The House

How abuse threatens our democracy itself

- Labour MP for Batley and Spen Kim Leadbeater

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?

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.

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

 ?? ??
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom