'We must act on abuse in public life – or we risk the subversion of our democracy'

MPs and their staff are on the receiving end of more direct and indirect threats than ever before. We must fight to preserve the integrity of our system, writes Simon Hart

Police outside Parliament

In the last year or so the number of reported threats against MPs has risen by 126%. These are not just any threats, but those which are sufficiently serious as to warrant police action. What’s more they aren’t just directed at MP’s but at staff, family and volunteers too. 

There are plenty of people out there who think this is all part of the rough and tumble of politics and even self-inflicted – let’s face it, we don’t exactly behave with much decorum in the Commons chamber and this, coupled with the claim that we ignore public sentiment anyway, creates an environment where it is easy to say we deserve everything we get. 

But my debate on Tuesday is not about protecting famously brittle political egos. Never has politics (at all its many levels) needed to attract the best of society more than it does now. Elected office should be revered across the land, with long waiting lists for the privilege of serving our communities. The motive should be driven by a public service ethic, not a career ambition. Yet the erosion of public confidence in who we are, as well as what we do – inflamed by a frequently lazy media characterisation – has exactly the opposite effect.

When I last held a debate on this topic, just after an especially toxic 2017 GE, there seemed to be a cross-party consensus that “something must be done”. And to be fair all the main parties have ground their way towards something resembling a common code.

The government too has turned commitment into action and the recent “online harms” white paper should continue to drive some long overdue cultural change. Yet despite this, staff and colleagues have been on the receiving end of more direct and indirect threats than ever before. It upsets families, deters volunteers, and drives voters away from us. Those who put up with it alter their lifestyles to minimise the impact. We close our social media presence when we should be embracing wider numbers. Our offices and homes are fast resembling high street banks rather than the warm accessible places they should be for our communities. Some people even change their voting patterns to minimise the incoming abuse even if the evidence, and their own consciences, point elsewhere.

'The reality that some politicians now routinely need police protection at public events should be greeted as a scandal - yet it's fast becoming the norm'

The result of further inactivity will be to increase the gap between parliament and people; the erosion of freedom of speech and a reduction of candidates from the sort of diverse backgrounds we should be encouraging and welcoming. The raft of examples of anti-Semitism directed at political figures is as disgraceful as it is mystifying. The reality that some politicians now routinely have to have police protection at public events should be greeted as a scandal – yet it's fast becoming the norm.

Nor is intimidation the exclusive preserve of the left or the right. There are examples from all sides, but the toxicity unleashed by Brexit is beyond dispute too. As the former head of MI5 and Chair of the Committee for Standards in Public Life said recently: “If the decisions MPs make start to be altered as a result of threats and intimidation, that amounts to subversion of the democratic system and would be a dark day for our country.”

At least three things need to happen. Firstly political parties (all of them…) need to further embrace the need to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to enforcing robust codes of practice. Secondly, the police and CPS need to react more quickly in the event of intimidation reports. To be fair they too are increasing the momentum in this area. Thirdly, let’s see some evidence of responsibility being shown by the social media platforms who host a substantial amount of this material.

There are of course numerous other solutions too, ranging from the role of schools in helping kids fully understand what to do and not do online, to the full force of Government intervention. Maybe preserving the integrity of our systems is worthy of the full range – we shall see.

 

Article originally published on PoliticsHome, 20/05/19. https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/home-affairs/policing/house/house-magazine/103948/simon-hart-we-must-act-abuse-public-life-%E2%80%93