Crucial report will help fight abuse of politicians

By Martin Bright, October 30, 2013
Called a "Jewish pig": Lee Scott

Called a "Jewish pig": Lee Scott

We like to reassure ourselves with the idea that UK election campaigns are a model of propriety: a mixture of healthy, robust knockabout and charming amateurishness.

Despite recurring stories in recent years about postal-vote fraud, it is probably still safe to say that our elections remain among the least corrupt in the world.

But there are worrying signs of growing misconduct in campaigning, where candidates have been targeted for their ethnicity, sexual orientation and even for having a history of mental health problems.

All indications suggest that the next election will be a closely-fought contest, with neither main party confident of outright victory.

This is why this week’s report by the All-Party Committee into Electoral Conduct is such an important piece of work.

MPs do not often elicit sympathy when under attack

Chaired by Natascha Engel, the Labour MP for North East Derbyshire, the committee identified serious failings in the bodies responsible for monitoring electoral campaigns: the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Electoral Commission.

But it also placed a degree of blame at the feet of the political parties themselves for failing to control abuse meted out in local party literature and by third-party interest groups that often attach themselves to campaigns.

MPs can be sensitive souls and they do not often elicit public sympathy when under attack. But some of the evidence heard by the committee was genuinely shocking.

Lee Scott, the Conservative MP for Ilford North, who was called a “dirty Jewish pig” while campaigning in 2010, said he had to be accompanied by police to hustings and had a panic button installed in his house following death threats.

“I’m just not sure it’s worth it for my family to have this level of abuse,” he said. Former Labour minister Parmjit Dhanda, who has a Punjabi Sikh background, reported that a severed pig’s head had been left outside his home following his election defeat.

However, much of the abuse suffered by candidates is not so explicit, with barbs about a candidate’s background such as “I bet his father wasn’t at Dunkirk”.

Mr Dhanda said that one of the problems of dealing with abuse that came in the form of nods and winks was that candidates did not want to appear weak or discourage other ethnic minority candidates from standing.

The Jewish community has known about this problem for years. It is no coincidence that this report came out of the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Semitism and was commissioned by its campaigning chair, John Mann.

The report’s findings are sobering, but they are not hysterical.

Its conclusion states: “The solutions to tackling electoral misconduct are not overly complex.”

The EHRC and the Electoral Commission need to start doing their jobs properly and the political parties need to have a zero tolerance policy on abusive campaigns.

Only then can we go back to telling ourselves reassuring stories about our democracy.

Last updated: 1:45pm, October 31 2013