Two councillors sent an “intimidating letter” to thousands of colleagues threatening to publish the names of anyone who was opposed to a ceasefire in Gaza.
The “abhorrent” message was sent to all 19,102 councillors in England and Wales alleging that anti-Semitism had been “weaponised” to silence those who opposed Israeli actions in the wake of the Oct 7 attacks.
The Local Government Association (LGA) said the letter “went against everything it stood for” and confirmed it was urgently investigating.
The co-authors of the letter, Cllr James Giles, an independent, and Conservative Cllr Jamal Chohan, wrote to members on Sunday asking them to sign a public letter calling for a ceasefire.
In it, the pair, both from Kingston Council, in south-west London, wrote: “To be clear and stating the obvious, anti-Semitism is wholly unacceptable.
“However, this term cannot continue to be weaponised to absolve Israel of any accountability in how it has contributed to the ongoing tensions and its failure to comply with international law.”
‘In the interest of accountability’
The councillors said that they would be publishing a list of all the people who supported the ceasefire, although anyone who “feared retribution from their parties” could be anonymous.
They then added: “We will also be publishing the names of those who have been invited to sign but choose not to, in the interest of accountability.”
The pair later backtracked after being confronted by a wave of angry responses from councillors who said the letter was “dangerous at a time when councillors were already feeling under intense pressure”.
One anonymous Labour councillor told The Telegraph she had already spoken to police after receiving death threats for her stance on the conflict.
She added: “Councillors are public property, we live in our communities, many people know where we live.
“We don’t get the same level of protection that MPs get, however, and we don’t have police protection when we are meeting the public.
“It has made me think about whether it is even worth being a councillor. The allowance is pitiful; we do it because we want to help our residents. But is it worth being this scared?”
She described the letter as “performative”, adding: “As a council, we had just been talking about safety measures that could be implemented for councillors and then this letter came out.
“The people that wrote it will know we are not protected and are saying they will name the people who don’t agree with their bullying tactics. It’s abhorrent.”
‘Big opinions and small brains’
A number of councillors, including Barnet Conservative Alex Prager, shared his response to the letter on social media.
He wrote: “If you serve your residents as a local councillor with the same passion as you perpetuate anti-Semitic tropes, you’d be doing them a real service.”
My response to Cllr Giles' despicable email, threatening non-signatories with public vilification. I have requested that my name top the list of councillors who refuse to sign the letter. pic.twitter.com/IIkWvhriMp
— Cllr Alex Prager (@CllrPrager) November 19, 2023
Cumbrian councillor Barbara Cannon, described the email as a form of “bullying”.
She added: “Today I am being asked to sign a letter or my name will be published for ‘accountability’. This is for someone I don’t represent and don’t know. It’s always men with big opinions and small brains. I won’t be signing.”
Cllr Giles, representing the Kingston Independent Residents party, previously worked alongside far-Left politician George Galloway on his unsuccessful campaign run in the Batley and Spen by-election.
Cll Chohan, a solicitor, has previously voiced his opposition to the bombardment of Gaza and claimed to be “isolated” from his party.
“I was raised with the belief that we [the UK] are keepers of peace in the world”, he said in an interview with online publication National News.
“The narrative that these children are somehow human shields is completely invalid – would you be OK with an armed officer in Kingston shooting a child as cannon fodder to apprehend a suspect?”, he added.
‘Democratic duty to engage in debate’
In a joint statement issued late on Sunday night, the pair claimed it had never been their intention to publish the names of councillors who objected.
“There is no intention to publish names of councillors that do not respond to our email, nor is there any intention to publish the names of any individuals against their will.”
They added: “We would encourage any elected representatives that have been threatened to contact the police as this cannot be tolerated. We will continue our democratic duty to engage in debate.”
Shaun Davies, the chair of the LGA, said the “strength of feeling across the party spectrum” in response to the letter was “clear”.
He added: “It goes against everything the LGA stands for – one or two elected members to seek to intimidate and threaten other elected councillors.
“I am seeking advice and consulting on next steps.”
A spokesman for Kingston Council said: “Our primary concern is the security and safety of our residents, elected members, staff and our local communities, whilst encouraging tolerance and community cohesion.
“The campaign that has been brought to our attention by many is an initiative of individual councillors and is not Kingston Council led or endorsed.
“We are currently looking into the details surrounding this matter and are unable to provide any further comment at this stage.”