Taking a break from laughing their heads off in unison in parliament whenever an opposition MP speaks about evictions, malnutrition, starvation, destitution and death caused by vicious Tory policy, the Tories have exercised their time and energy discussing “intimidation of parliamentary candidates.” Paul Bew, a peer in the House of Lords and a Statement of Principles signatory of the right-wing imperialist think-tank the Henry Jackson Society, chaired a review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) and compiled a report. Theresa May asked for the review and report.
The purpose of the review and report was to create false impetus for a new criminal offence of intimidating parliamentary candidates and party campaigners. The objective of the new offence is to restrict criticism of political parties and their supporters during election campaigning. Specifically, the intent is to lessen valid criticism and fact-checking of the typical lies, smears and omissions of the Tories’ public presentation of their record and their plans, while simultaneously applying no restrictions at all on the extreme bias of most of the mainstream media that favours the Tories.
Another tactic being used to censor political opposition is a campaign against fake news which is really a campaign against political challenge: Tories preparing to censor revolutionary politics: Fake news.
A dissection of the Bew Report is here: Tories preparing to censor revolutionary politics: Bew Report
The analysis and discussion that helped to inform the Bew Report included a CSPL discussion of parliamentarians and invited guests, a debate in parliament and an Electoral Commission report.
CSPL roundtable discussion
In his introduction to a CPSL roundtable discussion, in September, Paul Bew said “the committee is independent” with no explanation of from what it is independent. He claimed he wanted input from guests invited to the committee discussion: “We need the help of those of you who are in this room today [invited guests]. We are very keen to hear your thoughts. We want to know what can be done, what your views are on the changing tone of political debate, and what the responsibilities of individuals, political parties in Parliament and social media companies are in this context” but he had already restrictively defined said context earlier in his introduction: “We have come to the conclusion, in the work we have carried out so far, that we have a special problem in recent times in and around the issue of intimidation.” Bew was keen to keep all contributions within set boundaries.
Bew’s colleague Jane Ramsey said “I should say that our current definition of intimidation is, ‘Words or behaviour intended or likely to block participation in public life’.” That is an absurd definition. Ramsey wants elected representatives and candidates to be free of any criticism. She wants special provision for those who should face the most political criticism. Anyone attempting to acquire a representative role “in public life” should be the target of exhaustive criticism and, if necessary, dissuaded from trying. Charlatans, liars, crooks, confidence tricksters, fraudsters and gimps of wealth terrorists need to be exposed before they are elected and prevented from progressing further but Ramsey wants them to have an unfetterred passage to power.
Some of the contributors at the roundtable discussion made valid points about abuse of politicians and their colleagues. The discussion was designed to focus on behaviour by members of the public and political activists but the main perpetrators of abuse, lies, libel, smears and encouragement of violence – right-wing newspapers like Mail, Express and Sun – were excused thorough investigation by this inquiry. Below are a few extracts from the discussion.
Tory MP Simon Hart expressed concern for his campaign donors and businesses that support him. “The other reason why I did this was the impact of all this on the families of MPs and candidates, our donors, our supporters, our volunteers and businesses that might want to support us.” Hart’s donors include the Countryside Alliance and businesses associated with hunting; he is its chairman and its former (highly paid) chief executive. On behalf of the Countryside Alliance he physically disrupted a meeting in parliament and invited trouble-makers into parliament to assist with the disruption: Hart disrupts meeting.
Later in his contribution, Hart blamed “a social media campaign” for Tory MP Byron Davies losing his seat. Davies had been ungracious in defeat:
Hart had already attacked left-wing activists earlier this year by claiming they are the main perpetrators of abuse at MPs – Hart in Huffpost.
“What’s the difference between 2015 and 2017? Actually it’s not the economy, that’s much the same. Lot’s of things are the same, there is very little new stuff in terms of the state of the nation. What is new is the rise of Corbynism and Momentum. There are plenty of articles you can read and observations you can make from [Guardian columnist] Owen Jones to [Labour MP] Yvette Cooper which suggest that Momentum wield quite a heavy weapon when it comes to this kind of stuff. I don’t care or know whether Momentum formally sanctions this or organises this sort of stuff or not. But as long as they refuse to condemn and deal with it there is always the possibility people will reach that conclusion. Because what else is driving it? Is silence from Momentum and silence from Jeremy Corbyn actually just giving people permission.”
Hart’s comment about the differences between 2015 and 2017 is a lie. The effects of Tory destruction of society increased markedly in those two years: More homelessness, more destitution and more deaths, particularly for people with disabilities. Hart’s hypocritical comments were a response to political combat that confronts the Tories.
At the roundtable discussion Tim Bale blamed Corbyn’s supporters.
“But we also have to take account of the fact that politics has become more polarised since 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn took over the Labour Party, and there has been an influx of people into the party of people who are rather more used to a kind of factionalised and vituperative culture of politics in which it is perhaps a little bit more normal and acceptable to conduct debate in these very polarised and in some ways violent terms, at least if we are speaking about speech rather than necessarily actions.”
Does he mean that there are people in political combat who know who the enemy is and are seeking to challenge? Politics needs to be “polarised.” His objection is to the fact that there is a growing political movement, within and outside of Labour, that sees enemies to be fought against. Ultimately, Bale wants no challenge whatsoever; he wants options on a similar theme. Challengers to the Tories shouldn’t “conduct debate” with them; it is not possible to debate with confidence tricksters. Bale added a smear about anti-Semitism without evidence: “Also, for those people [Corbyn supporters]—this goes to the comments about anti-Semitism—foreign policy is a very big issue, particularly Israel/Palestine, and that sometimes shades over into anti-Semitism directed at people with whom they disagree.”
Former Murdoch hack Peter Riddell continued Bale’s anti-left theme. “I have only one complication to what Tim [Bale] was saying. Intimidation has appeared more recently in the Militant phase in Liverpool in the 1980s.”
Bale piped up again to admonish Aneurin Bevan. “Aneurin Bevan saying that Tories were lower than vermin. That was pretty vituperative, and I think if a politician said that these days they would be severely criticised.” Bevan, of course, was correct then and his comment is correct now. His description of Tories has been quoted often recently and Bale is aware how positively Bevan’s comment has been repeated and promoted. Bale attacked Labour MP Laura Pidcock for her entirely sensible comment that she would not be friends with a Tory MP.
“Even something like the Labour MP [Laura Pidcock] who recently said she could not possibly imagine having a friend who was a Conservative—that begins to legitimise the idea that these people are two tribes, not that they are conducting a debate between fellow human beings who have differences.”
Again, Bale reveals his insistence that mainstream politics should be a choice between two (or more) similar parties with “differences.” To fight against the Tories requires the understanding that they are an enemy. That is what Bale wants to suppress. He wants to suppress genuine challenge.
A debate in parliament in September exposed further the intent of the Tories.
Tory MP Sarah Newton began the debate with a prepared speech that sought to set the tone of increased problems for parliamentary candidates regarding intimidation and abuse.
“The Government absolutely recognise that this is a very serious issue that affects not only MPs and parliamentary candidates from all parties, but the wider public.”
“Fear of abuse or intimidation can have far-reaching consequences. It has the potential to affect people’s desire to stand for office or public service in the first place. In turn, that can have a negative impact for us all and for our democracy. That is why in July the Prime Minister asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to carry out a review of the intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates.”
No, the reason why Theresa May asked the CSPL for this review was to try to create impetus for changes to the law to dampen opposition to the Tories and shut down effective criticism.
Newton correctly highlighted that a lot of abuse (at politicians) is racist, sexist, homophobic or a demonstration of religious intolerance. Newton did not state (as she should have done) that much of this abuse is a consequence of the rabble rousing of many newspapers and of the comments by some MPs, councillors and MEPS. Nowhere in her introduction to the debate did she mention the actions of the newspapers. “I know that, for many Members, the issue of online abuse is one of particular concern” said Newton, a directional comment, but the key adverserial feature of the 2017 general election was the behaviour of some newspapers who partook in a continuous, vicious, mendacious assault on the Tories’ opponents. Later, Newton explained how current law is sufficient to respond to criminal acts online including abuse.
“The law does not differentiate between criminal offences committed on social media and those committed anywhere else. It is the action that is illegal. Robust legislation is in place to deal with internet trolls, cyber-stalking, harassment, and perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour. A number of criminal offences may be committed by those abusing others on social media. These include credible threats of violence; damage to property; sending grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing messages; harassment; and stalking.”
So, a new law is unnecessary.
Tory MP Rachel Maclean praised the BBC’s fact-checking as a contrast to “fake news” on social media. Maclean didn’t mention that the BBC’s fact checking is far from unbiased; for example, the BBC uses the right-wing corporate-funded think-tank Science Media Centre as a guide to what should and, crucially, what should not be broadcast. Equally, Maclean didn’t mention the constant barrage of lies, smears and abuse in the mainstream media. Newton was happy to join in with the praise for the BBC’s willingness to be guided by such think-tanks. “Its fact-checking work is invaluable during elections and all year round. A number of extremely good programmes on the radio and television look at statistics and provide really good rebuttals to some of the myths we hear peddled.” By “myths,” she meant exposure of the intent and of the consequences of Tory policy.
Newton followed her misrepresentation of BBC fact-checking with a similar presentation of the government’s attitude to “critical thinking” among young people.
“The work we are doing in schools is incredibly important so that young people are taught to be critical thinkers, are robust and are able to ask themselves some straightforward questions about the motivation of the person putting information before them. They will then become more resilient and questioning, coming to their own conclusions and accessing the very good resources that give the facts of the matter.”
Young people are naturally critical. They do not need a biased government directing them in how to become critical thinkers. By “the very good resources that give the facts of the matter” Newton meant the right-wing media, the Tory government and right-wing think-tanks. Her comments about “critical thinking” expressed the opposite of the Tory government’s intent.
Labour MP Cat Smith responded to Newton with a reasonable speech that was peppered with interruptions from Tories whenever Smith’s factual analysis strayed from the Tories’ desired narrative. She rightly stated that abuse is not a new phenomena, which got an interruption by Tory MP Alex Chalk who wanted to push the claim that everything started with the 2017 election, and she highlighted the threats of violence made by former Tory chancellor George Osborne which got a complaint from Tory MP Hugo Swire who objected because said ex-chancellor (and current Evening Standard editor) wasn’t there to defend himself.
After Smith had rightly exposed the racism of Lynton Crosby’s management of Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign against Sadiq Khan, Chalk complained that the word “murderers” had been used in discussion of the cause of the Grenfell Tower fire.
“It does not help to use language like the word ‘murderers’ in the context of the Grenfell Tower atrocity, because it revs people up. Is there not a duty on all of us to be careful about what we say in the public domain?”
As Engels described 150 years ago, social murder is a tactic of the capitalist system. Chalk’s objection is that a truthful analysis will encourage people to know the causes of an event like the Grenfell fire. His comment epitomised the objective of this investigation: Clamp down on genuine opposition and disallow criticism and knowledge of Tory destruction. Chalk displayed his contemptibleness by attempting to equate reasonable assessment of the cause of the Grenfell fire with Crosby’s deliberate use of racism.
Tory Pauline Latham complained about a leaflet distributed as part of the campaign against Derby North candidate Amanda Solloway. The leaflet – text below – highlighted facts about the candidate, who had previously been the MP for that constituency.
“Voted against ending rough sleeping and causes of rising homelessness. Voted against accepting 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children. Visited Israel with Conservative Friends of Israel as a Tory candidate. Voted for UK to support Saudis’ bombing of Yemen. Do you want this Tory MP to represent you…? You decide on June 8th“.
Clearly, there is not one word in the leaflet that is false and none of it is abusive, threatening or intimidating. But, Latham pretended she thinks that “the leaflet in my view was bullying and intimidatory, and it was not even truthful.” Latham’s objection is that a political leaflet exposed the truth about a Tory candidate. The facts stated in it can be confirmed easily via public parliamentary records. Latham’s “bullying and intimidatory” claim about a list of facts is an alarm that screams the real motive for the Tory’s creation of the new intimidation of politicians law: The Tories want to shut down effective criticism of their record and of their plans.
Alex Chalk complained about the exposure of the bankruptcy of a company of which Solloway was a director alongside her husband. Many people lost money and it was absolutely right that a parliamentary candidate’s directorship of a bankrupt business should play a part in the election campaign. The then Labour candidate, now MP, Chris Williamson offered to help those who lost money due to Solloway’s recklessness and abandonment of responsibilities. Chalk expressed his disapproval of Williamson’s involvement.
“She [Solloway] had no connection to her husband’s business” claimed Chalk about someone who was a director of the business.
“Nobody in this House would expect to be deemed responsible for a relative’s business.”
It was her husband and she was a director of the business.
“Bringing family into any political debate is unreasonable.”
No, it is bringing in bankruptcy and abandonment of responsibilities for a director of a business who is also a parliamentary candidate.
“This was a targeted, personal and unfair campaign against our former colleague. In fact, I would say it was bullying.”
No, it was exposure of extremely reckless behaviour that robbed people of money.
Latham joined in with the smears against Williamson re. Solloway’s bankruptcy.
“The final straw was when the current Member of Parliament [Williamson] asked people who had been affected by the bankruptcy to join him at a meeting to discuss how he would return their money. He said he would pay their expenses to attend the meeting, and the money was raised from donations through a YouCaring compassionate crowdfunding page. All this was done on the page by video. The new Member for Derby North asked for donations, so that he could meet at a venue in Derby those who had lost money—most of them were not from Derby—and presumably promise that he, and he alone, would stand up for them, and probably ask them to help his campaign. In fact, at the first business questions following the election, he tried to trick the Leader of the House into condemning Amanda and her husband’s company. He knows the ropes, because of course he had been an MP before Amanda Solloway won in 2015—something he has never come to terms with.”
The snide and libellous comments (underlined) above by Latham regarding Williamson’s motivation are quite pathetic. It is not coincidence that Chalk and Latham’s target Chris Williamson is a successful colleague of Jeremy Corbyn.
Swire added to the attack on Corbyn’s supporters with a wild unproven swipe.
“It is regrettable when we have people such as Len McCluskey and the shadow Chancellor seeking to cherry-pick which laws of the country should be obeyed, and encouraging, at times, civil disturbance if they do not get their way.”
After an obsequious comment of agreement to the above from Progress MP Graham Jones, Swire libelled Momentum.
“I also feel tremendous sympathy for my friends on the Opposition Benches—and I do have friends of long-standing on the Opposition Benches—who have come under horrendous criticism from the Momentum movement in their own party. Some of that has been absolutely vile, and I feel extremely sorry for them, having to operate with that going on as well.”
Soon, Swire will not have any “long-standing” friends “on the opposition benches” and that time cannot come too soon.
Tory Matt Warman said “I would like the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to set out what constitutes free speech” which is disturbing and must always be challenged.
Tory Alex Burghart‘s opening line, “it is a real pleasure to speak in a debate in which there is so much to agree with on both sides of the House,” encapsulates a huge problem with British parliamentary politics and indicates a reason why there is antagonism toward politicians. Burghart equated revolutionary language with the language of criminals.
“We have to stay away from phrases such as ‘day of rage’. Rage is the language of uncontrolled emotion. Perhaps I am being oversensitive—perhaps it is the language of the barricade and of romantic revolution, or perhaps just a little political Viagra to some doddery old militants—but it is also the language of the flick-knife, of the boot in the face, of the garrotte; it is the language of violence, and it does not belong in the mouths of hon. Members of this Chamber.”
It is amusing to consider how these sensitive Tory souls would cope with real revolutionary fervour.
The prevalent themes from the Tories in the debate were
- Whinges about opponents’ valid criticisms
- Exaggerations and falsehoods about the behaviour of Labour MPs and supporters
- Inventions of concern about combative politics
It is clear that the Tories’ objective is to suffocate effective opposition. They do not want their intent and the consequences of their actions to be scrutinised adequately. They want genuine opposition to be gagged.
Chris Skidmore, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, concluded the debate with a scripted statement that emphasised the government’s intent.
“We [parliament] have a duty to safeguard our democracy and to ensure that such abuse has no place in it.”
This duty doesn’t extend to any concern about The Sun, Mail, Express and Evening Standard wherein promotion of racism, religious intolerance and political abuse and libel is daily and intrinsic.
“The independent committee—it is vital that it is independent—is looking at the nature of the problem of intimidation and considering the current protections and measures in place for candidates.”
Independent of what? It is claimed to be independent to provide an ephemeral buffer in front of the Tory government.
“We should not prejudge or pre-empt the conclusions now.”
Bew did exactly that.
“The code will set out guidance on what social media providers should do in relation to conduct on their platforms that involves the bullying or insulting of an individual, or other behaviour likely to intimidate or humiliate.”
“Insulting?” Are insults to be banned? “Behaviour likely to?” Who decides what is likely to “intimidate or humiliate?”
“Our democracy is built on the foundation of inclusion and tolerance.”
All “inclusion and tolerance” that exists in British democracy has had to be fought for by those previously excluded. The outsiders, the radicals, the revolutionaries, the people who are being cast as wrongdoers by this debate and by Bew’s investigation are precisely those who created, via antagonistic combative politics, the “inclusion and tolerance” that exists and that still needs to exist.
(Skidmore’s problematic history includes membership of a rock band whose lyrics were deliberately vulgar and sexist: Skidmore rocks, and membership of right-wing think-tank Bow Group, a subset of the Tory party through which many future Tory MPs pass.)
Parliamentarians had been asked to submit evidence of abuse and intimidation for the Bew Report; this evidence is available here: Intimidation in Public Life: Evidence.
Electoral Commission report
The Electoral Commission was asked to contribute to the investigation into intimidation of parliamentary candidates. Specifically, it was asked to respond to four questions put by the CSPL:
- What is the nature and degree of intimidation experienced by Parliamentary
candidates, in particular at the 2017 General Election?
- Is existing legislation sufficient to address intimidation of Parliamentary
- What other measures might be effective in addressing the intimidation of Parliamentary candidates, and candidates for public offices more broadly?
- What role should political parties play in preventing the intimidation of
Parliamentary candidates and encouraging constructive debate?
Its responses are taken from Electoral Commission response.
CSPL question: What is the nature and degree of intimidation experienced by Parliamentary candidates, in particular at the 2017 General Election?
“Of the 3,304 candidates who stood, we received feedback from 780 candidates
(24%). From this total, 13 responses included references to issues of intimidation.“
13 candidates out of 3304 reported “references to issues of intimidation.” That is O.39% or 1 in 254.
The thirteen candidates’ responses were
“4 responses raised general concerns that intimidation had taken place, including posters being ripped down and vandalised, false allegations made over the internet and malicious statements made about candidates, but they did not provide any specific examples or details.”
Compare a handful (<= 4) of “false allegations made over the internet and malicious statements made about candidates” with the daily deluge of vicious, libellous vitriol by the right-wing newspapers directed at Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon and their respective colleagues.
“2 respondents said that they had been intimidated and received threats at their own homes.”
The Electoral Commission didn’t provide specific details. A reasonable guess is someone (or two) walked past a Tory’s home and shouted “Tory wanker!” Meanwhile, the right-wing press routinely harass candidates at their homes.
“1 respondent said they were harassed by attendees at the count. 1 respondent said that another candidate was rude and aggressive to them at the count.”
So what? Counts should sometimes be adverserial with an exchange of views. There should be strong celebrations if a corrupt gimp of wealth terrorists lost in an election. The filth in the far-right should be treated with continuous contempt. Two candidates, out of 3304, reported a minor issue to the Electoral Commission. Two!
“1 respondent said they were subjected to covert and overt bullying, dirty tricks and misogyny. 2 respondents said that their tellers had been subject to intimidation and abuse. 1 respondent said that one of their volunteers had been assaulted delivering leaflets. 1 respondent said that attempts had been made to intimidate other candidates in order to make them stand down.”
A very small number of reports by parliamentary candidates of behaviour they felt was wrong. It is such a small number that, for the purposes of analysis, it equates to zero.
CSPL questions: Is existing legislation sufficient to address intimidation of Parliamentary candidates? What other measures might be effective in addressing the intimidation of Parliamentary candidates, and candidates for public offices more broadly?
The Electoral Commission answers these two questions together. The commission showed that laws exist to counter abusive or intimidatory behaviour in person and online and that laws exist to counter interference in the electoral process. It recommended two additions to the law. One recommendation is the introduction of a digital imprint as a tool to certify online content; the second recommendation, below, is very worrying.
“In some instances, electoral law does specify offences in respect of behaviour
that could also amount to an offence under the general criminal law. This is often
because electoral offences have special consequences, in that their commission
could invalidate the election result and result in the person convicted losing their
elected office and/or being subject to a period of disqualification from being
registered as an elector, voting in an election and standing for election (section 173
RPA 1983). It may be that similar special electoral consequences could act as a
deterrent to abusive behaviour in relation to candidates and campaigners.”
The underlined section is a suggestion of support for straightforward voter suppression and for denial of the right to be elected. This is how far the Tories are prepared to go to cling onto power. They have noted the success of voter suppression in the USA and the continued application of it by Kris Kobach since Donald Trump’s election. They have also noted how the denial of the right to stand in an election has helped many world leaders stay in power like, for example, Vladimir Putin. The reason Theresa May asked for the investigation into intimidation of MPs and candidates was to stifle opposition. The electoral Commission was happy to play along and obediently suggested the possibility of both the removal of the right to stand for election and the removal of the right to vote.
CSPL question: What role should political parties play in preventing the intimidation of
Parliamentary candidates and encouraging constructive debate?
The Electoral Commission’s answer included a request that political parties try to ensure that their members’ and supporters’ behaviour is acceptable during election campaigns. There was no mention of political parties “encouraging constructive debate” by the media or by the right-wing think-tanks.
Links to related blogs
The Bow Group
Henry Jackson Society
Tory Bratboys in Parliament
Murder or Social Murder? Grenfell, disability benefit cuts and NHS destruction
Tories and campaign abuse
George Osborne: A Typical Financial Gangsters’ Mascot