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Tories accused of ‘unfathomable’ failure to pledge against election intimidation

Exclusive: Boris Johnson’s party is refusing to sign a pledge against abuse, and the government has failed to respond to a review of election intimidation

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Martin Williams
4 May 2021, 11.48am
Boris Johnson's Tories are under fire for refusing to sign a joint pledge against abuse of election candidates
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A Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Conservative Party has been condemned for refusing to sign a joint pledge against abuse and intimidation of election candidates.

Boris Johnson’s party is the only major party to reject the short pledge, which was established after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016.

Opposition parties are calling for urgent action ahead of Thursday’s local elections, citing the Tories’ refusal to sign the pledge, which calls on politicians to “promote and defend the dignity of others” as “unfathomable”.

The government is also facing accusations of staying “silent” over an official report detailing abuse some candidates face in local elections.

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In a rare intervention, the Committee on Standards in Public Life – which wrote the report – said it is “concerned” by the government’s failure to respond to its recommendations, which were published more than two years ago.

One local election candidate who suffered abuse in the last election told openDemocracy: “The fact I’m almost not surprised by this makes me feel groomed to believe it’s normal.

“It’s like they’re saying it’s every person for themselves,” she said. “It’s unacceptable.”

The 2019 review made a range of recommendations to clean up politics and keep local election candidates safe. But the government says it is still considering the report.

Dr Jane Martin, who led the committee’s local government report, said: “We are concerned that it is taking a long time to get a government response to our report and recommendations. We are mindful that the May local government elections are coming up.”

What scares me about it is that [the abuse] is anonymous – you have no idea who they are, but they know exactly who you are

Cat Smith, Labour’s shadow minister for democracy, accused the Tories of being “silent on the topic” since the review took place more than two years ago. “The government must respond urgently to this evidence ahead of a historically large set of elections in May,” she added.

Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael told openDemocracy that the government’s response to the review was “long overdue”.

"It is unfathomable that the Conservatives would refuse to join the other parties in signing up to a joint statement to ensure people seeking political office in the upcoming local elections treat each other respectfully,” Carmichael said.

The Local Government Association last month warned of “increasing online intimidation, abuse and threats” being received by local councillors, with underrepresented groups being targeted particularly.

Jemma Joy is one of many women who has faced abuse during elections. The 45-year-old from Cleveland, North Yorkshire, works for a pharmaceutical company, and is standing as a Liberal Democrat in the local council elections. She told openDemocracy that the abuse and intimidation involved with political campaigns puts people off local democracy.

“When you knock on someone’s door, you are choosing to interact with them,” she said. “But what you don’t sign up for is the relentless messages and trolling online. What scares me about it is that it’s anonymous – you have no idea who they are, but they know exactly who you are.

Joy describes the 2019 general election, in which she stood as the Lib Dem candidate for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, as “particularly hostile”. She added: “I’d get messages and my husband would say ‘don’t tell me about it because it gets me so angry’. There came a point where they were just popping up everywhere.

“At the last general election, I attended a hustings debate where someone was so upset that they left the stage in tears, and it was quite awful to see that. I called her up to say ‘I disagree with you politically, but I will be your ally’. I was so sad about that.”

I attended a hustings debate where someone was so upset that they left the stage in tears, and it was quite awful to see that

Responding to the Conservatives’ refusal to sign the joint pledge, Joy said: “The fact that they’re not signing up… it feels like they’re saying to me: ‘we can get away with whatever we want’.”

The pledge has now been signed by Labour, the Lib Dems, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and an independent candidate. But the Conservative Party last year rejected it, saying: “political parties are best placed to draw up and oversee their own tailored code of conduct.”

Explaining the decision at the time, Amanda Milling, the party’s co-chair wrote: “It is not candidates or official party campaigners who engage in intimidation. The bulk of poor behaviour is from online ‘trolls’, and stems from the fact that digital means of communication have allowed for anonymous and widespread abuse.”

She added: “To ensure activists and elected representatives in the Conservative Party know the standards of conduct they are expected to adhere to, the Conservative Party has a Code of Conduct available online.”

The Conservative Party did not respond to a request to comment. However, the Jo Cox Foundation confirmed that the party has not signed the joint pledge, although some individual Conservative candidates standing in Thursday’s elections have signed a separate pledge.

Commenting on the delay to respond to the 2019 report, a government spokesperson said: “We are considering the committee’s recommendations carefully and a government response will be issued in due course.”

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