Not for the first time since the coronavirus crisis began, controversy has hit Derbyshire. While the other week it was the county’s finest sending up drones to spy on and shame people walking in the Peak District, this week it's a Labour councillor who has had the whip withdrawn and lost her job at a law firm for saying something nasty about Boris Johnson on the internet.
Sheila Oakes, who is also the mayor of the Derbyshire town of Heanor, made a fool of herself the other day on Facebook. In response to another post, encouraging people to pray for the PM, she said that Johnson, who has just come out of intensive care with coronavirus, ‘completely deserves’ to be laid up because he is ‘one of the worst PMs we’ve ever had’.
When challenged on her comments, Oakes doubled down, saying ‘Johnson has done absolutely nothing for the UK -- have you heard how the nurses and doctors have no PPE, that there were not enough ventilators, that the NHS is massively underfunded and yet it is having to deal with this virus’. It was nasty, callous stuff. But what came next was also pretty worrying.
A horrible remark on her private page suddenly became national news. A petition went around demanding she be sacked. Labour swiftly withdrew the whip from her. And now we learn that she has also lost her job at a local law firm where she was a paralegal. Despite conceding her ‘posts were made in a personal capacity’, the firm said it had to take ‘swift and decisive action’.
In response to the backlash, Oakes apologised and said she regretted her comments. By means of explanation, she said she was ‘concerned about the doctors and nurses who have not got protection equipment who are getting sick and dying themselves’ and that her comments were ‘said in anger’. She apologised ‘unreservedly’, before adding ‘we all make mistakes, including Boris Johnson’.
That sly dig at the end might make some of us question the sincerity of her apology. Among some Labourites, there is certainly a tribal hatred of Tories so intense that expressing a bit of common humanity towards them can prove remarkably difficult. But should what a local politician said on Facebook in the heat of the moment really be something worth getting upset about?
Yes, Oakes is a public figure, albeit one who is probably unknown even to many of her own constituents. Still, politicians serve the public and their parties, and Labour is free to suspend or expel whoever it pleases. But that this wasn’t enough, that she also had to be dobbed into her employers and deprived of her livelihood entirely, is a different issue altogether.
Across social media, people who had no idea who she was, but were ostentatiously appalled at what she said, agitated for her to be sacked, tweeting screenshots at Piers Morgan and others in the hopes they'd shine a light on this heretic. It was the mirror image version of the sorts of mad intolerant mobbings left-wing tweeters routinely carry out against people on the right.
Over the past few days, there has been an unmistakable appetite on right-leaning Twitter for examples of left-wing people being mean about our hospitalised PM. But demand has definitely outstripped supply. This is not to say there aren’t some nasty pieces of work on the left, nor that we shouldn’t condemn such behaviour. But obsessing over a handful of idiots is not particularly positive, either.
The point here is that Twittermobs like this are often more about the mob than the target. They are driven not by genuine – or proportionate – outrage at what someone or some people have said, but out of a desire to express one’s moral goodness against the spectre of some chosen demon. In this respect, the online right are increasingly co-opting the tactics of the left.
None of this is to say that what Sheila Oakes said wasn’t wrong and vile. It was. But in a more healthy political climate, this controversy would have stayed in Derbyshire where it belongs.