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How abuse threatens our democracy itself

(Alamy)

3 min read

The terrible murder of Sir David Amess last October reopened the debate about how to improve the security of MPs, their staff and volunteers. Questions that were asked after the death of my sister, Jo Cox, six years ago were asked once again.

Why – rarely but too often – do individuals become so consumed with hatred that they want to kill Members of Parliament? What fuels political extremism? And how can we better protect our democracy and those who work within it?

Do we need to set a better example, through our conduct and the language we use, to show that robust but respectful debate is possible without hurling insults or questioning the integrity of those we disagree with? 

MPs have been warning for years that the amount of abuse they are receiving is out of control

Like Sir David, Jo believed passionately in freedom of expression and healthy, vigorous debate. She also believed that we should be able to conduct those debates without resorting to personal abuse or seeking to provoke hatred and division in society.

With cross-party support, the Jo Cox Foundation, working alongside the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others, campaigns to bring political discourse back within the bounds of respectful debate and away from any form of intimidation or the threat of violence. We all have to take some personal responsibility. Politicians, yes, but also journalists, campaigners and the keyboard warriors who use invective to grab attention and harvest followers. How we all behave directly affects the behaviour of others. 

If we continue to get it wrong, not just individuals but democracy itself is threatened. We undermine our ability to foster strong and integrated societies, drive out extremism and encourage political participation at all levels.

Our politics should be vibrant not bland, but everything from the electoral system to the layout of the House of Commons deliberately encourages adversarial debate. This is not the place is to argue for a wholesale reform of political structures, however, but to re-examine how we work within those structures.

MPs have been warning for years that the amount of abuse they are receiving is out of control, with women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds disproportionately targeted. Just look at the number of MPs – particularly female MPs – who cited abuse and intimidation as a direct factor in their decision not to stand again at the last election. It is the fear of abuse as well as the abuse itself that is changing the way women in particular choose to campaign – or not to campaign. We must consider our physical safety on a daily basis. 

In July 2019 the Cabinet Office-led ‘Defending Democracy’ programme recognised the need to protect and secure democratic processes, encourage respect for free, fair and safe democratic participation and promote fact-based and open discourse, including online. 

Now, more than three years later, how much progress have we made? The stalled Online Safety Bill would have made a start and I hope it will be quickly revived, but we can’t just expect to legislate ourselves out of the problem. A concerted multi-sector effort is needed to stem the tide of abuse, and make the future of our precious democracy more respectful and safer than its recent past. 

We cannot, must not, shrug our shoulders and just accept intimidation as part of life in a world now dominated by what happens online as much as offline. The call for more compassionate politics is not simply about getting politicians to be nicer to each other, but to take an active lead in rejecting the abusive culture that has infected so much of our public life. Our future as an open, tolerant, inclusive democracy depends on it.

 

Kim Leadbeater, Labour MP for Batley and Spen.

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