Abuse and intimidation of elected representatives is increasing.

On 8 May 2019, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, told the Joint Committee on Human Rights that threats to MPs are at “unprecedented” levels.

This Insight looks at the problem of intimidation of candidates and elected representatives and the steps that are being taken to tackle the problem.

Levels of abuse

In the cut and thrust of an election, candidates expect robust debate and to be challenged about their policies and views. What they shouldn’t expect is abuse, threats of violence and physical assault.

Increasingly, candidates are facing such threats, particularly women, and candidates with other protected characteristics. Sometimes this is from other candidates, as shown by the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism report on the 2017 General Election.

Online abuse is commonplace and in the local elections held recently there were several media reports of candidates being attacked while canvassing.

According to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, cited by the BBC, councillors had been spat at and received death threats in the post.

Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, has spoken about the levels of abuse she received after being the victim of an offensive tweet from a UKIP candidate. Many other MPs highlighted the abuse they regularly receive when the House of Commons held a debate on abuse and intimidation during the 2017 General Election campaign. A survey of MPs elected in 2017 showed most had suffered abuse. Half of the respondents said the 2017 general election campaign had been the worst they had ever experienced.

Calls for a review

In 2017 the Prime Minister asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) to conduct a short review of the issue of intimidation experienced by electoral candidates.

The Committee published its report in December 2017, after hearing from many stakeholders, including candidates, social media companies, regulatory bodies, broadcasters and journalists, police and security authorities.

In his introduction to the report, Chair of the Committee, Lord Bew, said:

“Intimidatory behaviour is already affecting the way in which MPs are relating to their constituents, has put off candidates who want to serve their communities from standing for public offices, and threatens to damage the vibrancy and diversity of our public life. However, the Committee believes that our political culture can be protected from further damage if action is taken now.”

What did the Committee recommend?

The Committee made more than 30 recommendations, including that Parliament should legislate to:

  • Introduce a new electoral offence of intimidating a candidate or campaigner.
  • Remove the requirement for local election candidates to have their home address published on ballot papers.
  • Make social media companies liable for the content they host.

The report noted that criminal law is already sufficient to cover the full range of cases of intimidation but that a new sanction in relation to elections would help preserve the integrity of elections.

Some electoral offences carry an additional sanction that mean the person found guilty can be prevented from registering to vote or standing for election for up to five years.

Digital campaign material

The CSPL also echoed the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that digital campaign material, including on social media, should carry an imprint to show who is responsible. Printed campaign material is already required to show this.

Use of language in debate

The Committee recommended that all those in public life should be mindful of how to conduct public debate, for example not using hateful language or engaging in highly personalised attacks. This was a theme reflected in the recent House of Lords debate, Conduct of Debate in Public Life.

Social media

Many of the other recommendations were targeted at social media companies, political parties, police and media aimed at enabling robust debate but without opening the doors to intimidation. The Committee recommended that social media companies, “must take responsibility for developing technology and the necessary options for users to tackle the issue of intimidation and abuse on their platforms.” The Government is consulting separately on a new system of accountability and oversight for tech companies in relation to online harm, including social media platforms.

In the report, Lord Bew said:

“Political parties will need to work together to address intimidation in public life; they should not use this report and its recommendations for partisan purposes or political gain.“  In particular, the Committee recommended party leaders should lead by example in calling out intimidatory behaviour and parties should set clear expectations about expected behaviour. The Committee also recommended that parties must recognise their duty of care to candidates and members and provide better support.”

How did the Government respond?

In July 2018 the Government consulted on whether a new electoral offence should be introduced to combat the rise of intimidation.

The consultation also included imprints on digital material and questions about the law on undue influence (intimidating a voter in relation to their vote).

Following the consultation the Government announced the following measures:

  • To introduce a new electoral offence of intimidating a candidate or campaigner during the election campaign period.
  • To clarify the law on undue influence, including on intimidation of voters at polling stations.
  • To implement the requirement to have an imprint on any digital campaign material.

The Government is also proposing to launch a consultation on electoral integrity more broadly. It may consider recommendations for increasing transparency in digital political advertising, including by third parties, closing loopholes on foreign spending in elections, preventing shell companies from sidestepping the current rules on political finance and on action to tackle foreign lobbying.

Input from the police force

A written statement in March 2019 highlighted some the responses of other organisations to the CSPL report. This includes support and advice for candidates from police forces and improving police training on policing in the digital age.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council, working with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Electoral Commission, has produced two guidance documents for candidates and campaigners, to help candidates understand when behaviour goes beyond political debate and may be unlawful:

About the author: Neil Johnston is an election specialist at the House of Commons Library.