Cancelled by my own party leader

Cancelled by my own party leader

Mar 24, 2023

I didn’t set out to be a politician, the work I was doing led me into the role. In 2016 I founded a community interest company promoting volunteering and community involvement. We saved a library from closure and during covid we launched a telephone befriending service, started to manage a local community centre and launched Eastbourne’s first community fridge. I was described as a community champion, an ‘all round good egg’ and last year the CIC was awarded the Queens Award for Voluntary Service (the charity equivalent of an MBE) and I was awarded a BEM.

Against this backdrop, I became involved in politics as a local councillor. I was horrified by the rise of Farage and the increasing levels of hate aimed at migrants and refugees and wanted to fight against his type of politics. I stepped into the role to fight for social justice and was well on my way to standing as a Parliamentary candidate for the Lib Dems.

Shortly after I was awarded the BEM though, that all fell apart, when I tweeted in response to the government electronically tagging some migrants. I made a comparison between the tagging of refugees by our government and the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear leading up to the holocaust. Thousands of people made the same comparison; however, Eastbourne Conservative MP Caroline Ansell took umbrage with my comment and asked me to retract it. I refused, so she contacted the Holocaust Education Trust and they backed up her claim of holocaust distortion. Ed Davey visited Eastbourne shortly after this incident and she sabotaged his trip by issuing a press release the same day, calling for action against me. Sadly, and to my utter amazement, he fell into her trap, and issued a knee jerk statement that I had ‘apologised, removed the comment, and had agreed to attend antisemitism training (none of which was true). He had essentially thrown me under the bus to protect the party from any accusations of antisemitism without investigating the matter. The fact that I hadn’t been antisemitic at all (even the Tories hadn’t accused me of that) didn’t seem to matter. I expected the Tories to attack me, they did frequently, but I did not expect to be attacked by my own party leader, who was not interested in the context, the facts or what was right or wrong. Distancing himself from me was his only interest, so he cancelled his planned visit to meet with me and a group of fellow cost of living campaigners that day. I even offered to leave the community centre so he could speak to the assembled group without me, but he wouldn't risk the meeting at the centre as I was 'too associated with it'.

When I learned about the holocaust in school, we were taught the importance of remembering what happened, so it never happens again. Ironic then, that HET now shut down any comparisons when people see them, mainly it seems at the instigation of Tory MPs who seem to be using this as a tactic Nationally to stop criticism of their policies. I asked for a meeting with HET to discuss the issue, and whilst I agree that tagging migrants is not likely to lead to anything as horrific as genocide, I still think that this policy, and many others we have seen from the Conservatives over the last few years, do compare to policies seen in Germany on the lead up to the Holocaust, and it’s vital that people like myself and Gary Lineker, passionate about human rights, need to be able to draw comparisons where they exist without being shut down by HET or anyone else. The irony that Ed Davey supported Gary Lineker's position (when that position was popular) was not lost on me, nor that Ed himself then tweeted to make a direct comparison with the Nazi Germany.

Shortly after these events I moved to Somerset to live with my parents as my father was ill. He died recently, the same week an internal complaint I made against Ed Davey was rejected by the Lib Dems. It had taken 10 months for a response. I felt he had accused me of antisemitism publicly and without justification. The party decided that essentially, he had done what he needed to do to protect the party. It’s so disappointing to me that my own party leader would show such weakness, but since my involvement in politics I’ve learnt that many politicians see winning elections as the goal, no matter the cost. It’s not though, and never should be. Working towards an equitable society that works for everyone should be the goal, getting elected is important but politicians must never lose sight of why they want that role. When politicians are too afraid to speak out on the issues, they are useless to those they serve.

I don’t blame Ed Davey himself, he was probably badly advised on the day, but I do blame a system that seeks to cover itself rather than do the right thing. I was told to retract my statement by a party representative ‘because no politician would ever recover from an accusation related to antisemitism’. If a politician is antisemitic, quite right too, the trouble is that ‘holocaust distortion’ is now a phrase that weaponises the holocaust and stops any comparisons in their tracks. We must remember the holocaust, we must draw comparisons where they exist, and we must stop cancelling people who say something we don’t agree with. Healthy debate is an essential part of our society that transcends left or right politics, but we are in danger of creating a society where every opposing opinion is suppressed by those in a position of power.

After the Liberal Democrat party rejected my complaint I wrote to the Green Party and sent them a complete chronology of events around my Tweet. I told them I wanted to join the Party, however they needed to be aware of my Tweet and understand that I still stand by it. They did what the Lib Dems should have done. They investigated, sought the opinion of their Jewish group of members (who offered me their support), held a vote about my membership and then welcomed me to the Party. Quick, efficient, and fair. It took them three days to make a decision on the matter.

As for me, I need to settle into my new life in Somerset and mourn the loss of my Dad. I was often described as an ‘outspoken woman’ in Eastbourne and that won’t change. I’m already forming a network of good people around me that care about the world. I’ll still write on subjects I’m passionate about and fight for an equitable society in my own way. As a member of the Green Party, I’ll continue to do what I can to make the world a better place, I’ll do what I think is right and I’ll support others doing the same. At the end of the day, that’s all any of us can and should do, whether we’re politicians or not.

Helen Burton BEM


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