Hastings and District Palestine Solidarity Campaign


Here in Hastings we have been appalled that in the days following a Hastings Borough Council meeting there have been attempts by local councillors, a prospective MP and the mayor, to smear local campaigners who have been calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

This statement has been prepared to set the record straight and to call for those responsible to be held to account.

A motion, tabled by Hastings Independents and the Green Party, acknowledged the rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism nationally in the wake of Israel's ongoing assault on Gaza - and a specific local threat of violence made by the far right against the Hastings Mosque and their children's Sunday school.

It expressed support for the Muslim community of Hastings and called for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in Gaza.

The motion was blocked from appearing on the agenda by unelected officials, supported by the Labour Mayor, as it was deemed irrelevant to the local community.

It is not the first time a motion of this kind, which is of concern to a great many in the local community, has been thwarted and deliberately kept off the council's agenda.

Indeed, it is worth noting that several motions have been brought in relation to Gaza, and questions raised by the public - all dismissed with the same argument.

Notably, similar motions relating to Gaza have been heard in councils up and down the country - including in Liverpool, Bradford, Preston, Sheffield, Bolton, Burnley, Oxford, North Somerset and the Shetland Islands.

While we question the conduct of unelected officials at Hastings council, the actions of elected councillors may also represent a formal breach of the standards of public office, known as the Nolan Principles, which demand of office holders 'honesty,' 'accountability' and 'openness.'

In the first instance, the motion was blocked on the basis that it did not relate to 'the lives of people in the Borough of Hastings,' in the full knowledge that hatred and division stoked locally has resulted in serious threats of violence to members of the Muslim community. Not to mention the clear impact on the Palestinian community in Hastings.

A Green Party statement noted the Monitoring Officer's 'repeated refusal to allow councillors to discuss or bring a motion, or allow any public questions which in any way relate to Gaza, on the grounds that the matter is not relevant to Hastings. This, despite there being incidents of both antisemitism and Islamophobia within our community recently.'

The decision was described by the Hastings Trades Council as 'astounding.'

It is understood the Mayor Margi O'Callaghan could have allowed the motion to go forward on the agenda in the interests of accountability and openness - she didn't.

Then, seconds into the meeting, when a member of the public asked whether it would be heard, the meeting was immediately adjourned.

As substantiated by video recording, there is one person speaking and a handful of members of the public silently standing holding signs: 'Don't Stand By.' The legal officer confirmed the motion was not on the agenda and would not be discussed. Some councillors at this point started to leave the chambers. Then the police were called. It was not clear why.

Video footage shows a police officer stating categorically that no allegation had been made, he did not know why he was there and that everyone in the chamber seemed 'calm' and 'happy.'

Members of the public left the meeting by 6.30pm of their own accord to ensure the meeting went on. At this point it was expected the meeting would resume. It didn't. The entire meeting was cancelled - again, it is not clear why.

By the following morning Labour politicians were 'spinning' to the press.

Margi O'Callaghan was on Danny Pike's BBC Radio Sussex breakfast show claiming that she had decided to close the meeting after residents at the meeting were asked to leave and refused.

'It was clear they weren't going anywhere,' she claimed. Further, she stated: 'It was quite clear this was going to go on and it wasn't going to stop.'

Following this, she claimed that, in consultation with the CEO of the council Jane Hartnell, she decided to cancel the meeting altogether because it was 'really late,' there was nothing 'urgent' on the agenda and so she decided to put the meeting 'on the backburner.'

There are a number of falsehoods here. Nobody was asked to leave the meeting. Not one person.

Far from it being clear the residents 'weren't going anywhere,' residents left of their own accord by 6.30pm. This is not late. By Ms O'Callaghan's own admission, only 40 minutes had passed which means by 6.40pm councillors were ready to resume the meeting. Council meetings have been known to go on until 11pm.

So why didn't the meeting carry on? Councillors were immediately appealing to the mayor to restart the meeting, even offering to chair in her place. This offer was refused.

It was clear from other statements released by members of the local Labour party that there was a deliberate attempt to 'spin' a reason, with Councillor Heather Bishop, leader of the Labour group releasing a statement: 'When such protests prevent the ability of democratically elected councillors to meet to discuss and make decisions on important issues that matter to local residents, they move beyond legitimate protest and into mob rule.'

This was followed by a statement by Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate Helen Dollimore. Ms Dollimore, who was not present at the council meeting, accused those who had come to hear the motion as seeking to 'undermine local democracy,' further that it was 'bullying and intimidation' and a 'line had been crossed.'

This statement stands in stark contrast to the actual events of the evening, as documented on camera, and, as Councillor Andy Batsford stated on Wednesday evening after leaving the meeting:
'The people that came and made their points clear but succinctly, I think they should be commended and the meeting should have carried on.'

The residents of Hastings have been seriously let down by Labour party office holders failing to uphold the Nolan Principles. First, in allowing the motion to be blocked on spurious grounds, failing the accountability principle. Secondly, in making opaque decisions about the necessity to stop all council business, failing the openness principle. Thirdly, in misrepresenting the events of that night, failing the honesty principle.

Further, as evidenced by various statements released by local Labour party representatives and in contradiction to video footage and contemporaneous reports from those present, there appears to have been a coordinated effort to smear concerned residents as a 'mob' and shut down local democracy to save Labour from an awkward discussion.

All this against a backdrop of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric at a national level where those who have peacefully marched against the Conservative government and Labour Party's backing of Israel's actions in Gaza have been labelled 'hate marchers,' 'antisemitic' and 'extremist.' despite polls consistently showing their views to be shared by the overwhelming majority in this country.

This effects of this rhetoric, repeated locally, is now being felt on the streets of Hastings with threats of violence and abuse being directed to the Muslim community. This needs to be taken seriously.

The Nolan principles are there to ensure the highest standards of integrity in public life and apply to anyone who works as a public officer holder.

We believe there are serious questions to answer about what happened before, during and after Wednesday's meeting. We hope this will be investigated and relevant groups will issue public statements to correct the harmful disinformation they have disseminated.

24 March 2024


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