It has been four months since we launched the Jo Cox Civility Commission to find solutions to what is one of the biggest threats to our democracy in the UK – the abuse and intimidation of our elected representatives. We’ve been conducting interviews and collecting valuable data, research that we will continue over the summer as we gather recommendations and work towards our report publication.
One of the challenges we’ve heard in our research so far relates to rising incivility in public life in general. How can we specifically address the issue as it relates to politicians, without thinking about the wider backdrop of a societal shift towards one which has less respect? Understanding our work in this context is going to be essential as we progress in our research over the summer.
I’ve been thinking in particular about one response to our open call for submissions, which said:
The goal is not to eliminate abuse (sadly), but to make it survivable – where it is possible for politics to function at some basic level. There is hope, and a fundamental desire from most involved in politics for things to be different.
Robust debate and disagreement are vital to a healthy democracy, but it will be impossible for us to have a culture of healthy debate in our politics if people are put off from standing for election due to abuse. As the submission says, we need to ensure it is ‘survivable’ – that abuse and intimidation does not become a barrier, particularly as it is politicians from marginalised groups that are targeted the most.
We know that politicians themselves have a responsibility when it comes to setting a standard of respect. The Civility Commission will not be shy in identifying the elements of politicians’ own behaviour where they contribute to the perception that other elected representatives are acceptable targets of abuse and intimidation. Setting standards when it comes to use of language and rejecting personal attacks will be an important part of this.
This month, in his statement regarding the Privileges Committee report, Boris Johnson referenced the report as “the final knife thrust” in a “political assassination”. This violent and inflammatory language is deeply irresponsible, particularly as two MPs have been murdered while they were doing their job in the last seven years. The issue is not restricted, though, to one individual or party – it’s something that needs cross-party commitment going forwards.
There is much good that we can build upon. When politicians work cross-party to make change, it is often unseen. Many politicians work constructively together to make a difference to issues affecting their constituents. While politics is a space for passionate disagreement and debate, it’s important that people also understand the vital cross-party work that takes place. Jo Cox was a master of this and found allies from other parties to collaborate with on specific issues – including working with Seema Kennedy on loneliness, and Tom Tugendhat on foreign policy.
If politicians from different parties can demonstrate that it’s possible to disagree, debate, and collaborate at the same time, it signals to everyone that we can have vibrant debate without resorting to insults and abuse. If not, we risk alienating many people from participating in politics and our democracy will be all the weaker for it. The Parliamentary Great Get Together last week was a brilliant example of politicians coming together with a shared cause – to celebrate Jo’s belief that we have more in common than that which divides us.
The severity of abuse and intimidation that politicians are facing at a local and national level must not be normalised to a point where people begin to think that nothing can be done to improve the situation. As we are seeing from our research, it can. We look forward to providing deeper insights from our research as the Commission progresses and in preparation for the publication of our report.
Would you like to share your experiences and views on how we can reduce abuse and intimidation of elected politicians? Our call for submissions is open until the end of July.
If you’d like to support the Commission’s research and campaigning on this vital issue, you can do so with a monthly or one-off donation. Thank you for your support.
Su Moore, CEO of The Jo Cox Foundation