England & Wales, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

#GE2019 Defending our democracy

Abuse, violence, harassment and disinformation have no place in our democracy. Amid fears that public discourse is becoming less civil and reports of MPs standing down because of abuse, LGiU’s #DispatchesFromTheDoorstep project will shine a light on un-democratic behaviour witnessed on the general election campaign trail and hear how this behaviour is being tackled by individuals, councils, parties and the police.

The problem

When the general election was launched in October, many (especially female) MPs announced they were stepping down because of intolerable abuse from the electorate and fears for their personal safety. Candidates in the May local elections still faced unacceptable abuse, including being forced out of the running because of threats, having their car run off the road, abusive messages sent to their children, and having to seek court injunctions to protect candidates.

Such anecdotal reports are bolstered by the findings of our research with the Fawcett Society in 2017, in which we surveyed councillors in England and Wales. One in ten reported that a fear of violence had been a barrier when standing for election; over a third (40%) said that harassment or abuse from the electorate hindered their campaign, rising to half (48%) among women; and one in five (19%) female councillors said sexist comments from the electorate had held them back during their campaign.

Instances of physical and verbal abuse are sadly not a new phenomenon in politics but the level and intensity in recent years has shocked many. Some steps have been taken, including new UK legislation allowing parliamentary and local election (England and Wales) candidates to choose not to publish their home address, but this can’t protect people from abuse in other locations and online. The anonymity provided by social media and the tensions surrounding the Brexit debate have been blamed for much of the escalation. Alongside this, disinformation or ‘fake news’ has emerged as a growing threat – both in its own right and as a catalyst for abuse and violence by stoking tensions.

Given the existing issues around diversity in politics (for example only 32% of MPs and women from an ethnic minority background are especially poorly represented) it is especially concerning that the context of increased abuse and false information is putting talented people off standing for election, forcing them to step down and hindering healthy democratic processes.

Councils and the general election

Outside of the obvious (booking school halls, sending ballot papers), councils and their elected members are involved in the general election in many other ways. Many councillors will be joining other party activists on the doorstep and be involved in their local party’s campaign planning. Council officers are duty-bound to ensure free and fair elections, which includes ensuring candidates can conduct their campaign free from intimidation. Tackling disinformation in election campaigns is also within the council’s power and councils have different approaches to this. As such, those working in local government have a unique vantage point from the frontline of #GE2019.

Get involved

Help us to tell this important story. We are asking councillors and officers across UK local government to contribute instances of abuse, harassment, violence and disinformation witnessed in the #GE2019 campaign, and how they are being tackled. We’ll share them anonymously from @LGiU using the hashtag #DispatchesfromtheDoorstep

Councillors – Many councillors will be out on the doorsteps campaigning for parliamentary candidates (or indeed may be standing themselves). While you’re out and about, drop us a quick message by email, WhatsApp (07852289020) or Twitter DM about any un-democratic behaviour you witness and how it was handled. We’ll post your story anonymously from @LGiU

Council officers – What is your council doing to keep this general election free and fair? How are you tackling disinformation? How are you keeping the candidates and the public safe? What are the challenges you’re facing and what could be done to improve things? Share your thoughts with us by email, WhatsApp (07852289020) or Twitter DM and we’ll post them anonymously from @LGiU

Everyone else – We’d love to hear from anyone involved in the general election campaign – political parties, candidates, the public, the police, local reporters – about your experiences of uncivil conduct on the doorstep and how it is being tackled. Get in touch by email, WhatsApp (07852289020) or Twitter DM.

Find out more and see the live feed on our #DispatchesfromtheDoorstep workstream page.

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