Political harassment: how far is too far?

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In this climate of chaos, resentment against seemingly incapable politicians is understandable. Unsurprisingly however, this frustration seems to come from the same people who demanded the change in the first place – people who voted motivated by futile promises aimed at reinforcing nationalist sentiments.

As he egged Jeremy Corbyn, the man screamed “When you vote, you get what you vote for”. The fact that Corbyn had just visited a mosque will stand out to anyone who has been trying to understand the motivations of many Brexiteers. Not to suggest that all Leave voters were motivated by anything other than noble pursuits, of course. More protection for politicians is necessary to ensure that a democracy is functional. In this objective, prevention is more valuable than protection.

Leaving politics aside, there are two ways in which we should prevent this kind of treatment of politicians. Firstly, treating the population with respect, and not insulting them with void promises will lead to a more open relationship between politicians and the population they seek to represent. Secondly, and most importantly, politicians should seek to soothe the climate of toxicity by setting an example. As evidenced by the rise of populism, this is a global issue. In Britain in particular, the referendum unfortunately divided the population with the most politically charged question possible. However, dialogue between the two sides is necessary. Politicians can improve the situation by demonstrating peaceful dialogue, even between opposing sides.

But why is it so important to protect politicians? It comes down to the whole system of democracy. Violent outbursts are not simply dangerous, but they fundamentally disrespect and delegitimise the people who were elected in a fair manner. These sentiments simply cannot simply be ignored. Shunning the people who commit these acts can not only further the toxic rhetoric currently governing the country, but can also facilitate the pursuit of politicians looking to feed off these sentiments. As the country faces one of its biggest challenges yet, it is imperative to remain united, if not by political ideals, then at the very least by mutual respect. Violence is not caused by disagreement, but rather by fundamental irreverent behaviour exhibited by the people who should represent the very realisation of democracy and civility.

Whilst the use of violence is reprehensible, politicians must address the source of it by ceasing to dehumanise ‘the other side’ and encouraging this kind of behaviour by exploiting the polarisation of citizens to gain voters.

 

Elisabetta Pulcini

 

Support, trust, and respect of politicians has never really been held to a high standard in this country, or indeed in most of the western world. However the last decade has seen public trust in our political class fall to historic lows. Scandals, the poor handling of the financial crisis, and the general failure to meet campaign commitments has contributed to this dire perception of our leaders. Despite this, politicians have generally been able to go about their business and live their lives as freely and securely as anyone else would.

The last few years however have shown us that this is no longer the case. Over the last few years politicians have been bombarded with a flood of harassment from the electorate, much of it too nasty to print. However these instances of harassment are not just senseless letters and emails full of expletive language. Much of it is sinister. MPs have had messages sent to them containing death threats against themselves and their families. Others have received threats which include their own home address, implying that MPs homes are no longer safe. Many of the victims tend to be either critics of Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn, but others are disproportionately targeted seemingly for no other reason than the fact that they’re not male and/or white.

Whilst no one deserves to live with a tide of harassment and death threats over their heads, one could argue that as a politician this is something that they must learn to live with, and that they must grow thicker skins. After all harassment isn’t a new thing, and politicians will always attract criticism. This is wrong for three reasons. Firstly, the barriers which allow people to harass politicians have been significantly lowered thanks to new technologies like the internet and social media. As a result, disgruntled citizens can easily contact, and threaten, MPs. Whilst in years gone by voters would have expressed their dissatisfaction at the ballot box, they can now unleash their fury on twitter or via email.

Secondly, the internet has changed the dynamics of how disgruntled voters communicate with each other. Previously if an individual disliked a politician, be it a matter of policy, or because of their race and gender, voters were most likely isolated with their views and unable to express them to a receptive audience. Now with the advent of Facebook, Reddit and other online discussion forums, people can easily find like-minded individuals and discuss their frustration and anger with each other. Thereby offering them validation that their toxic opinions are appropriate and justified.

This therefore emboldens them to direct their hate and anger at politicians rather than keep it to themselves. This then leads into my final point. Threats and harassment are no longer limited purely to empty words. Now that people feel emboldened, some lone wolves will undoubtedly feel that they need to take matters into their own hands. We saw this in 2016 when Jo Cox was horrifically murdered by a far-right extremist, and MPs have had to utilise police protection after authorities deemed that their lives were indeed in danger.

Democracies cannot function if their elected representatives cannot live freely and be confident of their security. How can they work effectively and in the national interest when they are overwhelmed with real and potentially credible death threats on a regular basis? It undermines the effectiveness of our democracy and it cannot go on any longer. Therefore, there must be real and serious consequences to threatening our elected representatives and this should be reflected as such in the law with more serious punishments and longer jail terms for people who harass and threaten the lives of politicians.

I am not trying to say that MPs are above everyone else. Only that an attack on an MP is an attack on our democracy, which by extension is an attack on all of our democratic and civil rights.

 

Ed Ingram

Last modified: 19th March 2019

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