Abuse of politicians reaching a tipping point, says watchdog
Committee looking into election intimidation New law may be proposed to reduce harassment
A wave of intimidation and abuse directed at parliamentary candidates has taken British politics to a “tipping point” and risks driving politicians out of public life, the chair of the standards watchdog said.
Paul Bew, who chairs the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which Theresa May has charged with looking into abuse and intimidation of candidates at the general election, has said he may recommend new laws to combat the issue.
The problem was highlighted during a debate in Westminster Hall last week, when a number of MPs outlined their experience of such behaviour, including racism, antisemitism and death threats.
The prime minister said she was “horrified by stories from colleagues about the scale and nature of the intimidation, bullying and harassment they suffered during the general election”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, Lord Bew said one possibility was to recommend new laws. “We are in a bad moment and we have to respond to it,” he said. “We cannot afford to lose people of quality in our public life and we may be approaching a tipping point.”
A party political element has emerged, with Labour accusing the Conservatives of portraying the issue as mainly one experienced by Tory candidates, even though Labour MPs were abused from the right “on an industrial scale” on social media.
Bew said such disputes risked missing the point: “Above all, we do need leadership from parliament itself.” His aim, he said, was to ensure public debate remained “vigorous” but steered clear of “nastiness and hatred”.
Many MPs have improved their security since the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a rightwing extremist in 2016, but a large number complained of a new level of harassment in the run-up to the 8 June vote. Simon Hart, the Conservative MP who called the Westminster Hall debate, said the Tory whips’ office had been dealing with “at least three credible threats to colleagues every week, including death threats, criminal damage, sexism, racism, homophobia, antisemitism and general thuggishness”.
He said he considered elections to be a few weeks of “robust banter followed by a shake of the hand” when he was first elected in 2010, but the latest contest was characterised by “swastikas on election boards, offensive slogans on posters”.
Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, told the debate she suffered racist abuse “over and over again” every day, both online and offline. “I’ve had people tweeting that I should be hung if ‘they could find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight’.”
Paul Bew, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said public debate should be vigorous but avoid ‘nastiness and hatred’