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People Find Abuse More Acceptable When Directed At Politicians

Michael Gove with police protection after Brexit debate, 2019 (Credit: Homer Sykes / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

A new opinion survey has found that people think threatening or abusive behaviour is more acceptable when directed at politicians, rather than ordinary members of the public.

The Electoral Commission surveyed 6,000 people across the UK in February of this year as part of its annual public opinion tracker, with the full results to be published in June.

For most age groups, intimidating behaviour – such as mocking or posting offensive comments on social media, using "foul language", or verbally mocking or threatening in public – was found to be more acceptable when directed at a politician rather than a member of the public.

Mocking politicians on social media was the most acceptable of the behaviours tested across all age groups. Around 46 per cent of young people (aged 34 and under) found this an acceptable means of interacting with MPs, compared with around 10 per cent finding it acceptable to mock other members of the public online.

The study found that younger age groups were consistently more likely than older age groups to find threatening and abusive behaviours directed at politicians acceptable. For instance, 25 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds found using “foul language” to address politicians acceptable, compared to four per cent of 65 to 74 year olds.

But all age groups saw mocking politicians in public as more acceptable than making offensive posts about them on social media – revealing a confidence among the public to confront MPs in public, not just online.  

With a general election scheduled for 4 July, MPs will be knocking on doors up and down the country, campaigning for votes. However, MPs and candidates are growing increasingly concerned about their own safety, with attacks on politicians becoming more frequent in recent years. Since 2015, spending to keep MPs and their staff safe has gone from £160,000 to more than £4m.

The recent conflict in Gaza has spurred renewed vitriol directed at politicians. In November, Labour MP for Slough Tan Dhesi received death threats after abstaining on a Scottish National Party motion that called for a ceasefire in Gaza. The constituency office of Labour MP for Cardiff Central Jo Stevens was branded with “murderer” in red paint, and posters saying she had “blood on her hands” were pasted onto the glass. Labour’s Bradford West MP Naz Shah, who quit her frontbench role to back a ceasefire, said she faced “threatening Islamophobic abuse” following the vote.

Many MPs are now taking extra measures – wearing stab vests and carrying alarms, for instance – to protect themselves when interacting with the public.

In February, the government announced £31m for additional security measures to keep locally elected representatives safe. Security minister Tom Tugendhat told all MPs that the government would give police more resources, increase private-sector security provision for those at higher risk, and expand cybersecurity advice. 

Wendy Chamberlain, Liberal Democrat Chief Whip and MP for North East Fife, has requested a Scotland-specific ministerial communication on election security preparedness.

She said: “This data is quite alarming to say the least, abuse towards public figures of any kind is unacceptable. Regardless of opinions and political stances, we have seen the tragedy which abuse towards politicians can inflict and no one should be on the receiving end of that.

“It is also important to acknowledge that we as politicians have a responsibility to set an example of what treatment is acceptable. We should all be mindful of the language we use and the nature in which we act.”

Vijay Rangarajan, chief executive of the Electoral Commission, said: “Candidates and campaigners are key to our democracy. People interested in serving in public office must not be dissuaded from running for fear of abuse and intimidation. We are concerned about the impact that intimidation is having on the safety of candidates and on the diversity of those who wish to stand. This has a knock-on impact on voter choice.

“As the General Election campaign kicks off, it’s important that candidates feel safe. Debate and disagreement are part and parcel of campaigning, but it can and should take place without anyone experiencing threats, abuse or intimidation. There is a difference between legitimate campaigning and intimidating, abusive behaviour. We encourage voters and campaigners to engage respectfully and constructively with opposing viewpoints.  

“In order to help protect candidates from intimidation and abuse, we are providing support during the campaign period. The Commission is working with police forces on guidance on safe campaigning, and we are on hand to offer support and advice. We are urging anyone on the receiving end of abuse, threats or intimating behaviour to report it to the police.”

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