Social media is a part of elections now—so why are parties so bad at checking their candidates' posts?

Among all the complexity of who survives and who doesn't, one thing is clear: the parties need a better process for examining, and approving, candidates

November 19, 2019
Every minute there are 293,000 Facebook status updates. Photo: Jaap Arriens/Nurphoto via Getty Images
Every minute there are 293,000 Facebook status updates. Photo: Jaap Arriens/Nurphoto via Getty Images

If 2017 was the year of the Facebook election, 2019 has been the year of Facebook cancellation. The opening stages of this election campaign have been marked by a string of controversies over past social media comments—and occasionally published articles—by major party candidates.

Not that everyone embarrassed has withdrawn. There has been no clear rhyme or reason to who has seemingly been forced to pull out as an election candidate and who has remained—not by party, nor by the level of controversy, nor by the identity of those offended.

Two Labour candidates accused, rightly or wrongly, of anti-Semitism pulled out; another remained in. A Tory candidate who referred to London as 'Londonistan' pulled out, despite having run in 2017; another who wrote about “HIV immigrants” remained in—possibly because those articles were published at a magazine whose editor’s name was Boris Johnson.

Arguably, most if not all of the embarrassed candidates should have withdrawn. Many of the comments are revolting. Take Francesca O'Brien, who said “these people need putting down” after watching the TV show Benefits Street in 2014—Facebook comments that came to light after she was selected as the Conservative candidate for the marginal seat of Gower (she has since apologised).

O'Brien's was the first such case to emerge during this election campaign, as reporters scoured the Facebook and Twitter archives of those candidates not sufficiently obsessive in their pursuit of political careers to cleanse their social media footprints.

O'Brien, who went to an independent school, survived as a Tory candidate. The Conservative Party hierarchy condemned her comments—somewhat hypocritically, given that Tory welfare rhetoric was almost designed to provoke such comments for most of this decade—but said whether she was elected was a matter for the voters. Not purely a matter for the voters now, however, given that Tory central office will be pumping resources to get her elected in what is one of the key Tory targets in Britain.

But it's worth pausing for a moment. The haphazard nature of who stays and who goes among the embarrassed candidates this time round shows there is no consensus about what is a 'sackable' offence and what isn't.

Are some targets less forgivable than others? Does context matter—the difference between an 'off the cuff' remark on Facebook (the defence O'Brien deployed) and a presumably more calculated magazine article? What of the passage of time? Is it enough to apologise—and if so, how do we decide if the apology is adequate?

Take Anthony Browne and Nick Conrad, two of the worst offenders, both Conservative. Conrad suggested on his radio show in 2014 that some women were “partially responsible” for being sexually assaulted.

The comments caused huge controversy at the time and led Conrad to apologise shortly after—but that prior apology was not enough to save him. After Johnson himself criticised the remarks, Conrad quit as Tory candidate.

Browne, by contrast, remains a Tory candidate. In 2002-3 he wrote in Johnson's Spectator that “mass migration” was letting in terrorists and “HIV immigrants,” and in a book claimed that Britain's Muslim community had “divided loyalties” during the Iraq War.

He apologised for his remarks upon becoming an adviser to Johnson when the latter was London mayor—an apology that the Tories referred to in their defence of his candidacy after controversy erupted on Monday.

But it is hard to see why Browne should stay when Conrad went. Whether they believed their comments or not is irrelevant: they were using media platforms to stir up controversy against easy targets. It has been suggested that Browne possibly survived only because Johnson—who himself has an endless string of offensive comments to his namewas implicated in the publication of his articles.

Incendiary outbursts and ‘off the cuff’ remarks are in theory more forgivable, but that said, the comments of O'Brien or former Tory candidate Antony Calvert are difficult to stomach. The latter quit as a candidate for Wakefield after comments emerged where he referred to London as ‘Londonistan’ and dismissed claims about the rise in food poverty.

Then there are the Labour cases of Ian Byrne and 26-year-old Zarah Sultana. Byrne survived as a candidate despite social media posts making jokes about female politicians and domestic violence (he has subsequently apologised and said he is a “very different person now.”) Sultana, the candidate for Coventry South, also survived after apologising for saying she would celebrate the deaths of Tony Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu and reportedly expressing support for “violent resistance” by Palestinians in 2015.

Had these comments been 15 years ago rather than five, her apology may have sufficed for her critics. But despite her youth at the time, her comments were recent. She expressed support for "violent resistance"—terrorism to some, freedom fighting to others—and the death of a Labour Party member (even if Blair rarely seems it these days).

Some of these cases are easier to judge than others. But parties need to both vet more carefully the candidates they shortlist and select, and also reach more transparent and coherent criteria for deciding when a candidate should be asked to stand down. The fact we could soon have an MP who publicly blamed immigrants for bringing HIV is not a prospect to savour.