it breach any UK Law, endanger or cause offence to other centre users or members of the staff or public.’
Within minutes, while still in the park, I had a call from Jody Doherty-Cove, one of several young and talented journalists on The Argus. He told me he had heard the Brighthelm Centre had cancelled the booking after an intervention by a little-known organisation called the Sussex Jewish Representative Council (SJRC); he did not, of course, say who had told him.
By the time I got my granddaughter home and established with the Brighthelm Centre there was no right of appeal, Mr Doherty-Cove had sent me, at 2.40pm, the SJRC statement:
This is a crass publicity stunt by someone, twice suspended from the Labour Party, looking for attention. However, antisemitism must be treated with the utmost seriousness at all times.
“The Sussex Jewish Representative Council is disgusted that an event is being hosted in our city for a man who was also suspended twice from the Labour Party for suggesting that it was ‘too apologetic’ about antisemitism, when the Labour Party itself is being investigated by the EHRC (Equalities and Human Rights Commission)on the grounds that they ‘unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they were Jewish’ .
“As if that weren’t insulting and disrespectful enough, the host thinks it is appropriate to auction signed copies of a cartoon that the Guardian refused to print due to concerns about its content. Our city and our community has experienced enough antisemitism.
“ We would hope that those associated with this event would consider the impact that this has on its Jewish community and ensure that it does not take place.”
At 2.49pm, I was informed by Mr Doherty-Cove that he had been told Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove, that his office had contacted the Brighthelm Centre to “express their concerns”.
It should be pointed out here that the Brighthelm Centre is — like all the other venues in this saga — in Brighton Pavilion constituency, represented not by Mr Kyle, but by the Green MP Caroline Lucas. It also happens to be the constituency in which I live.
Feeling it only fair Mr Williamson should have the chance to respond, Mr Doherty-Cove quoted Mr Kyle’s comments in full:
“I believe the meeting has been cancelled due to the room no longer being made available for them to use. I made my views known — our city should not be a welcoming place for people who bait the Jewish community or sew [sic] seeds of division.
“My office contacted them earlier to express my concerns, and I believe others did too. I’m please the Brighthelm have acted so sensitively and responsibly, they are a credit to our community.”
I was asked for any response(s) by 4pm, to meet The Argus print deadline. I spoke to Mr Williamson’s office, who quickly responded to The Argus:
“The grotesque slurs that Peter Kyle and others have levelled against me are truly despicable. I have a long and proud record of fighting racism, which has always involved standing up for every oppressed and marginalised group in society, including Jewish people.
“When Peter Kyle was still in nappies, I was an active member of the Anti-Nazi League, physically confronting foul racists and antisemites in the National Front.
“And under my leadership, I ensured that Derby City Council was one of the first local authorities in the country to establish an annual Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration.”
Mr Williamson added:
“The cancellation of this meeting venue has chilling implications for free speech. I was due to speak about democratising the economy. Peter Kyle needs to explain why he thinks it is acceptable to censor such a discussion.”
For my part, I said:
“It is a shocking indictment of the politics of anti-Corbyn diehards — especially the duplicitous and disloyal Peter Kyle — that they try, in vain, to stifle a discussion about a democratic, socialist economy.
“The witch-hunt against Chris Williamson and countless socialists across our city and across our country must end.
“I will be writing to local Green MP Caroline Lucas and to Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, to seek their support for the right to democratic assembly to debate how to build a fairer and more equal society, both here and abroad.”
“Fake allegations of anti-Semitism cause untold anxiety and distress to members of our Jewish community.
“The meeting will go ahead, in a bigger and more welcoming venue.”
Meanwhile, the Eventbrite registrations continued apace as the result of my online promotion via Twitter (@greghadfield) and via various local Labour Party forums. When The Argus revealed the cancellation in its print article on Thursday, July 25, more than 150 people had registered. [Unsurprisingly, someone had already begun sharing widely the news of the cancellation on private WhatsApp groups the previous evening.]
The next day I was due to set off on holiday to Cornwall with my wife and eight-year-old grandson. Although angry about Mr Kyle’s intervention, I was not particularly worried about the lack of a venue; I was delighted by the response, which showed how out of touch Mr Kyle was with party members.
By Monday, July 29, I was spoilt for choice: Friends’ Meeting House, in Ship Street, Brighton, confirmed it was willing — in full knowledge of the background and the previous cancellation — to host the event; in addition, concerned that we were now heading for 200 registrations, the Holiday Inn Brighton — Seafront confirmed the larger 195-seat Arundel 2 suite was available, but at the much higher price of £625.
Understandably, Friends’ Meeting House (FMH) proposed some stipulations — all of which I was willing to agree to:
1) This meeting will be contentious, and so the organisers’ attention should be drawn to our Conditions of Room Hire, especially 2.5 and Paragraph 6; and to our statement about our bookings policy.
2) We will have 2 staff on duty on the evening, and security on the gate. The extra costs thus incurred will be the responsibility of the hirer, and must be paid in advance.
3) We will not allow any auction or raffle on our premises: these are contrary to our values on gambling.
4) The meeting shall be recorded in full, with a visible timeline on screen.
5) At least one Quaker observer will be present at the meeting.
6) If there is any deliberate introduction by the speaker of the controversial themes surrounding him, referred to above, we will reconsider any future bookings by the organisation sponsoring the meeting.
I was also told:
“We anticipate pressure from various organisations to cancel the booking and we will prepare a statement to go on our website and Twitter feed.”
I promised a final decision within 24 hours.
Meanwhile, with registrations surpassing 200, I began to favour the Holiday Inn Brighton.
By then, with barely a week to go, I was increasingly anxious. Not least because people — including the Brighthelm Centre — were contacting Eventbrite demanding the event page either to be deleted or to be amended. [It is difficult to amend an Eventbrite page to a location “to be confirmed”; I needed certainty. And quickly.]
I contacted the central Meetings and Events Team (in the West Midlands), which deals with a number of Holiday Inn and Hilton hotels. Having discussed the content and context of the meeting, the controversy surrounding Mr Williamson, and the previous cancellation, with the team — who confirmed Gints Skieris, the operations manager of the Holiday Inn Brighton was happy to proceed, in full knowledge of the possible pressures he would face.
To be certain, just before I transferred the full £625 fee in advance, I sent an email confirming our discussions at 3.40pm on Wednesday, July 31. I wrote:
“The payment will be made on the basis of the irrevocable commitment — given and endorsed by the hotel’s operations manager — that the meeting will not be cancelled by Holiday Inn if/when external pressure is exerted.
“I look forward to a successful and well-attended event. In particular, I appreciate the commitment you and your colleagues have made with full prior knowledge of the proposed content and context of the meeting:
“The meeting with Chris Williamson, on the subject of a socialist economy was originally planned for the Brighthelm Centre.
“Unfortunately, that was summarily cancelled after an intervention by Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove, and the Sussex Jewish Representative Council.
“For obvious reasons, it will cause insurmountable difficulties — with only a week to go — if my booking, once confirmed, is then cancelled (under Clause 7 of the agreement), if/when the same or similar pressure is applied.”
Separately, I apologised to Friends’ Meeting House and explained why I would not be proceeding with my proposed booking.
At least, I knew I could offset some of the substantial cost by raffling the Steve Bell cartoons. And I was even more certain there would be standing-room only.
On Friday, August 2, I wrote a letter to my local MP, Caroline Lucas — copying-in Mr Kyle, as well as Lloyd Russell-Moyle, the Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown, and Nancy Platts, Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council. The letter — to which none has replied, or even acknowledged — stated:
I am organising a public meeting in Brighton Pavilion constituency with Chris Williamson, one of your parliamentary colleagues, the socialist MP for Derby North.
He will be speaking at 7pm on Thursday, August 8, about the desperate need for a democratic, socialist economy.
Nearly 200 citizens in Brighton and Hove have registered to attend.
Unfortunately, after the shocking intervention of Peter Kyle, the Labour MP in the neighbouring constituency of Hove, the original venue — the Brighthelm Centre in North Road — summarily cancelled my booking, without any right of appeal. The only grounds it quoted, without explanation, were those mentioned in Section K of its hire agreement:
“Brighthelm reserves the right to stop or close any event without notice or compensation should it breach any UK Law, endanger or cause offence to other centre users or members of the staff or public.”
Happily, I have been able to find another, larger venue — thanks to the help of a high-profile city-centre hotel, also in Brighton Pavilion constituency. You will understand my anxiety about naming the new venue.
I am sure, however, you will agree that freedom of speech in our city (and beyond) is the lifeblood of democratic debate.
As I prepare to make public the new venue, I hope you are able to offer support for the principle that the meeting should go ahead without any further intervention by Mr Kyle or anyone else.
In the hope that all leading democratically-elected representatives can agree freedom of speech is a precious commodity, I am copying-in the two other MPs in Brighton and Hove, as well as Nancy Platts, the leader of Brighton and Hove City Council.
I look forward to any response(s).
Happily, I continued with my holiday in Cornwall, returning to Brighton in the early evening of Monday, August 5.
As soon as I arrived home, I amended the Eventbrite page to name Holiday Inn Brighton as the new venue and set about promoting it on Twitter and Facebook, having already alerted Mr Doherty-Cove (who confirmed an article would be appearing in print edition of The Argus, the following day (Tuesday, August 6).
I also alerted Brighton and Hove News, the website run by Frank le Duc and Jo Wadsworth. (Which has still not written a word about the controversy and the implications of free speech; it is fair to say that one of the owners — a respected professional journalist — is a good and longstanding friend of mine, and the other isn’t).
It was the disclosure of the new venue that triggered — within hours — a series of frightening events.
At 10.46pm on Monday, August 5, Adolf Hitler registered to attend (using the email address: email@example.com). It was the first of many registrations Mr Hitler made; keeping him company were several people called Eva Braun, Rudolph Hess, and Joseph Goebbels, along with13 Jeremy Corbyns and five Tony Blairs.
There were, of course, countless abusive “names”: Ura Fucking-Cunt, ChrisWilliamson IsaCunt, and Cunty McCuntface.
As fake registrations soared — non-stop, for the next 24 hours — a linguistical pattern emerged. In respect of me, as organiser, they limited fake emails to less sweary fabrications: Greg Wankfield, Greg Hatedbyhiscityandfamily, Greg Hatedbyhiswholefamily — and so on, ad nauseam.
In addition, because my email address was known to all registrants, I had many worrying emails whose contents will be passed to Sussex Police in the next few days.
The relatively small number of people who conspired to engineer this stunt appeared to find it hilarious. Researchers who keep an eye on some of these known “trolls” kindly sent me screenshots from Twitter, a small selection of which I publish here. One of the pivotal protagonists in this seems to have been someone apparently called Liam McAfferty (@lee_ham).
In the 74 minutes — from the first “Adolf Hitler” at 10.46pm and midnight — there were nearly 300 fake registrations; this continued until Mr Williamson stood up to speak on Thursday, August 8 — by which time there had been nearly 1,000 fake registrations.
This childish behaviour caused no organisational difficulty, except it meant I had to lift the cap on the number of places available to 2,000 and made it impossible for me to know the exact number of genuine registrations. My guesstimate is about 300.
By the next morning, however, as abuse of me on Twitter became ever more worrying, there came the shocking news that Holiday Inn Brighton — having been the target of many individuals who claimed on social media that they and/or their companies would boycott the brand — had cancelled the booking.
It began with a simple voicemail at 10.50am on Tuesday, August 6, barely 12 hours since I had first named the new venue; it was followed, at 10.54am, by an email, from the Events and Marketing Team:
Further to my voicemail left on 6th August at 10:50.
I would just life to confirm that we are cancelling the meeting that you are holding under clause 7.1 in the meeting proposed agreement.
It states “Hotel may cancel the booking if (a) the booking may prejudice the reputation of the hotel.”
We will provide you with a full refund.
If you would like to discuss this further please contact me.
I replied as soon as I could, at 11.40am:
I’m afraid this isn’t acceptable.
When we agreed our contract, I made it clear it was on the basis of an irrevocable commitment by the venue — fully informed about the content and context of the meeting — not to cancel.
We are now barely 48 hours away from the event and it will be impossible to find a replacement venue. Nearly 200 people have confirmed their attendance.
Your voicemail mentioned a meeting — with the hotel’s operations manager?.
To whom should I speak to arrange such a meeting, urgently. I can be at the hotel at an hour’s notice this afternoon.
By 2.17pm, I had an explanation of the reasons. A crucial email — that some people, including Julie Cattell, the former Labour councillor, claim I have fabricated and/or edited — stated:
Dear Mr Hadfield
Thank you for your email.
We took your booking on the grounds that we as a company we do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity or any other affiliation or personal preference as long as the activities of the guests/customer do not violate any laws or constitute a significant risk or potential harm to other guests or our employees. Over the past 24 hours, our hotel and employees have been subjected to abuse and threats from members of the public on the phone, on email and on social media outlets. We cannot allow our guests and employees to be put at potential harm and we will therefore have to cancel your booking with the Holiday Inn Brighton.
My first reaction was to contact Friends’ Meeting House, arrange to meet staff there, and ask if we could go-ahead with the booking we had been discussing at the very beginning, with the same stipulations, but with an “overspill” room — so that more than 200 people could be accommodated.
By the time I had got into the city-centre, I knew this was possible.
But first, I knew I had to go to the Holiday Inn Brighton to take up the invitation to speak with Mr Skieris, the operations manager; from the hotel lobby, I called the Events and Marketing Team, told my contact I was in the hotel, and she volunteered to ring Mr Skieris to see if he was available.
Two men were sitting in quiet discussion at the table next to me, when one of their phones rang. That’s how I met Mr Skieris; it was about 3.30pm on Tuesday, August 6.
I was about about to find out — in horrifying detail — what had transpired in the hours since I had named the hotel as the venue.
I did not record the conversation with Mr Skieris, an engaging and helpful man, who was accompanied by his [interim] general manager, who had come over from the Holiday Inn Portsmouth, for reasons which I will explain. First, though, various people — including Mr Kyle and many of his supporters — have claimed, without any evidence, that I have made up this entire conversation.
Indeed, Mr Kyle has, in an email to a constituent — timed at 3.26pm on Thursday, August 8 — said:
“I have replied on Twitter so I hope you have seen that, and that you would trust that I would not lie. I have spoken with the Manager of the Holiday Inn who has said there was no intimidation.”
Leaving this aside, let me recount the main points I took away from the meeting:
- Mr Skieris had come in on his day off because of what happened the previous evening and overnight; his line manager had come over to offer his support;
- The previous evening two men had entered the lobby, approached reception and said — “politely”, according to Mr Skieris — that if the hotel went ahead with the Mr Williamson meeting, there would be “consequences”;
- Staff had received abusive and threatening telephone calls that included staff being called “cunts”;
- One member of staff on the receiving end of the abuse the previous evening had felt unable to come to work on the day I met Mr Skieris.
Although I had started the discussion hoping to persuade a change of mind, I quickly agreed, in the light of what I was told, there was no way I could ask Mr Skieris or his staff to endure such hateful responses. (My main regret, with hindsight, was I did not urge strongly enough that the hotel should complain to Sussex Police. Nor did I, at that stage, establish the fact that CCTV footage existed of the two men who made threats. I have since established that high-quality CCTV footage, with the camera only about six feet away, was since retained and viewed — although my offer to help by seeing if I could identify the two men — has not yet been taken up. I will be pursuing this in the next day or so.)
After a chat lasting about 15 minutes, we said our farewells and I left to continue my efforts to secure an alternative venue; there were 16 hours to go. I did not want — or intend — to disclose to anyone that a second venue had cancelled.
Others, however, had different plans and the news was disseminated — quickly and widely — on social media; Eventbrite came under pressure again to require me to delete the event page and/or amend it with the correct venue. Individuals — some in an agitated state — continued to enter the lobby to complain about the “anti-Semite” meeting.
About this time, a fake tweet, from a fake or defunct account, began circulating. It purported to be from Kew Green Hotels Ltd, the Chinese company that owns the Holiday Inn Brighton.
At 6.07pm on Tuesday, August 6, the [now-deleted] tweet from the fake or defunct account was promulgated by Euan Philipps (@euanphilipps), a leading figure in the self-styled Labour Against Anti-Semitism (LAAS — @LabourAgainstAS) network. I have written about Mr Philipps and his gang of Twitter “trolls” previously: here and here. I have been targeted by abusers ever since.
I believe but cannot prove Mr Philipps was among the first to disseminate this fake tweet, which — in turn — purported to be a reply to a tweet from Twitter user @Charlie66174695, who is apparently called Yankele Harari. He has 86 followers and entertains them with a torrent of vile and foul language; some accounts, with many thousands of followers, then retweet his abuse.
The fake tweet from the fake or defunct @Kewgreenhotels account — timed at 5.31pm on Tuesday, August 6 — appeared to show the hotel group (strangely also named “Travel Trade”, with poor syntax and spacing in its profile description) said:
“This event has now been cancelled as we do not support or give credence to extreme beliefs”. Before it was deleted it had at least 33 retweets and 100 “likes”.
A map attempting to indicate where “anti-Semites” live was updated, with a Twitter “thread” showing how its creator — an anonymous Twitter “troll” known only as @laughingdevil1 — listed Brighton and Hove as the most anti-Semitic town or city in the country; I was among a dozen or so named individuals whose homes or workplaces it attempted to map. Several organisations — including Sussex Friends of Israel — and even more individuals promoted the map and its contents. Some of those named have made complaints — either jointly or severally — to Sussex Police.
At 5.16pm on Tuesday, August 6, I received formal confirmation the Friends’ Meeting House was willing to proceed with my booking. My contact asked me not to publicise the venue until the following day. I was more than happy to follow his advice.
By now, the number of genuine registrations had exceeded 250 people, by some margin.
I spoke to one of my friends who was helping me and we discussed a strategy aimed at protecting staff at the new, new venue. We decided not to name it, or at least not until an hour or so before the 7pm start time; instead, we would ask attendees to meet at 6.30pm, outside the Odeon, at the bottom of West Street. I amended Eventbrite to reflect this.
I do not need to emphasise that the hatred and anger shown online by opponents of Mr Williamson — and Jeremy Corbyn — was reaching fever pitch. Certainly, these people did not seem interested in hearing anything about a democratic, socialist economy.
Thursday, August 8: The day of the meeting has arrived and the still-secret venue has not been named. I have told only three people; I have spoken only to two members of staff at Friends’ Meeting House; a seven-person committee has approved the booking.
At about 10am, I visited the front desk at Brighton Police Station in John Street and explained to a young officer (Newman37398):
- a meeting I am organising that evening — featuring Chris Williamson MP — has become more controversial than I expected;
- the still-secret venue was Friends’ Meeting House, but the only information to be published before 6pm would be the meeting point at the bottom of West Street;
- no trouble was expected and the venue had hired two SIA-qualified security staff to help with stewarding
- a small demonstration might be called.
I handed over a folder containing my personal details, written details about the meeting and its content, and copies of three articles from The Argus reporting the furore following Mr Kyle’s intervention at the Brighthelm Centre. The articles can be found here, here, and here.
The officer gave me a card with a reference number and advised me to call 999, if trouble broke out, or 101, if there was any concern it might. I was as confident as I could be that it would not be necessary, I said.
I asked, if resources allowed, for officers to call by the meeting point at about 6.15pm and the venue at about 6.45pm to 7pm.
I walked to Friends’ Meeting House to give copies of the Sussex Police card to staff for reference and to give my contact there — and his colleague, in attendance —an assurance that no information would be published until 6pm at the earliest. And possibly not even then.
No sooner had I arrived than I was told the emails and phone calls had started. The first email had arrived at 11pm the previous evening (Wednesday, August 7), followed by two more before midnight; another had arrived before 7am. The language in these early emails were respectful; some of the phone calls were “Number Withheld” callers who left only silent messages or hung up.
The three of us were puzzled. Because, although we expected opponents to do a ring-round of possible venues as part of a “fishing” exercise, these emails seemed confident they knew they had the right venue. We had a brief chat about security and their favoured use of the outside company they had used before and were comfortable with.
I went off to pick up an outside PA system that I had organised in case we needed one for an “overspill” area in the garden of Friends’ Meeting House and/or in the Lecture Room that I had hired, in addition to the main hall.
It is still a mystery how so many people became so confident they had found the new, new venue; in the next few hours more phone calls were made and few more emails arrived. We had all agreed that no calls should be answered and no emails should be replied to.
It was 1.14pm on Thursday, August 8, that I got the most shocking call of all.
I was at home, making last-minute preparations. My contact at Friends Meeting House seemed upset and was immediately apologetic: “I’m sorry, Greg. The meeting has been cancelled. We can’t proceed.”
I have since learned that in the two hours or so before I was told of the cancellation, officers with Sussex Police approached the venue and — based on what intelligence is not yet clear — said it may not be possible to guarantee the safety of Mr Williamson, venue staff, and the building. Officers, however, made clear they were not ordering the venue to cancel the event; no officer contacted me.
As a result, the outside security company used by Friends’ Meeting House withdrew its services, arguing it could not, in the new circumstances, provide the necessary resources at short notice. Indeed, one security officer reportedly indicated he was not willing to take on the task.
Even on the day after the meeting in Regency Square, Friends’ Meeting House remained in lockdown, front and back:
I am now convinced that the reasons why Brighton Quakers made the decision to cancel is even more understandable than that of Holiday Inn Brighton. [As Jane Dawson, head of external communications, made clear in an email to a concerned Brighton and Hove citizen on Friday, August 9, a statement explaining the nature of the threat that caused the last-minute cancellation is expected from Friends’ Meeting House (@BrightonQuakers) in the next few days.
Suffice to say, after the cancellation, I immediately decided the meeting could go ahead only if Mr Williamson agreed to yet more new arrangements about a new venue. Which, at this stage, was almost certainly likely to be outside and without adequate security protection.
By about 3pm, a friend and I met in Bartholomew Square, just outside Brighton Town Hall, which I had already identified as a possible outside venue — albeit on council-owned land and, therefore, requiring a written application for permission being made three months in advance.
Better to ask for forgiveness afterwards than permission in advance - as one of our local MPs once told me.
It quickly became academic: Barely an hour earlier, at 1.45pm, the Board of Deputies of British Jews had tweeted it was organising a protest within yards of the still-secret venue (on council-owned land). We knew not many would attend — about a dozen, it turned out, with the board’s president Maria van der Zyl — but we did not want to compromise Mr Williamson’s safety.
We asked the adjacent Jury’s Inn if we could book — at very short notice! —the hotel’s Renaissance Suite. Understandably, the manager refused. For the first time, we discussed cancelling the event.
By now, we had already discovered how so many people seemed to think they knew the venue.
Unbeknown to us and to the Friends’ Meeting House, a tsunami of protest on Twitter — a “Twitterstorm” — had been underway since just before 11pm the previous evening. Just before the first email landed.
As it happens this first email came from a former Labour Party member in Brighton Kemptown who nominated and supported a former Labour Party member who stood as an “independent” council candidate in Brighton on May 2. There is no suggestion either was involved in any abuse or threats.
Who was behind the Twitterstorm?
It is hard to be precise about who originated it, but one of the very earliest participants — who confidently exposed the Friends’ Meeting House at 10.40pm on Wednesday, August 7 — was Jonathan Hoffman, who was one of two Zionist activists who were fined and issued with restraining orders in June, after being convicted of “aggressive, bullying behaviour” against pro-Palestine activists in London in October 2018.
Hoffman, a pensioner in his late 60s and former president of the Zionist Federation, was convicted at Hendon Magistrates’ Court of disorderly behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, and was ordered to pay a £100 fine, £150 in court costs, and a £30 victim surcharge.
Other prominent participants in the Twitterstorm — which repeatedly “mentioned” Quakers nationally as well as locally, included Sussex Jewish Representative Council (@SussexJewishRep) and Sussex Friends of Israel (@SussexFriends)
Ms Sharpe, a Hove resident active with Sussex Jewish Representative Council and Labour Against Anti-Semitism, is well-known to pro-Palestine activists in Brighton and Hove. Here she is when she had dyed red hair:
At 3.18pm, without any discussion with Friends’ Meeting House, Quakers in Britain tweeted that the meeting — whose venue had not been made public — had been cancelled.
The tweet came in response to people who — falsely, and using remarkably-similar phraseology — asserted that the warden had been “hoodwinked at short notice” by Mr Williamson’s “cronies”. It said, misleadingly or irrelevantly:
“Brighton Quaker Meeting House have cancelled this booking. Quakers in Britain recognise that antisemitism is a real and growing problem in the UK and globally. Antisemitism, as with all forms of racism, contravenes our fundamental belief that all people are equal and precious.”
It was less than three hours before attendees started turning up.
We had an external PA system, no venue, no security, an unknown number of attendees, and hundreds of fake registrations from people who may well include some of the haters, thugs and abusers trying to stifle free speech, by any means necessary.
Mr Williamson and his assistant were on their way from Derby and had reached the M40.
From Regency Square — which we decided was the only conceivable venue — I knew I had to let him know that the stakes were now very high. I was prepared for him being unable to attend or speak. But I was determined, if this happened, I would address the audience and explain precisely the reasons why. I would blame Mr Kyle for poisoning the well of democratic politics in our city, by “no-platforming” a fellow parliamentarian at venues in a constituency Mr Kyle did not even represent.
I need not have worried. From his car, Mr Williamson said nothing would stop him. He would be there as soon as he could.
It was 5pm and I had to get home, just enough time to check the level of abuse on Twitter and in my inbox (feverish!).
By 6pm, Mr Williamson’s car was pulling up at my house — just in time for a quick photograph and the drive to Regency Square underground car park. (People who clearly do not know our city still seem to think we met in a car park; we did not).
Senior people at Friends’ Meeting House still did not even know about the statement issued by Quakers in Britain, let alone its contents.
Although increasingly fearful, I did not know about something that should be chilling to any democrat: At 9.11pm, a Twitter user @willuminare, with some 1,400 followers, posted an image calling for “direct action” against Chris Williamson; it included a link to a Google document aimed at harvesting details of people willing to be in Brighton and Hove during the Labour Party conference to stop Mr Williamson from speaking.
The document promises to provide templated emails “to send to venues and organisations he’s working with”. A required field in the questionnaire asks: “Can you send a Tweet, email, or phone call to venues and groups?”
And so it will go on. The well of democratic politics is well and truly poisoned. I look to our elected representatives to defend our democratic values; I do not, however, look to Mr Kyle.
More optimistically, I look to good-hearted people like the 150 and more who attended the Regency Square meeting. Because I know thousands of people like us will stand shoulder-to-shoulder in defence of Mr Williamson and in defence of democracy and free speech.
The haters, the bullies, the thugs, the cowards — and, yes, the criminals — cannot be allowed to win.
Not in our city; not in our name.