We cannot go on like this. The poison and intolerance that has infected our national political debate has to be excised. If we cannot find a way to restore some respect and responsibility to our politics the implications will be serious, not just for those in and around Westminster but for all of us.
MPs know this. From all sides last week we have been reminded how much distress and harm ill-chosen words can inflict. Not just to those in the thick of the debate, but to their families, their staff and volunteers.
Leavers and Remainers, left, right and centre, nobody is immune from the threat of violence and intimidation. The attempted attack on Jess Phillips’s office is just the latest reminder that these threats are very real. Inflammatory language can lead to calamitous, if unintended, consequences.
We know this only too well. The Jo Cox Foundation would not exist but for a horrific act of political violence resulting in the murder of a decent, dedicated, compassionate MP. We have lost count of how many of those who sat alongside or opposite her who tell us of their fear that further acts of political violence will follow.
It is time for all parties at Westminster to act. We urgently need a new standard of conduct, agreed by every party leader on behalf of their candidates and their members. We need it in place before we go to the polls. Time is short, but delay would be unforgivable.
It is not for us at the Jo Cox Foundation to pass judgment on the tactics employed by either the government or its opponents. Nor would we wish to stifle vigorous political debate. We unequivocally defend everyone’s right to hold and to air differing views and strongly held opinions. But we do have a clear duty to remind everyone of the risks of fuelling extremism if people begin to lose faith in the democratic process. We can and must debate our differences passionately – as Jo did – but not at the price of legitimising violence.
Let us dial down the rhetoric. Talk of dictators, enemies of the people, coups and capitulations help nobody. Ours is a democracy in which for centuries seemingly irreconcilable political differences have been thrashed out without calling into question the fundamentals that underpin it.
The 2017 election saw a marked increase in abuse and intimidation experienced by candidates of all parties. Since then the foundation, together with the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has been working on a joint standard of conduct for all political parties to adhere to. Now is the time to finish the job.
It builds on a recommendation of the Intimidation in Public Life report published in 2017 as a direct result of Jo’s murder. With the input of all parties with MPs currently sitting in Westminster, the joint standard should set minimum standards of behaviour that we expect our elected representatives and party members to abide by.
It is a key step in protecting our political culture from further damage. It should assist us as we find our way back to civil disagreement and healthy debate. And it should help to restore faith in, and health to, our public life. Because the very future of our democracy depends on us reversing this dangerous trend. We call on all MPs, party leaders, and members to engage with the standard as a necessary, positive and tangible measure that has the power to unite us.
In Jo’s absence, we are committed to upholding her enduring values of collaboration, empathy and tolerance and her belief that we all have “more in common than that which divides us”. Jo continues to inspire and motivate future leaders and change-makers of the world to come forward and take on decision-making roles in all sectors of society, not just in public life. By detoxifying our public space, we also remove barriers to that next generation of public servants. A healthy, functioning democracy that values respectful and compassionate debate is not just a recognition of everything Jo believed in, it is essential to all our futures.
This article, co-authored by Catherine Anderson, CEO & Kim Leadbeater, Ambassador, was originally published online on 28/09/2019 by The Guardian.