Smashed windows, online abuse and targeting families a feature of 'kinder politics' era
This is no longer about winning arguments or votes, but about driving political opponents off the map altogether, says Simon Hart MP.
This debate is solely down to the escalation in intimidation and abuse of candidates – and others – since 2015. This is not about the usual cut and thrust of a campaign, the heated arguments or the raised tempers. We want passion and political engagement and complain enough when we don’t get it. This is about the sinister (and rapid) rise of the death threat, the anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and racism – and inevitably whether political parties or groups are quietly fanning the flames. And I ask whether the silence of political leaders when it comes to condemning acts of criminality in their name is the same has ‘giving permission’ to let rip.
It’s about broken windows, swastikas on election boards, scratched cars, online abuse and the targeting of connected families, staff and supporters - all apparently perfectly acceptable in today’s age of ‘kinder politics’.
But before you think this is just another whinge-fest for MP’s who should grow a thicker skin, it isn’t. This is about elderly people unable to demonstrate support for the candidate of their choice for fear of damaged property. Retailers and hoteliers who can no longer endorse a candidate in case it triggers a campaign of abuse on review sites and it’s about the children of candidates confused and scared by threats to their mothers and fathers dished out on Facebook or Twitter.
The debate will ask what this means for candidate recruitment and retention, the quality and diversity of those for whom politics was (but is no longer) a career to aspire to. It will ask questions of social media platforms who, on the face of it, always need dragging to a position of prompt policing rather than taking the lead in running their systems as any newspaper editor would be required (by law) to run theirs.
According to BCS - The Chartered Institute for IT in a three month period MP’s received 188,000 abusive tweets – that’s one in twenty. My former colleague Byron Davies was subject to a prolonged social media attack in which he was repeatedly accused of being under investigation for electoral fraud, a charge that was quite simply an outright lie. The police and others are still grinding their way through an investigation, legal action is being taken (at his expense) four weeks after he failed to defend his majority of 27. As BCS says, social media is being used for the purposes of a “specific democratic and societal function for which they were not designed”.
I will ask what Chief Officers are doing about small pockets of online (but public) attacks by their own staff. If a voter cannot display the party of their choice in their car or house window for fear the police might treat them differently, we have reached a potentially very low ebb.
And finally I will be asking for a political lead – for Labour to stamp on the first and faintest whiff of intimidation from their ranks and for my own Party to do likewise in ours. Not just warm words, but a full scale ‘not in my name’ approach.
This is important on so many levels. Not just because it’s turning people away from politics at a time when the opposite has never been more important, but because we are instilling the notion that institutions that warrant respect are now only worthy of contempt. Permission has been given to abuse, harass or intimidate someone for being different. This is no longer about winning arguments or votes, but about driving political opponents off the map altogether.
If a colleague mentions immigration they are a racist. If they talk about welfare reform they hate the disabled. If they mention the economy they are targeting the poor for pure sadistic pleasure. And if a Labour colleague chooses to stand up for something they believe in that isn’t part of the Corbynist agenda, they are subjected to a tirade of abuse. And God help them if they complain about it or try and support colleagues subject to similar abuse. This weekend Yvette Cooper made a series of sensible and, you would have thought, universally appropriate interventions to highlight the abuse that women, including Luciana Berger (and certain journalists) receive online from the Left; sexism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, threats of rape and murder. But instead of gaining support for doing so, she was likewise trolled.
There is no room for reasoned debate, only the certainty amongst some that those they disagree with – whether ‘Tories’ or ‘the Blairite Left’ must be stopped at all costs. That means taking to the streets in a day of rage with a “fxxx the Tories” tee shirt and an image of Theresa May’s bloodied head on a stake, whilst attempting to deselect Jewish, female, Labour MPs, and bombarding journalists doing their job impartially with threats and hatred.
I will seek the Government’s support in properly identifying the problems, assessing the fitness of existing laws in dealing with them and making recommendations where they fall short.
By not condemning this, and taking action, political leaders are endorsing it. By addressing it we have a chance of turning the tide.
Simon Hart is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.