Cleaning up politics is about more than money

When we talk about cleaning up politics, we generally mean party funding and lobbying. There is so much more that needs to be done, though with regards to the environment in which politics is conducted.

Every week when Parliament is sitting we see the childish scenes at PMQs. We’ve had our own Julian Huppert talk about how it feels to be on the receiving end of bullying and intimidating behaviour.

The tone of debate on social media often leaves a lot to be desired, especially if you happen to be a woman in possession of an opinion. The cumulative effect of constantly being told you are evil/stupid/treacherous or being threatened  is not insignificant. I recently had a bit of a wobble after months of bombardment from cybernats, UKIP types and, even more distressingly, a small number of fellow Liberal Democrats. However much you try to ignore it, it can get overwhelming at times. I don’t have a problem with actual calm and rational debate but every single day, people cross the line into abuse and that’s just not on. I was livid with myself for getting so upset. After all, in large parts of the world, simply finding somewhere private to go to the toilet entails taking your life in your hands if you happen to be female, so it felt very trivial to almost reduced to tears by a jibe from some stranger whose good opinion mattered to me not one jot. It was utterly ridiculous, but it happened nonetheless. Of course, this is the sort of reaction these bullies want and, given that I intend to continue inflicting my views on the world, I just needed to find a way of dealing with it which mostly involved the support of good people who know who they are.  It shouldn’t be like that, though.

At least on the internet you have a “Block” button, though. Real life doesn’t work that way and sometimeg ood people get hurt. I was very upset to read that Frome County Councillor Sam Phripp has decided to step down because of the brutal and hostile environment he had to face on a daily basis. He wrote about it yesterday on his own blog:

I have to be clear however, that one of the main reasons I’m resigning is because it’s becoming almost impossible to do my job properly against the obstruction coming from other politicians. I’ve always been happy to work across party boundaries to get things done. As far as I’m concerned, as soon as the elections are over, we all work together for the good of our areas. I’ve been met with such resistance, and – at times – such hostility, intimidation and bullying that I simply can’t and won’t go on any further.

We have a real question to ask ourselves about why ‘real’ people don’t get involved in politics. I have a few of the answers, and they’re all reasons I’m stepping back. During attendance at my first ever Council Meeting, my partner overheard me being referred to as ‘that dirty bloody homosexual’. I’ve had time taken off sick characterised as time taken off on holiday. I’ve been chased down the road by a Conservative candidate shouting at me because I’d been speaking to local people outside of a shop. I’ve been harassed on Twitter to the point of having to block and report people – something I always vowed I’d never do. I was told that I’d only won a seat on the County Council because I lied (note, I didn’t, and haven’t lied…), I was also told that during recent elections activists from other parties had gone door to door telling people that I was gay – as if it would be a reason not to vote for me.

When a good person like Sam who just wants to serve his community is forced out by malevolent opponents it hurts not just him, but the entire community. Not just because they lose a darned fine, conscientious councillor with his heart absolutely in the right place, but the quality of decisions that affect people’s lives which are made and scrutinised in that sort of atmosphere is not as good as it could be.

So, what’s the solution? I doubt, sadly, that our political opponents are suddenly going to start playing nice. Party leaders and elected representatives setting a good example would be good. How about a bit of common courtesy for a start? The irony of MPs addressing each other as “the honourable lady” (or gentleman) while their mates are calling them a “Scottish git” or groaning at their presence is not lost on most people. We need the Speaker to actually start kicking people out when they transgress.

Parties also need to take this stuff extremely seriously and if they see their members behaving in a bullying and intimidating fashion, they need to take action. We’re human beings. People are going to fall out and have rows. There are lines that must not be crossed, though. When they are, there needs to be an escalating scale of intervention. I’m not just talking about punishments, though. We need to be much better at supporting each other. A few months ago, a young party member wrote in a now deleted post that they were considering leaving the party because we seemed more concerned with factional in-fighting than in tackling the real diversity issues our society faced. They talked about receiving racist abuse while out canvassing. That should never happen or be tolerated and we need to be better as a party at supporting those who are faced with it.

We all need to take account of our own behaviour, too. to try and make sure that we can make incisive and relevant political points with civility, respect and awareness of how our behaviour affects others. Earlier this year I asked if sexist behaviour was driving women out of politics and I was overwhelmed by the feedback I received from women in all parties who experience the same thing. We need to look out for each other and support colleagues who need it, even if we don’t know them very well.

In the same way that the Everyday Sexism project has raised awareness of the reality of women’s daily lives, we need to talk about this sort of stuff and make sure we develop a vibrant, accessible, inclusive political culture to benefit the whole of society. The bear pit we have at the moment holds us back.

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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6 Comments

  • Eurgh. Sam totally deserves better.

  • (would comment on the wider issue, but it’s too huge)

  • George Carpenter 1st Aug '14 - 4:51pm

    That’s disgusting behaviour. I have nothing else to add, other than that racism, sexism and homophobia is disgusting, vile and to be scorned at. It’s not allowed in business, why is it considered acceptable in politics??

  • I’m not sure if this article is about abuse in politics, or abuse of *women* in politics? Equally I’m not clear if this is about ‘politician on politician’ abuse, or ‘public on politician’ abuse?
    I think most politicians, men or women, enter this field of work to do the right thing for society. That is a given. But, their admirable desire to design policy to do the right thing, is not necessarily the outcome. Indeed, ill thought through policy can (and does), have devastating effect on people’s lives not to mention that we have a history, littered by wasted tax money, on irrational ill considered social projects and useless software boondoggles.
    So, such well meaning, *desire to do good politics*, does not always translate into actually improving people’s lives, .. in fact, very much the opposite. So why are you surprised by the blowback when people are viscerally opposed to your policy ideas? Yes !!,… It should NOT resort to personal abuse, (I very much agree), but if politicians, are wilfully launching ill considered (and life changing!!), policy into people’s lives, why are politicians surprised if they get (emotionally charged ), mortar fire in return?
    Politics (made Statute!), is NOT some zero sum game, where we can all agree to disagree, shake hands and go home happy in our beds. It gets visceral, emotional,..even bitter, and sometimes has a *crushingly* real effect on lives. Politics, and policy ought to be seriously thought through, instead of the apparent ‘shot from the hip’ methods all too often implemented from Westminster. Whether male or female, a politician, simply wishing to do right by people, can be seen from the other side of the fence as ‘dabbling’ and imposing unwanted intrusion on people’s lives.? That being the case, it is going to get ‘raw’?
    Let me just leave you with this ?
    A couple of decades ago very well meaning politicians, with a desire to do the right thing created the infamous, Child Support Agency. A close family member in the midst of a divorce, lost any meaningful contact with his child, despite him pursuing Shared Residence in (the Secret Family Court system!?), for 4 years, which was then compounded by the CSA, who financially ‘crucified’ him, with ill considered draconian policy *made Statute*, and finally, within a few weeks from nearly losing his home due to the CSA policy, ended up a dozen Paracetamol away, from almost losing his life.
    I’d like to tell you what he thinks of *well meaning* politicians who are appalled at the verbal abuse they receive, just because they are trying to do the ‘right thing’ for society,….. but I’d never get it through moderation?

  • For what it is worth (and I’m afraid it’s worth very little) I support Caron — and I strongly support bettering the quality of political dialogue, whether it’s in Parliament or on LDV.

    I think, if all readers’ voices were registered, that Caron would find she has a lot more support than might be apparent from comments. It’s the nature of the comments to get too easily hijacked by two or three very vocal people with persistent axes to grind. Those who are angry and antagonistic are going to make a point of using whatever means they have to lash out at their targets. Those who are broadly supportive may not feel the same impetus to share their support, considering it superfluous. I think that should change.

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