In recent weeks, party political points were sought as colleagues laid into one another about electoral abuse. This is regrettable and the wrong approach. It yields no results for electoral candidates and frustrates a public already disappointed with the level of debate in our country.
For nearly five years, racist and discriminatory abuse in elections is something we have grappled with through the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Against Antisemitism, and before this recent lightbulb moment for the government, we proposed a raft of recommendations, many of which have been adopted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Electoral Commission and the police.
The incidents of racism have generally been better addressed by more astute political parties and the frameworks introduced by way of our work have helped, but there is more to be done. In an update we published to the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct, we have highlighted some of the most egregious examples of abuse.
Conservative candidate Ameet Jogia had to seek action when the wall of a voting booth in the constituency for which he was standing was daubed with a racist message, while Andrew Percy, a long-standing member of the APPG Against Antisemitism, was subjected to abuse when out campaigning. My former Labour parliamentary colleague Iain Wright had a case of electoral abuse reach court, while colleague Naz Shah had antisemitic abuse levelled at her. There are numerous examples of misconduct by candidates too and these touch all parties.
The incidents are worrying, particularly as they may deter people from standing for parliament. So what should we do? We have worked hard to ensure the all-party inquiry recommendations were implemented. Guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been improved and the police are doing more to inform officers, but we have highlighted four key measures government and political parties can take. I will press the Committee on Standards in Public Life to consider the following as part of its forthcoming inquiry:
•Government should make time to implement the findings of the Law Commission’s review of electoral law. This suggests simplification of the law and most importantly a wholesale reworking of the law on ‘undue influence’. I am particularly concerned about groups being able to signal support for candidates without such support falling into the register of electoral expenses.
•Cross-party action. We made a number of recommendations in 2013, including a cross-party agreement on how to handle reports of discrimination during election. It is only through political leadership and improvements to the training and preparation of candidates that the parties will be in good enough shape to address these matters. Candidates should know there will be severe consequences for misconduct.
• We should address the gap in regulation of parties advertisements in the press during elections. The Advertising Standards Agency does not regulate such material – but parties should not have a different standard to anyone else.
• The parties must make contravention of the Electoral Commission’s Code of Conduct a disciplinary matter.
I will call on the government to act, and will seek, as we have done before, agreement from all parties to address these matters.
If we steer clear of partisan attacks, through leadership, responsible discourse and effective frameworks for action, we can make our elections cleaner, better, and the jewel in our democratic crown that they deserve to be.