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UK 'reaching tipping point' on abuse of politicians

The Guardian logo The Guardian 17/07/2017 Peter Walker Political correspondent
Diane Abbott said she suffered racist abuse ‘over and over again’ every day. © Rex/Shutterstock Diane Abbott said she suffered racist abuse ‘over and over again’ every day.

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 in the future, 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 might recommend new laws to combat the issue.

The problem was highlighted by a debate in Westminster Hall, in which a series of MPs outline their experience of such behaviour, including racism, antisemitism and death threats.

On Wednesday, May ordered Bew’s committee to inquire into the problem. 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, 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.”

The debate has seen a party political element emerge, 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 on this point. We have reached a point where this is not a sermon. This has got to be said with some sharpness.”

His aim, he told the programme, was to ensure public debate remained “vigorous” but steered clear of “nastiness and hatred”.

Many MPs have already moved to improve their security since Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a rightwing extremist in 2016, but a large number have 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 around and after the election”.

He said he considered elections to be a few weeks of “robust banter followed by a shake of the hand and a pint in the pub” when first elected in 2010, but the latest contest was characterised by “swastikas on election boards, offensive slogans and language 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.

“We are talking about mindless abuse and in my case the mindless abuse has been characteristically racist and sexist,” she said. “And just to outline I’ve had death threats, I’ve had people tweeting that I should be hung if ‘they could find a tree big enough to take the fat b***h’s weight’.”

Other parties have complained of threats, too. Shortly before last month’s election the Women’s Equality party said one of its candidates had received a death threat in a letter filled with racist abuse and signed “Jo Cox”.

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