Instead of bringing in new measures which could discourage political engagement, let’s make proper use the laws we haveby Jane Merrick / September 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
We don’t need new laws on abuse—we need to use the ones we have. Photo: PA During the election campaign I was with a female Labour MP when she received a death threat. I was following her around her constituency to report on the appetite for Jeremy Corbyn’s party, listening to the views of voters on their doorsteps. She had just finished talking to a constituent when a member of her staff, who had been to a neighbouring house, came up to tell us that its resident had asked where the MP was “because I’d like to shoot her.” Since the horrific murder of Jo Cox this kind of threat can no longer be taken lightly, as merely, say, the words of a disgruntled voter who didn’t mean to use such language but was just a bit unhappy with his bin collections. I looked at this MP—whom I am not going to name for obvious reasons—and wondered if she was as terrified as I was. She seemed composed enough, but to hear these words when her friend and colleague had been shot in the street 11 months earlier must have been sickening and upsetting at the same time. As we walked away down the street, I looked back at the house and saw the man, unmoving, watching us from his window. The incident was reported to the police, but this MP and her staff continued their canvassing—because they had to. MPs must be available to their constituents, or else democracy breaks down. That is what makes them so vulnerable. A pattern of abuse As shocking as this death threat was, it was not unique: a BBC Radio 5 Live survey this week reported that 87 per cent of MPs received some form of abuse during the 2017 campaign, with one Labour MP saying someone threatened to bomb her office, while another had a bottle smashed on her. Diane Abbott receives sexist and racist abuse every single day—not just during an election campaign. A toxic combination of increasing disaffection with the political class—which began with the expenses scandal but has been fuelled by the anti-establishment mood around Brexit—together with a social media culture in which MPs are dehumanised through hatred, has allowed abuse to flourish. One radical proposal So, what can be done? The Electoral Commission says extreme trolling needs an extreme response: anyone who abuses or threatens an MP should be banned from voting, it suggests, proposing that the right to vote should carry with it the responsibility to engage in politics on civil terms. The watchdog argues that some electoral offences date back two centuries, and that the social media revolution requires new laws. I agree that the online world cannot be treated only virtually: death threats on social media are as traumatising as they are in the real world, and must be taken equally seriously. If we, rightly, treat social media the same as the real world, laws already exist to prosecute the worst offenders—including the Malicious Communications Act, the Public Order Act and the Communications Act. But I am deeply uneasy at new laws that disenfranchise anyone when our right to vote is the most valuable thing we have, when around the world people risk their lives to get to the ballot box, and when, throughout history, lives have been lost to win that right. A chilling encroachment on free speech Given that an individual who sits at his or her computer and decides to send an abusive message to a politician is already likely disaffected with politics, a warning that they could lose the right to vote is not going to be much of a deterrent. It also raises the question: what kind of abuse would the Electoral Commission include in any new electoral offences? What measure would be used to take away the vote—how serious would the abuse have to be? Would it be confined to harassment and abuse that falls foul of malicious communications legislation, in which case they would already be breaking the law? Or would it stretch to irritating, persistent criticism of an MP on Twitter: something that would be classed as trolling but would not be, as it stands, illegal? This would be a chilling encroachment on free speech. Social media has brought unprecedented access to our politicians—for better or worse. For every online troll there are 10 decent users who can be helped through contact with their MP on Twitter. Social media improves political engagement, and, as the June general election showed, it can encourage those who feel disenfranchised—particularly young people—to vote. Abuse of politicians is horrific because their public role makes it impossible for them to hide, to make their accounts private. But the law is there to protect them. To take up the Electoral Commission’s suggestions of new electoral offences would be to police political engagement—and that would be a setback for democracy.