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Violence in politics is perverting our democracy – but it need not be a given

3 min read

In the past seven years two Members of our Parliament have been murdered including my much-loved Essex neighbour, Sir David Amess.

Another two colleagues have been lucky to escape with their lives after extremely violent attacks. Threats to MPs have become almost commonplace. One female colleague recently explained to me that she had received three death threats in one week alone, and another spent her birthday “dealing with” a constituent who was threatening to slit her throat and that of her staff. Another of my female colleagues has said publicly that she always wears a stab vest for her constituency surgeries.

 This week an MP told me that she would not be standing for election again. She rolled her eyes as she spoke about having to put a restraining order on a constituent who was threatening her safety. Needing to use restraining orders is not unusual.

It is not just women MPs who face threats. Stuart Anderson MP, a former soldier, recently explained to his local newspaper that his family had been forced to move home following continuous threats and violence.

Fear of violence puts people off standing for election, and thus perverts our democracy. I know that the Speaker of the House of Commons treats this, and the safety of politicians, extremely seriously.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) is the global organisation of national parliaments. It works to empower parliaments and parliamentarians to promote peace, democracy and sustainable development. The organisation has done extremely helpful research into violence against parliamentarians in the past. In many different countries, politicians have faced increased violent online threats. However, the UK is an outlier in the western world for the number of “real world” violent attacks.

Many UK parliamentarians have told me they are concerned that the online violence which was so prevalent in the past two UK elections may turn into more real world attacks as the next election draws closer. I have asked the IPU to look at research into what has happened in recent elections in other parts of the world. Have they seen an increase in online or offline violence? And, most importantly, what has worked in other countries to counter this?

We should not take it for granted that our next election will bring violence. A year ago it was widely expected that the upcoming elections in Kenya would be violent, as so many previous elections in that country had been. However, when the election came it was largely peaceful, even though the result was incredibly close.

This was not just luck. In Kenya there was a concerted effort to maintain peace. Party leaders made it extremely clear that anyone using hate speech would be immediately expelled from their parties. Civil society, business heads, religious leaders and diplomats worked together to give clear consistent messages urging for calm.

We should not take violence in our politics as a given. If we want free and fair democratic processes, and safe elections then we all need to play our part.

We should all be mindful that the words we use have consequences, ensure our own actions demonstrate respect for those with different views and be prepared to learn lessons from what has worked in other countries.

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