How the Assembly’s most short-lived member lost it all within days

For a politician well-known for just getting on with things John Dixon seems to be remarkably adept at accidentally finding controversy in the unlikeliest of places.

Like the time when he tweeted about the Church of Scientology which resulted in him being dragged before the Cardiff council standards and ethics committee.

Or when he went to a gaming convention in Malta dressed as Donald Trump and ended up fronting the country’s next tourism ad campaign.

Or when he was elected as AM for the Welsh Assembly only to be disqualified less than two weeks later earning him the title of the Assembly’s most short-lived member and nearly facing a charge of election fraud.

It was that last one that really affected him though – it knocked his confidence and he was left having to rebuild his life. It’s the main reason why Councillor Dixon has taken a step back from public life for a while – even though he vowed to fight back at the time.

John Dixon, the Assembly's most short-lived member, lost his hard-won seat within days over a paperwork blunder
John Dixon, the Assembly’s most short-lived member, lost his hard-won seat within days over a paperwork blunder
(Image: WalesOnline/Gayle Marsh)

When I meet John, on his lunch break from his job as a partnership and development manager for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), it’s difficult to imagine him ever doing anything controversial – let alone commit election fraud. He is wearing a burgundy sweater over a paisley burgundy shirt and his eyes are kind as he smiles between sips of his coffee.

He is a softly-spoken man as he thinks back to how that tweet blew up in his face and how he’d been within touching distance of the Senedd.

He starts off with his infamous tweet, which he posted while he sat on the Cardiff council executive and was responsible for health, social, and wellbeing. At the time, the Liberal Democrat councillor, who represented Adamsdown, had been in politics for a decade after first being elected in 1999.

“I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road,” he wrote while on a wedding ring-buying mission to London in 2008. “Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.” Fairly innocuous you might think – the kind of thing people write on Twitter all the time.

In a follow-up comment after the Scientologists registered to receive all his Twitter posts he posted: “Just realised the Scientologists are following me. Quick everyone, pretend you’re out.”

John's innocuous tweet, which he posted on a whim when he spotted the Scientology building in Tottenham Court Road in London, would come back to haunt him six months later
John’s innocuous tweet, which he posted on a whim when he spotted the Scientology building in Tottenham Court Road in London, would come back to haunt him six months later
(Image: Google Maps)

But one Scientologist came across that tweet six months later and took personal offence. They complained to the local government ombudsman for Wales that this brief aside, from an obscure Cardiff councillor, “impinged on their right to religious freedom”.

And the ombudsman – not swung by the fact that Scientology wasn’t considered a religion in Britain and didn’t, for example, enjoy the tax benefits that brings – thought he or she had a point. John was subsequently dragged through a disciplinary hearing – much to the delight of not just the Welsh national media but the London-based press too. He even made an appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight.

“I can honestly say that I didn’t really understand what was happening,” said John. “I had just gone into a meeting and when I came out I had a dozen missed calls and hundreds of new notifications from Twitter,” he chuckled.

There was even a hashtag – #stupidscientology – trending on Twitter. By that lunchtime he had 500 emails notifying him that people had started following his Twitter account and he had about a dozen missed messages from various news services of the BBC, ITV, the Telegraph, and Guardian.

“That’s the point when I realised something was up,” he said. It was still in the early days of social media and he was wholly naïve about the impact of his six-month-old tweet. He regrets that Newsnight appearance believing he appeared there not because his story was thought particularly important by their editors by comparison with other events of the day but because Twitter users had made it important.

In the end Cardiff council’s standards and ethics committee cleared him of any wrongdoing but they did follow it up with a major overhaul in social media training.

John was unceremoniously ousted from his Assembly seat after just 13 days leaving him ‘devastated’
(Image: WalesOnline/Gayle Marsh)

He can laugh about it now, 12 years later, but it did raise some questions over freedom of speech at the time. “I was completely bemused by it,” John explains. “I thought they had no grounds for it and just believed they would throw it out but they didn’t.

“It was escalated up the chain. I was told I had to provide my version and I thought once they heard that they will throw it out then but they didn’t.

“I didn’t know which way it would swing. But once they had read out the decision and the report the non-council members said: ‘Well this is a load of rubbish’ and that’s when I realised this was going to be okay.”

John found his case used by other councils as a “sort of case study” in how not to tweet. “I was in the vanguard,” he says, with more than a hint of irony. “I can remember receiving my social media training after. It was like bolting the stable door when the horse is two miles away.”

While John managed to walk away from that controversy with his integrity and reputation intact it was not quite so straightforward when it came to the 2011 Assembly elections the following year.

Although 2021 marks a decade since that debacle he is still scarred by the experience which would come to define his political career.

John had already stood for as an assembly candidate at two previous elections and went into this one not really expecting to win. In fact on election night he had been at the count and decided he was a lost cause and took his campaign team off for a very early breakfast at the nearest Wetherspoons.

“I’d done the maths and it just didn’t seem to work,” he explained. “So we headed off for an early breakfast – I think I took the team to Wetherspoons or something.

“But then I got a call saying I had to come back and to bring everyone with me. Incredibly the Lib Dems had lost Cardiff Central but had won the fourth regional seat.”

But just 13 days after he was elected the new Lib Dem AM was disqualified from sitting in the Assembly because he was still a member of the Care Council of Wales, a hangover from his role in social care at Cardiff council.

John, in 2011, speaking at a Cardiff Business Club event before he landed himself an Assembly regional list seat
John, in 2011, speaking at a Cardiff Business Club event before he landed himself an Assembly regional list seat
(Image: Mirrorpix)

After he was unceremoniously ousted he admitted being “devastated” by the affair and accused AMs from other parties of acting politically and not considering the evidence.

But it wasn’t just his Assembly dreams that were destroyed. That first week, before he knew his new job would be over before it had even begun, there was very little to do and he spent his time “completely erasing” his former life.

“I wasn’t really expected to win,” he says. “I had to go into work and say: ‘You know I wasn’t going to win? Well, I did’.”

He resigned from his job in the cabinet planning a “neat moment” where the old life ended and the new life began at the forthcoming annual meeting. But then someone noticed he was still a member of the Care Council for Wales – a public body to which AMs, as they still were then, cannot belong.

A subsequent investigation said he did not check the relevant rules for candidates. “Perhaps because he was lulled into a false sense of security by his experiences in earlier elections he honestly believed that he was eligible to be a member of the National Assembly,” said a report by assembly standards commissioner Gerard Elias QC at the time.

“There’s a clause that we now know about and there’s paperwork in place but, at the time, we didn’t know,” John says ruefully.

“Mine was the first case in 100 years, since even the law was written. I know why it’s there – it’s there to protect Parliament and the Assembly from undue influence.”

It led to questions about election fraud and at one point CID got involved. Criminal charges were not impossible at a time when Keir Starmer, the now Labour leader, was the director of public prosecutions.

The novelty of the case, which had the potential to change case law, saw offers of free representation pour in and John was not short of support. But after preparing his statement for the police he came to a realisation.

“It had the potential to get quite unpleasant,” he says sadly. “Edwina Hart and Rhodri Morgan seemed quite relaxed about it. I thought people could see I was a decent guy and it was oversight rather than a criminal act.

“But that election had seen an intake with a lot of new Labour faces and they wanted a scalp. I knew my case was a weak one.”

Even now, a decade later, John is still disappointed that some of his political colleagues didn't support him
Even now, a decade later, John is still disappointed that some of his political colleagues didn’t support him
(Image: WalesOnline/Gayle Marsh)

Speaking at the time John said: “I thought that if the police exonerated me and it was shown that I had done nothing improper there was no reason why I shouldn’t return to the Assembly. But then the politics kicked in.”

All AMs, apart from the five Lib Dems and Plaid’s Dafydd Elis Thomas, were determined not to lift his disqualification. It’s a bitter pill to swallow which felt a little bit like a betrayal and has left a sour taste in his mouth to this day.

“I held my hands up,” he says carefully. “At the end of the day it was my fault. But I’d have thought some people would have spoken up for me – they knew me.

“I thought there was a principle at stake – you need to be able to prove your innocence. I hoped their experience of my character would have convinced them. I had political friendships and relationships and I genuinely believed in improving the lives of the people I represented.

“But people are in it [politics] for more personal reasons and personal status. There are people in positions of authority today who I worked with all those years ago so I have to be careful.

“I could always find some part of them to work with. But this process knocked the shine off it a bit.”

Once the furore had died down and the press had stopped hounding him John was left having to rebuild his life from the bottom up.

He could count on the unwavering support of his wife Mary but he’d already left his day job as a web developer and had resigned as Cardiff council’s executive member for social care and health. By the time of his disqualification he hadn’t worked for two months apart from some graphic design freelance work. He needed a plan.

Never say never: John hasn't completely ruled out bidding to make it back to the Assembly
Never say never: John hasn’t completely ruled out bidding to make it back to the Assembly
(Image: WalesOnline/Gayle Marsh)

John’s entry into politics was never really part of his grand life plan – he only stood as a councillor in 1999 because he was unimpressed by a response he’d got from a local elected representative.

“I had written to a councillor and was very dissatisfied by the response I got and thought I could do a better job than that,” he says. Even so despite standing as a candidate in Adamsdown, driven by the thought of improving people’s lives in the “southern arc of deprived communities”, he didn’t think he had any real chance of winning.

“Initially it was fun,” he recalls, describing some of his more light-hearted campaign literature. “We would be in so much trouble for some of the stuff we put out. It was all quite tongue in cheek. We would be in the pub literally giggling over copy in the next leaflet.”

Yet it worked and John found himself elected, overturning a not insignificant Labour majority at the time. “We proved them wrong,” he says, barely hiding an expression of satisfaction. John found himself in local politics at a difficult time – he was part of the largest opposition party and the council was going through the unitary authority mergers.

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By 2004, when he was re-elected for a second term, the Lib Dems were a minority administration and John was volunteered for a post in the cabinet.

“I always joke that I went to the loo at the wrong time,” he chuckles. “When I came back everyone was sitting there with a smile on their face.” He was the “fluffiest” of the group, he says, which is why he found himself nominated and voted on as the executive member for health, social care, and wellbeing.

“I knew nothing about it but I am a caring person who always worked hard to work with people from across the other parties,” he says. “Social care can be a political football and I had no experience going into it.”

John inherited an adult and children’s services department in special measures. “As a minority administration we had to work across party lines,” continues John. “I’m quite proud that I managed to put quite a few controversial things through.

“The first four years were difficult and we did finally get out of special measures in 2005. That was a big moment.

“As I learned about social care I became more and more passionate about it. When it came to health and social care no-one was really talking about social care but only the NHS and I was determined to change that.”

John still holds his head up high about his political career and it’s clear he really cares about his work. He did stand for election again after his Assembly experience – defending his council seat in Adamsdown in 2012. But in a shock defeat he lost out to Labour’s Manzoor Ahmed. He tried again five years later but didn’t manage to make a comeback in the 2017 local elections.

He has a genuine drive to make things better something he’s carried through into his role at the RNIB. “People will vote and say yes they’ve done that,” he goes on. “But if you really want to effect change you’ve got to get in there.

“There are people who look at a problem and say: ‘Something should be done’. And then there are people who say: ‘I’m going to do something about that’.”

John is firmly in the latter camp, adding that he believes in “rolling my sleeves up”. So does that mean we will see him standing again in a Welsh election any time soon?

“After the 2011 election I needed a break. I’ve stood a few times but I feel that there’s more to do with my life,” he says. “I’m the chair of governors at two schools and the chair of the local Pact (Police and Communities Together) so I’m still active in the community

“But that even takes its toll. I don’t want to say never in the Assembly.”

At least now he has time to indulge in two of his favourite pastimes – whisky tasting and online gaming. As he gets up to head back to his office after a slightly longer than planned lunch he casually mentions a trip to Malta a few years back with some of the friends he’d met through the gaming world.

They’d agreed to go in fancy dress and plumped for a Donald Trump theme with one person taking the role of Trump and the rest acting as his secret service entourage.

As John explains how he accidentally managed to sign himself up to be Trump I sense a common theme emerging in his life. The group were convincing and kept the act up for the entire trip – so much so that the Maltese tourism board ended up featuring them in their next tourism ad.

It’s difficult to marry the image of John in a Trump-esque wig with the man stood before me. At best the only similarities between the two men is a slightly suspect Twitter record with a tendency to cause controversy with a single tweet.

John might be an “introverted extrovert” but he undoubtedly has a wicked sense of humour and the Assembly’s loss is certainly the RNIB’s gain.

WalesOnline – Cardiff