Sal Brinton urges us to THINK about our language

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent days about the language we all use in political discussion and debate.

Today, Sal Brinton has emailed all party members to urge us to play our part in being thoughtful and sensitive in what we say.

Here is her email, reproduced with her permission:

I chair the all party parliamentary group on bullying. We focus on helping young people and we know many schools now use the THINK acronym to teach good communication (Is it True; Is it Helpful; Is it Inspiring; Is it Necessary; Is it Kind?).

As a party, I think we need our own version of THINK:
Is it True
Is it Hurtful
Is it Illegal
Is it Necessary
Is it Kind?

Why am I talking about this now? Over the last few weeks and months, the tone and language of political discourse has become increasingly nasty, hurtful and – for too many politicians – dangerous. We have MPs (of all parties, whether supporting leave or remain) who have been targeted by trolls of the worst kind, who use language to harass and intimidate.

Women, people of colour, LGBT+ people and those with disabilities are particularly targeted and in a clearly hateful way. Diane Abbott is constantly trolled, Caroline Spelman has had to have police support and is standing down, and our own Christine Jardine was unmercifully targeted by SNP trolls.

As Liberal Democrats I hope we all abhor such behaviour. I am sure, like me, you believe that the language we use as Liberal Democrats speaks to our values. But we all need to check our own language because it is far too easy when insults are thrown at us, to respond in kind.

Two years ago, on behalf of the party, I appeared before the Committee for Standards in Public Life as they took evidence about the intimidation and harassment of parliamentary candidates in the 2017 General Election.

I was not there to tell of how many of our candidates had been on the receiving end of such intimidation and harassment – we had witnesses who spoke for themselves with shocking examples.

No, I was there to explain to the Committee what actions our party takes when we discover that a party member has behaved inappropriately, or worse, committed a hate crime. You can see the Committee’s report here. It is depressing reading. But, frankly, things are now much worse.

You will all have seen the debate in parliament last week which has forced us all to think about the language that we use in politics. And earlier this week, Jo Swinson was amongst party leaders who met with the Speaker of the House of Commons, and they agreed this declaration:

“Everyone is entitled to have a view – be they parliamentarian, journalist or a member of the public – and their right to safety cannot in any way be dependent on what that view is or the course of political action they take.”

It is important to remember that as members, under our members’ code of conduct, we have responsibilities as well as rights, and I would ask all of you to think carefully about what you say.

If you are on the receiving end of trolling often the best way to go is to say nothing at all – walking away could help you avoid making a mistake. Never post in anger!

There’s an old football adage “play the ball, not the person”, which is a good starting point, but we also need to think about the boundaries. Have you been upset by language used by an opponent? Is there anything that you have posted that could have been received in a way to upset the recipient, beyond the usual exchange of views? Or make them feel threatened? Or made them feel so worried that they need to go to the police because they fear for their personal safety?

Lest you think that I exaggerate, during the last election one Lib Dem member proposed that his current MP should be hanged. She was, rightly, extremely upset, and the member was expelled, and on your behalf, we apologised for the member’s behaviour. Like all political parties, I’m afraid our complaints team see more complaints, not fewer, too many of which are serious.

And please, don’t be a bystander if you see colleagues going that step too far: a gentle word early on can stop the escalation of the word war.

So please, before you post, just THINK!


Sal Brinton
President of the Liberal Democrats

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Mark Johnston 7th Oct '19 - 9:23am

    Does all this also apply to the Glee Club songbook?

  • How do you think “Bollocks to Brexit” is received by those who, after much thought and reflection, chose to vote Leave?

  • Having your stupidity pointed out to you Mr Rain is likely to cause offence but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pointed out.

    Here is a little news paper article to further point out the stupidity of Brexit

    ‘It’s like a death sentence’: retired Britons in EU face loss of healthcare …..

    “It’s like a death sentence,” said Denise Abel, who moved to Italy in 2012. “It’s all you think about. I feel abandoned, betrayed and furious. There are no words for the rage I feel. We’re the collateral damage in the government’s war with the EU.”……

    “They are left with the very real prospect of having no healthcare,” she said. “And in many countries, without healthcare you are no longer legally resident. There’s really a lot of fear. We’ve had hundreds of people contact us. Many are elderly, some have terminal illnesses – they are genuinely petrified.”….

    In south-west France, a couple of former engineers who asked not to be named said their situation was becoming “increasingly, and incredibly, stressful”. After leaving the UK in 2007 when the husband, now 72, retired, the wife, now 63, was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer that has since spread to her spine.

    “The treatment has been brilliant,” she said. “But my oncologist has asked who will be paying for it after Brexit. The pharmacist has asked the same about my medication. Of course, they may not be right – but nobody knows. It just gets into your mind. I’m constantly running through scenarios, and it’s driving me round the bend.”…..
    “What happens if the pound tanks again? The strain is really unrelenting. You lose sleep over it. You just want it to go away – and then every once in a while, it just ratchets up a notch. And the worst is, they don’t care. They just want to deliver their mantra. We’re just collateral damage.”

    Still I’m sure if you turned up at their door and whined about how upset you where with the “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan you’d get a warm welcome. Your vote caused this, it will cause much more harm so no I’m not upset you are upset, I’m upset the stupidity of Brexit is causing this.

  • I fear these sorts of initiatives, whilst well intended, often result in censorship of views someone doesn’t like, or just censorship of a person one doesn’t like. And it always results in a degree of self-censorship and coerced conformity. After all, manners, offense, hurt feelings etc are very individual and culture-bound.

    So for example, Stella Creasey complains about crass but entirely legal and legitimate campaigning against her this past week in Walthamstow, but identical campaigning tactics were employed against Kate Hoey in Vauxhall care of HQ. I think both were okay to do, but I imagine a fair few people on here would support the censorship of campaigns against Stella Creasey, but eagerly support the campaigns against Kate Hoey, even though they were both deeply personal attacks on the individual.

    In this censorship for the sake of avoiding offence and hurting feelings, it’s very easy to lose all objectivity, and end up making decisions based on emotions rather than principles. But I fear a lot of Lib Dems have joined Labour in abandoning reason, and just going with what feels right

  • Hard Rain, 9.25

    A very good question, with no simple answer. But I think those applying “much thought and reflection” will acknowledge the truth of Michael Gove’s observation that people ‘have had enough of experts’. No party wins an election without a chunk of votes from those who don’t go in for much reflection, and many of those will notice and appreciate a bit of straight talking. I think very few of the reflectors will have been so offended as to switch away from us. Surely the word is borderline, but unobjectionably startling? And effective, overall.

  • Sal’s e-mail raises a very important point, but, I am afraid, it needs a bit more debate and be a bit less prescriptive to make a real impact. In particular Sal’s choice of options behind the motto THINK.

    Is it True
    Is it Hurtful
    Is it Illegal
    Is it Necessary
    Is it Kind?

    Is it True – Yes unless it is clearly an expression of a view or opinion – but let’s be honest, there is a lot of that in politics.

    Is it Hurtful – that depends. There are a lot of powerful people out there (and many many more of their less powerful followers) who totally oppose our views on a good (Lib Dem) society and indeed are continuously undermining what good Lib Dem bits there are. Should I avoid hurting their feelings? Likewise there are Lib Dems who promote their particular view of what Liberal Democracy should do with massive vigour, but put down anyone who argues form a Lib Dem perspective an opposing view of where the balance of the three fundamental values should be. Should I hurt their feelings by doing nothing?

    Is it Illegal – suffice it to say that Ghandi, Mandela and many others promoted actions that were technically illegal in their state at that time, but opposed a greater evil.

    Is it necessary – by walking away from trolls, do you just cede the internet to them? Just as by never campaigning on a solid pro EU stance in countless European elections (until the 2019 election) did we simply give the Europhobes free rein?

    Is it Kind – Am I in politics to be kind to people who supported the ‘Hostile environment’, allowed Windrush, and are continuously undermining Liberal Democracy? Likewise should I be kind to those who want to believe that success for the Lib Dems can be achieved by simply being optimistic, having good ideas and hoping somehow our enemies will fail in their efforts to totally undermine them when we don’t even want to develop a plan to deal with it?

    If there is one thing Brexit has taught us it’s a jungle out there. Don’t assume that being nice, kind and not hurtful will lead to success for Liberal Democracy.

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